In 2015 the Beer Judge Certification Program modified their style guidelines to incorporate a more extensive array of styles than had been displayed in their most recent update of 2008. There was little argument that the 2008 guidelines were out of date but one reputed reason why it took so long for the new guidelines to be brought to bear was the difficulty that the organizers had in identifying new ‘styles’ as opposed to ‘sub-styles’, derivatives or even one-off fads. Indeed, the 2015 guidelines were probably out of date as soon as they were published, as, in all likelihood, some innovative brewer decided to create an ‘Ancient Egyptian Beer’ by throwing bread, grapes, honey, and a dead cat into ceramic pot filled with water from the Nile. And as repulsive as the flavours in that beer turned out to be s/he obviously intended it taste like that: ‘That’s what all Ancient Egyptian beers tasted like! You wait until round two when we dry hop it with Wakatu to make a New Zealand-hopped American-style Ancient Egyptian Imperial India Pale Ale!’
Egyptian beers aside, I don’t think I’m far off in saying that styles and style categories have gotten entirely out of hand. The most obvious example, stretching back many years is the Black IPA. I like to consider the (ir)relevance of this beer as a style based on the simple fact that I have yet to hear any other item on this planet described as both ‘black’ and ‘pale’ before. Unless, of course, it was an actual black pail. I know a number of beer geeks will come at me saying that the style’s real name is a Cascadian Dark Ale, but even disregarding the apparent misnomer that is the Black IPA, the definition of the style is hardly agreed upon. The most illuminating example of the disagreements this style engenders that I have seen happened in an IPA competition which I helped judge where a so-called Black IPA was presented that had no semblance of hop character and was so reminiscent of an American Stout that I disqualified it without a second thought….and it still made it to the final round of the competition! Whoever’s side you take on this one, there is an obvious disconnect over what individual people conceive as a good example of a beer style.
This point is further elocuted by a video that I was first exposed to three years ago, released by Bridge Road Brewers for good beer week 2013
I love this video because I’ve said almost every one of those lines myself, but the one that really sticks out to me is ‘Whoa, that’s hideously infected…unless it’s a Lambic, in which case it’s awesome!’ In a close second comes ‘Pale ale, no no, it’s a White Stout’.
Whether the disconnect is between two consumers or the brewer and consumer, then, the fact remains that there has been a total breakdown in communication over what a beer actually is; a breakdown that I would argue has come about largely because of the creation of new style definitions. Whether examining this White Stout or the actually defined White IPA, the essence of the base style has been bastardized in much the same way that the English language has somehow synonymized ‘flammable’ and ‘inflammable’. The difference between these two examples, however, is that while ‘flammable’ and ‘inflammable’ are commonly used and understood to mean ‘something that can burst into flames’, the fast development of beer styles has outpaced many people’s ability to understand the components of the new inventions.
It is here that I have to backtrack a bit. Beer styles, whatever they come to be, used to be based on a number of things: history and/or provenance, ingredients, brewing technique, and overall sensory profile (I include basic specifications such as SRM and IBUs in this category). Thus, by citing a beer as a porter, you are at the very least signifying that it will be a dark, malt-forward beer that may display a bit of chocolate character. At most you are tapping into a customer’s knowledge of the history, ingredients and process of that style to contribute to their own enjoyment of the beer, or even build your brand’s own history and reputation.
In the past five years (give or take) however, many of these things have been thrown out the window. A good example of this being one listed in the BJCP guidelines themselves, where it claims that a Saison made with Brettanomyces should be classified into the ‘American Wild Ale’ category. To re-enforce that point, the BJCP is claiming that a historically Belgian beer can be manipulated using different fermentation ingredients and techniques to produce different flavours, so that even if you still call it a Saison (which they seem fine with) it shouldn’t be categorized as one. Instead, it should be categorized as an ‘American Wild Ale’…even if you brewed it in Zimbabwe.
And while it is not a bad thing that experimental trends have become par for the course, it is difficult to then compare new styles with those that have been established for long periods of time. For decades, sour beers were almost exclusively brewed by ‘artisanal’ breweries in the Senne Valley region of Belgium using very special, even unique, ingredients, microflora, and methodologies. Nowadays, they can be made around the world in 1/10 the time by using mixed yeast cultures, acidification techniques, or alternative ingredients. Assuredly, these new beers will never be a ‘Lambic’ beer because of the geographic restrictions of the style, but at what point does history outweigh process parameters when defining a style? When do hops outweigh yeast? How can provenance be a defining feature of a Lambic when a Blonde Ale doesn’t have any such restrictions? How can one brewer style their 4% beer an IPA when another calls their 7.5% beer at the same? How can a beer served through an infected tap be misconstrued as intentionally sour and praised for it?
What all of this boils down to (pun intended) is that not only have we effectively eliminated the communicative efficiency and advertising capability that beer styles afforded us (‘It’s an IPA’ versus ‘Eh, it’s a hoppy beer that I made because I took inspiration from these British beers that were shipped to India that I read about’) but we also pretend that this method is still working, and even worth supporting, despite its proven track record of sowing confusion and discord in the ranks of today’s brewers and beer drinkers. Beer styles are no longer useful categorizations: they have become points of debate and have effectively shifted consumer and brewer conceptions of what good beer is into the realm of ‘new is automatically good’. The system is broken, and it’s time for a new one to come into play.
To be continued…
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