Do Strictly Defined Beer Styles Still Have Value in the Modern Craft Landscape?

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Some say styles are the backbone to learning about beer. For those uninitiated, beer styles, or how beer is categorized, help you understand aroma and flavor profiles plus what you do and don’t like about certain beers. Beyond beer education, they’re important for consumers, too; to inform purchasing decisions based on previous experiences with a specific style. And for professionals, they’re a useful tool for judging a beer in competitions.

But are beer styles actually important? In certain functions, sure. But in the grand scheme of things, probably not. Let’s take a look at how beer styles first arose, their utility in modern-day beer drinking culture, and why, in some cases, these distinctions leave much to be desired.

Where Did Beer Styles Come From?

We’ve always had beer styles, of course. The Sumerian culture in the Middle East had many different beer styles, including a diet beer, and that was thousands of years ago. In the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, beers were lumped in by color (white beers, red beers) and were flavored with a spice mixture of “gruit” that varied by season.

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But in terms of “modern” beer, which starts in the 20th century, we don’t really think of who brewed it but who wrote it down. Michael Jackson, whose beer books and beer journalism in the 1980s and 1990s coincided with the rise of microbreweries, is credited with making beer easy to understand. In his many books, he lays out what makes a beer “German” versus “Belgian.” He is, of course, not the reason we have styles, but in the beer industry he is looked upon as the scribe we needed to make sense of it all.

Styles also were imperative to the rise of beer competitions like the Great American Beer Festival, Great British Beer Festival, and the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), which is the governing body of homebrewers worldwide. What makes a style the “best?” What makes a witbier a witbier? People like Jackson, Brewers Association founder Charlie Papazian, and BJCP founder Gordon Strong asked these questions and created guidelines. Some beer styles have even been named — not to be confused with created; that is the creation of the brewer — as a necessity of competitions.

Which ultimately suggests that the history of beer styles has really been shaped by those who have decided to categorize it. According to Randy Mosher in his book “Tasting Beer,” “robust porter” or “American porter” was named by Papizian and Jackson while working on the style guidelines for the World Beer Cup and Great American Beer Festival. “[They] had felt there needed to be two kinds in the competition so they cooked this up without much basis in historical reality,” Mosher writes. Were they wrong to do this? Or were they just showcasing the ever-evolving nature of beer and filling a void? I believe it’s the latter.

These guidelines were then used as the basis for teaching tools (the Cicerone program uses BJCP guidelines for all four exam levels). Books, in turn, were formulated around these guidelines. (In my own second book, I used the Brewers Association guidelines.) It’s a trickle-down effect. Who decides what’s a beer style? Ultimately whoever is teaching you or creating competitions.

Styles for Learning and Discovery

In my own personal beer journey, beer styles have helped me figure out what I like in beer. I had a witbier in 2007 that made me think, wow, beer can be so much more than I thought. So I went to the local shop and asked, what beers are like witbiers? It was there I discovered hefeweizens, Belgians tripels, and Belgian blondes. Styles help you discover what beers you’ll love.

Gordon Strong has a great analogy about learning about beer styles: “When you are first learning about beer, it’s more important to talk about the differences between porter and IPA than to enumerate all the various kinds of porter or IPA. Once you have that down, then you can look more at the nuances that differentiate them,” he says. “Kind of like going to the grocery store and shopping for vegetables. Oh, you care about the type? Sure, let’s talk about peppers and onions.” Only once you’re familiar with the differences between those two vegetables (which are very obvious to most people now), does it make sense to start learning about the different types of peppers and onions. “Oh, you like peppers? You know there are hot types and sweet types? Oh, you like the heat? Well, let’s talk about all these varieties. Beer is much the same,” Strong says.

Styles also help set expectations. Say you’re in front of a large wall of beers at a beer shop or at a beer bar with lots of options. You see “stout” on the label. If you’re already familiar with what a stout is, you’ll know that it’s typically a dark beer with roasted malt character. Once you know what you like or what you are looking for, then you can make informed choices about beers you want to have. Of course, this doesn’t always line up (a blonde stout, for example) but for the most part, styles help steer expectations in terms of flavor and aroma.

When Beer Styles Become Confusing

On the other hand, styles can sometimes be confusing. As a beer industry, we don’t really do a great job of helping the customer understand styles, and how far they’ve come. An “IPA,” for example, really means only one thing nowadays — hops are the star of the show, adding flavor and aroma to the beer. But after that, all bets are off. It can be any color or alcohol strength, and showcase the wide breadth of hop flavor from mango and dried flowers to “dank” (take that to mean what you will) and beyond. If I’m a very casual beer drinker, what does India have to do with a hoppy beer anyway? That makes no sense. What’s “West Coast” have to do with flavor? What does “New England” have to do with hazy? What is “sessionable”? What is “crispiness”? Because of beer’s varied flavors — and the sheer number of options available — this can disorientate people. The IPA section of a beer store feels more like a wine shop now because of its dizzying array of colors, labels, and descriptions. I’m not arguing for less choice, but to get people to drink more beer, styles need to be explained and sussed out better using different language, visual cues, and more consistency.

Beer can also change and evolve, leading to confusion about what a beer is now versus what it “used to be.” A good example dates back to the 18th century, when porter breweries changed malt bills to utilize a malt called Black Patent, which was cheaper to buy and created the same look and color without brewing with 100 percent brown malt. Yes, the beer changed and at first there were grumblings, but the style evolved for the better. I’m a huge fan of beer evolution; the beer industry keeps moving forward with new technology and trends, but often it happens without really looking back on how we got here.

Beer evolves, and beer styles do, too. But there’s something magical about having a good beer that’s “true to style” — there’s a satisfaction in that that will never change, no matter where beer styles take us next.