The Growing Irrelevance of Beer Styles: Part 2

A sampling of eight beers from a pub's brews.

 

Miss “The Growing Irrelevance of Beer Styles: Part 1”? Read it here

 


As anyone would attest, it’s easy to complain about things. It’s much harder to actually fix them. While a number of people I speak to agree with me to some extent on the growing irrelevance of beer styles, the lack of a better option leaves us in a definite ‘So what?’ situation. Even if I were to propose a new system to use, this change would be unlikely to be embraced readily. While I do believe that the average craft beer drinker is likely to be a bit more open-minded and educated (at least in terms of beer) than someone who has only swigged Coors Light their entire life, we must first come to terms with the fact that a scrapping of beer styles would be, effectively, a revolution within a revolution (just a volution, then?). Almost by definition, revolutionaries are rather idealistic so this paradigm shift is likely to be even more challenging than simply converting a lifetime lager drinker to Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. ‘Educated’ peoples’ whole conception of what beer is will have to be broken down and built back up.

 

“LET’S CREATE A BETTER MODE OF COMMUNICATION”

 

Of course, in looking to incite a revolution, there must be a reason for it. To sum up the previous post, the main reason that we have cause to restructure our way of thinking about beer is that the current mode is no longer an effective way of communicating what we are consuming or producing. If we take the assumption that different beers are worth brewing and drinking, then it stands to reason that we should have an effective way of communicating our like and dislike of them. This is the primary goal of the new system, then: let’s create a better mode of communication.

The difficult thing about this communication is that it has to be widely applicable to a large portion of the population, even those not necessarily versed in beer (yet). This is one reason why style categorizations came to be such a catch: if a person is presented with a hoppy beer for the first time and told it is an India Pale Ale, they are obviously going to care more about ordering a similar product again than they will about the technical specifications of the style. It is only when we get into the ‘upper echelons of beer snobbery’ that the holes in the system start to show. But, if we’re looking to interact with a broad audience of variable education and interests, why are we still using a system that doesn’t take that into account beyond the most basic IPA versus Session IPA versus Red IPA? (On a side note, I recently saw a beer termed an Imperial Session IPA which about made my head explode).

 


 

So here is my proposition: we establish tiers that define the beer more specifically the further down you go. First we split beers into a small number of very generic, catch-all camps. The terminology may need to be refined, but for the purpose of example I will suggest six categories:

Malt-forward, Hop-forward, Yeast-forward, Mildly-balanced, Aggressively-balanced, and Acidic.


The next tier is related to colour, and should once again be descriptive, but limited: Straw, Pale, Red, Brown, Black.

The next tier is to do with the percentage of the beer. For the purpose of judging it could be partitioned into ranges (i.e. 4-6%), but it is not necessary for day-to-day sales purposes.

It is not until the final tier (tier four) that the beers start to truly differentiate themselves, and this tier is where key flavour attributes – as defined by the brewer – are listed. Given that I work in sensory, I believe these should be technical, industry-standard terms, and that the intensity of these flavours should also be listed, but they do not have to be. The amount of characteristics listed can be as many or as few as the brewer feels to be necessary, and judging competitions can define the adequate number for the beers entered as well.

And to make things easier, all of these can be signified by pictures – on the board, the tap, the can or the bottle (which is great for me because I still struggle with big words).

Let’s run this through in a real-life situation; Joe Shmo walks up to the bar:

-Joe: ‘I’ll have a hop-forward, pale, four percent beer please’

-Bartender: ‘Great! We actually have two on the board now. ‘Life and Times’ has defined notes of raw hop and mercaptan and it’s super bitter, while the ‘Six Feet Under’ has, citrus hop, catty hop, and a bit of sweetness.’

Joe may not know or care about the flavour characteristics, but he’ll pick one that sounds good and if he finds he likes it, he can remember those characters going forward.

 

There are three things to note about this new methodology:

1. It is utilitarian, easy to pick up, and you can dive into it as much or as little as you want.

2. There is no ambiguity.

3. It brings the quality of the beer to the forefront of people’s minds.

 

That last part is key. If a system like this is put in place, people will start worrying more about the actual taste of the beer, instead of becoming involved in never-ending debates over whether it is true to style. On a production side, batch-to-batch variability will necessarily decrease because brewers have gone to the effort to technically assess and advertise the taste of their beer. This also frees up the brewers to do whatever they want with a beer. Diacetyl is rarely considered a positive attribute in a beer style, but if you’re a brewer who particularly enjoys it, you should be able to showcase that flavour as you see fit.

