A man walks into a bar and sees unfamiliar beer on the chalkboard prompting the question: “What style is that?” It’s not much of a punch line, but it is a very reasonable question. Answering it encapsulates a lot of information about the color, intensity, body, alcohol, texture, hoppiness and history of a beer.
Styles are a language we’ve grown accustomed to using when talking beer, and a style name delivers a lot of information very efficiently. Because of the value of this specialized language, style knowledge forms the backbone of programs such as the Cicerone certification.
So what constitutes a beer style? It’s usually a mix of a written description of the general character and composition of the beer, along with numbers for specific parameters: alcohol, original gravity (the strength of the unfermented beer, called “wort”), color, bitterness and perhaps others. Styles also describe sensory and technical aspects (such as top or bottom fermentation, for example), sometimes with a bit of historical context tossed in.
Since the days of the ancient Sumerians, there have often been several different beers available in any given time and place, and naming them is both necessary and natural—as humans we have a hard time thinking about anything without a name. It’s convenient to be able to sum up a whole suite of characteristics with a word or two, provided everybody’s read the memo.
Back in history, beer names were often pretty casual and could be very local. There are many amusing nicknames for beers: in England, “dagger” or huffcap for strong ale; and in Germany, “trouser-milk” in Dransfeld, “village devil” in Jena, along with many more. Names like those sometimes described a specific style, but often were just affectionate or poetic terms folks created for their own amusement. Over time, some beer names acquired much more specific meaning. As beer was traded, often very far from home, its name served as an identifying brand associated with a host of specific characteristics that customers grew to know and trust.
Many factors shape the beers produced in any particular culture. A lot of them are obvious: obtainable raw ingredients, climate, water chemistry and the technology available to control the process from field to fermentation. In the end, a beer must also suit the needs and tastes of its drinkers, whether those are hydration, social lubrication, gastronomy, status or anything else.
There are also less obvious forces in the background, shaping beer styles in other ways. From the time of Babylonian King Hammurabi and his famous code of laws right up to the present day, regulation and taxation have wielded outsized influences over the character of beers. By levying taxes in various ways and controlling how and what brewers are allowed to brew, regulatory influences are the equal of any more-obvious factors in shaping the boundaries of a style.
Eventually, regulation covered beer names themselves. For example, the name “Oktoberfest” is restricted to use solely by brewers within the city limits of Munich, much to the chagrin of those just outside. Kölsch is similarly restricted. Lambic must come from a certain region in Belgium, and its brewers must follow specific traditional practices in order to use the style name. Some style designations—most notably Trappist—are controlled on the basis of trademark, which in that case is owned by a consortium of monasteries who set the rules and periodically decide who is in and who is out. There is no geographic limitation on the name; we now have a couple of Trappist breweries in the U.S.
We owe the birth of modern beer styles to homebrewing competitions. Back in the late 1970s, it was decided that beers entered in the fledgling American Homebrewers Association competition should be judged according to styles, so a list was cooked up using the best available information at the time. Charlie Papazian, founder of the association, tapped writers Michael Jackson, Dave Line and Fred Eckhardt for input.
Competition style guidelines work like breed descriptions in a dog show. Beers are evaluated largely on how well they match the parameters of the style. It’s not a bulls-eye, but more of as a strike zone, as all styles have some variability. While style specifics are important, so is overall quality and a harmonious whole. Some styles have a huge range of acceptable variation; some are very narrow and precise. Categories like herb and fruit beers have barely any limits, save the presence of the special ingredient.
Competitions can be judged in other ways, but styles serve as convenient tools to compare apples to apples and more importantly, to limit the number of beers in a category. With competitions now judging thousands of entries, you either split them up by styles or deal with sheer chaos. The two most widely recognized guidelines are those of the Brewers Association’s Great American Beer Festival (GABF), which also serve as the guidelines for the World Beer Cup, and those of the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), the homebrewing competition organization. Both post their guidelines online, and they are worthy aids in understanding the many styles that form the universe of beer today.
When you read a style guideline, it seems definitive, even immutable. In reality, it’s anything but. Some styles are pretty stable—think about a pilsner for example—but others change rapidly in response to consumer demand. GABF styles are updated annually with feedback from judges and brewers. The BJCP maintains a somewhat more historical point of view and makes changes less frequently.
The changes can be dramatic: In the 1990s, American red ale was a bland, slightly malty beer with very little in the way of hops. It was popular for a while with mass-market brewers trying to offer something to their craft-curious customers. Today, it is a stronger and aggressively hopped beer frequently employing rye as well. Why? Well, brewers just keep trying things and seeing what’s successful, going wherever their customers want to take them. All of the American ales, from blond to pale to brown, have grown hoppier both in palate and nose, as the markets just can’t seem to get enough of their favorite beer herb.
A once-stable style in Germany, Oktoberfest beer has changed dramatically in the last decade. As brewers watched fest-goers down a single liter of proper Oktoberfest beer before switching to the easier-drinking helles, they felt their tradition was being insulted. Rather than lose this historic style, some decided to change it to a paler color, but keep the slightly elevated alcohol content (6% vs. 5% of the helles). A few resisted; some created a new-school Oktoberfest, but also kept brewing their traditional märzen, the name given to the classic amber beer long before it became associated with the festival.
Whatever the style, a good beer is the result of much more than ticking off certain characteristics found on a guideline sheet. A lot of those—drinkability, complexity, creativity, balance, depth, memorability—may be difficult to reduce to simple terms, but are no less important.
It’s also important to remember that we drink beers, not styles, and that outside the strictures of a competition, brewers have the right to make whatever beer they think they can sell, and we should be celebrating this diversity. In its preamble to the proposed 2015 guidelines, the BJCP adds this thought: “These style guidelines are not to be rolled up and used to beat people you disagree with over the head.” I’m paraphrasing here of course, but they say verbatim about the guidelines: “Don’t treat them as some kind of Holy Scripture. Don’t get so lost in parsing the individual words that you lose sight of the overall intent.”
Today, there is increased style awareness. Brewers can be 100 percent dead-set against them, but once a keg of their beer comes into a bar, somebody is going to write something on that chalkboard and it’s most likely going to be pigeon-holed it into a style category. As much as people say they admire breweries that cross style boundaries, in practical terms working outside the commonly accepted parameters of style creates communication issues, and brewers have to work hard to make sure that their customers can figure out how their next crazy, style-bending beer will actually taste.
In the end, an agnostic attitude is a good one to cultivate. Yes, style categories are useful, even interesting. But no, they’re not everything, and sometimes don’t matter at all. Have a good read, make a few mental notes and then toss the guidelines to the side and walk into that bar.