Friday, July 23, 2010

The style debate

I recently read the following essay on scoopergen.co.uk, the essay makes the argument for a new classification of beer to be entered into the style guidelines. The new beer style was named Mid-Atlantic Pale Ale. I also recently read an article in BYO that promoted another new beer style, Cascadian Dark Ale. With all of these proposed new beer styles floating in the ether I thought it would be a good time to discuss the role that beer styles play in the world of homebrewing.

The late, great Michael Jackson
Firstly here is some background. The BJCP maintains a list of beer styles and provides guidelines as to the characteristics (i.e. colour, bitterness, strength, ingredients etc) of each style and sub-style. This list currently stands at 23 styles of beer and 78 sub-styles (not including ciders, meads etc). Although the BJCP was only established in 1985, being able to distinguish between different types of beers has been something that people have been doing for centuries. However it was with the 1977 publication of Michael Jackson's book The World Guide To Beer that a methodical approach began to classifying different beer styles. Michael Jackson's list of beer styles can be found here. The BJCP list of styles is a relatively organic document that can be updated and changed as new styles or trends emerge, possibly the next iteration will contain the aforementioned contenders.

Among homebrewing circles 'the style debate' is a very emotive topic and the debate is characterized by strong opinions and a certain lack of flexibility. In essence I would see the battle lines being drawn along the following arguments:

For:

The style guidelines offer homebrew competition judges a framework in which to analyse a particular sample of beer, this is of course very pertinent for the US homebrew community where competitions are very important. The guidelines are there to be descriptive not prospective and as such offer much needed help and guidance to beginner homebrewers, as well as more experienced homebrewers that want to experiment with different beers that they may not be familiar with.

Against:

The style guidelines by their very existence stifle creativity. Homebrewers at all levels should not have to brew within a structural framework, but should rather experiment with ingredients, bitterness levels, colour levels etc. Although not a big issue outside of the US, all homebrew competitions sanctioned by the BJCP must judge beer based on these strict style guidelines and as such this is stifling the hobby.

My View:

I have to admit that when I am formulating a new recipe the first thing I will do is pick a style, the second thing I will do is to look at that styles particular characteristics and parameters in order to give myself an idea of how to formulate the recipe. After that I am not too concerned if my beer ends up crossing over styles and falling outside of suggested parameters. I personally think that the beer style guidelines offer beginning brewers an invaluable resource for starting to formulate their own recipes, without this information the process would be unbelievably daunting for a new homebrewer.

More experienced (and gnarled) homebrewers will wave a hand in the air and say "down with that sort of thing, brew beer you enjoy", however as a starting point it is a great resource. Let the style guidelines grow and grow, mid-atlantic pale ale, cascadian dark ale, oirish ale, let them all in. However do not feel that they must be strictly adhered to, brew beer that you enjoy in the first instance, even if that beer may be a raspberry flavoured imperial stout!

3 comments:

TaleOfAle said...

I would be the same. I will pick a style and see how it should be but beyond that I have an organic approach to brewing. The chuck it in and see what happens approach works for me usually.

The Beer Nut said...

I've no general objection to defined styles for home brewing: as you say, it gives a practical framework for competitions, and there's enough leeway under headings like "Spice, Herb or Vegetable Beer" or "Other Smoked Beer" for almost endless creativity.

The big problem I have with the specific styles as promulgated is that they are often far from a reflection of commercial beer in the real world. "Bohemian Pilsner" is a lazy -- to the point of disrespectful -- lumping together of many different styles of golden lager which exist in Czech beer culture, and which the style formulators haven't bothered doing proper homework on. Similarly, the notion that there's an English beer style called "ESB" is laughable, as can be seen from the cited BJCP examples. Again, it's a misunderstanding of beer culture outside the US.

(You my have noticed that according to the BJCP, Smithwick's does not fit the profile of a proper Irish Red Ale.)

And this leads on to my biggest beef with defined styles: they get applied to commercial beers. Breweries start to make beers to match the defined style, and drinkers criticise commercial beers for not being "true to style" -- fair enough for a homebrew competition, maybe, but not appropriate to a commercial product. Creating customer expectation that a beer will fit a specific pre-defined style is bound to stifle beer diversity. And, as a drinker, that bothers me.

Mark (Halite) said...

TBN, I have to agree with a lot of what you say, and certainly when commercial brewers feel under pressure to conform that may indeed stifle innovation.

However, in order to play devils advocate, there are examples of brewers redefining the style guidelines. A case in point is the 'cascadian dark ale' or 'Black IPA' (what an oxymoron that is!) that I mentioned in the post. This proposed new classification has come from the fact that a number of north western brewers in the US were making these beer styles for years and in doing so a group of people eventually decided that this needed to be recognised in the classifications.

Another point I would make, and it is only conjecture on my part, is that I am not sure if there is indeed a lot of pressure on brewers to conform, the growth of the american craft brew scene is an example of this. American brewers took the traditional european styles of beer and punked them (for want of a better phrase).
Although as I mentioned I aggree with what you are saying I think it is ambiguos whether the style guidelines are shaping the commercial brewers or whether indeed historically it was the other way around. An example of this would be the fact that SNPA was first brewed in 1980, 5 years before the foundation of the BJCP!