Perhaps even more important, a methodology such as this prevents tom-foolery and ensures process control all the way through distribution and retail: if a beer is not marked as having acetic notes in it, then when it’s served from an infected tap, people will know that that is not the way the beer is meant to taste and do not fault the brewer for it.

From the outset, I would imagine that many people will claim that this ruins the romance and experience of the beer. Style categorizations are, after all, often used to reference history and provenance, which is part of what beer drinking is about. To this I would say: re-establish the power of the brand. Pilsner Urquell, Pliny the Elder, Old Rasputin, Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, Miller Lite, Paulaner Doppelbock, almost any Belgian beer – all of these are beers that are known as exceptional beers first, and quality examples of styles second (largely because most of them ‘invented’ the style in the first place). And within each of these beers is a story tied more to individual brewing art and provenance than any generic style definition can achieve. It is not necessary to pigeonhole your beer into style categories in order to make it sell, and I would say that a number of beers would sell better if those involved in producing them took the time to establish their beer’s identity – and sensory profile – into more than the ‘house Irish Stout’.

Conversely, we’ve totally devalued some beers because of style guidelines and associative stigmas. There are a huge amount of beer drinkers who won’t drink any IPA because they ‘don’t like hoppy beers’. Even more exasperatingly, American Lagers and their relatives are mostly shunned by the people who know the most about them. This is the obstinacy of craft beer culture as we know it – instead of praising the technical mastery that is displayed in beers like Budweiser, so many purported ‘beer lovers’ purposely avoid associating with them and often sneer at the people who brew or drink them. I highly doubt that style categorizations are the only reason why some beers are lauded as champions while others are dismissed as bland and uninspired, but I would say that if I managed to make 125 million barrels of beer a year, then I wouldn’t give a rat’s fart if my beers fit into style categories or not. 99% of my customers probably don’t either.

And therein lies the whole paradox of the craft beer movement. The incredible, unrelenting growth of craft beer – a movement that is very tied into style definitions – is changing the global perspective on what beer is. Ostensibly, this shift encourages people to be more accepting of all beers, but maybe the exact opposite is what is happening. When any beer drinker looks at the results of the World Beer Cup and sees that there were 275 entries in the IPA category and only 29 in the American Dark Lager category s/he will automatically make assumptions about the merits of both the winning beers and the styles without even considering what their own personal preference or the demands of the situation are. People don’t contemplate the fact that there may have been 272 terribly brewed beers submitted to the IPA category, and 29 technically perfect beers submitted into the American Dark Lager category. In fact, they’re more likely to believe the opposite.


To wrap this all together, the problem here is not categorizing beers. The problem is that current categorizations are deficient and harmful to overall beer quality in almost every way you look at it:

 

1. They create a barrier of entry for those looking to learn more about beer by inferencing that beers cannot be understood unless the origins, techniques, and ingredients used in each style is understood.

2. Despite this, the style definitions themselves don’t accurately describe the origins, techniques, or ingredients used.

3. Current categories restrict brewing creativity and individuality by forcing brewers to brew beers to style instead of brewing beers worth drinking.

4. Their generalized groupings skew ratings and bias individuals, especially those who are first being exposed to craft beer.

5. They do not take the sensory quality of the beer into account, and by extension, prop up a system which allows the improper brewing, handling, and serving of beer.

 

By restructuring these categorizations, we create a new language through which to communicate a beer’s characteristics, but we also engender a complete shift in how we perceive beer in an individual, local, national, and global context.

 

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “The Growing Irrelevance of Beer Styles: Part 2

    1. Excellent article, both parts 1 and 2.

      Could you explain further what you mean by “Mildly-blanaced” and “Aggressively-balanced” in your six proposed beer categories?

      Thanks.

      1. Thanks, Nick.

        As I said, I don’t think that those categories are likely to be definitive, those were simply the ones that I felt could potentially work, but in terms of the two you describe, they are meant to be categories for those beers which display more than one prominent feature (or none at all). For instance, there could be argument that a barley wine, a new-world porter, or a number of other beers have both prominent malt and prominent hop characteristics, but they are big ‘knock the palate’ beers, so theirs is a (hopefully) balanced profile between malt and hops, even if it is rather intense. Similarly, a lot of lagers have restrained yeast characters as well as some hop and malt qualities so those would be ‘mildly-balanced’.

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