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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Two Articles On Beer Styles

Below are two articles I wrote on beer styles.  They have not been published before.  I had intended to combine them into one article, as they are closely related, but decided that each worked better as a stand alone article.  As always, I welcome your comments.


A Word On Beer Style

When considering the question of beer styles, the argument has an unfortunate tendency to, very quickly, become contentious and confining.  Many persons, sometimes it seems to be the majority, simply will not accept a beer that does not fit their concept of an established style.  One may hear them say something along the line of “It is a good beer, but not to style.”  What does this mean?  Is it a nice way of saying a beer is awful?  (Looks good on you…) Who gets to determine what a style is?  Will the beer police arrest the brewer and take him before the beer judges?  If it is truly a good beer, but not to style, is it then a new style?

Not long ago I read an essay in which the author, a beer judge of some certification, stated his belief in the importance of brewers being trained to “recognize styles and to judge critically.”  However, he then quickly stated that he often had to “turn off” his critical tasting apparatus and simply enjoy the beer he happened to be drinking.  So it would appear that being sensitive to beer styles takes the joy out of beer drinking. 

Well, now isn’t this a pretty state of affairs.  Perhaps we need to go back to the start and see where beer styles came from.

The first thing that we all, as beer drinkers and creators, need to realize is that until recent times a beer style was a wholly unintentional creation.  The first brewers did not sit in their caves, scratching their chins, and suddenly cry, “Aha, I have it.  I will make a Welsh Bitter!” No, indeed.

Rather, beer styles arose as an artifact of geography and culture. In the early stages of brewing, up until the industrial era, people used the ingredients that were readily available.  Not all ingredients were available in all locations.  Further, due to cultural norms, some ingredients would be accepted in one area and rejected in another. So the origin of style is a reflection of culture and geography.

As trade and transport became more efficient, brewers found at their disposal previously unavailable ingredients.  As might be expected, this lead to the creation of new styles of beers.  However, the creation of these new styles was still not an intentional end. Rather, brewers experimented with new ingredients and techniques in an effort to make better beer that would sell.  Bear in mind that the first London Porter was not to style, if for no other reason than that the style did not exist.  Then as now, the intention of every brewer was to make good beer.

As new beers came to be accepted within a local area, they often came to be seen as characteristic of their region of origin.  Thus we came to have Welsh Bitter and London Porter. But, again, the intention was not to create a style, but to create something people liked.  The concept of style was the outsider’s way of delineating regional variations.  This was reinforced by local consumers’ tendency to become stoutly loyal to the local product (style) and resist any change. 

In time, as beers became more available outside their region of origin, the concept of style was created as a useful means of broadly categorizing products and indicating similarities and differences.  To this day that remains the utility of the concept of style - a way of communicating similarities and differences to the inexperienced.

So why has style come to be so narrowly defined by such a large portion of beer drinkers?  I am not sure.  Other than giving one the ability to smugly state, “A good beer, BUT not to style”, I can see no utility in such definitions.  In fact, the whole concept of rigidly defined styles is self-defeating.  By defining styles too narrowly and attempting to enforce these definitions through criticism, contests, and the like, innovation and creativity are restricted.  Remember, the first Stout was not to style, yet later it would become an accepted style.

What then is the upshot?  Beer style, like any other system of categorization, is an artificial imposition from the outside.  It is a useful, if somewhat unwieldy, concept that functions well as a general guide, but breaks down if definitions get too specific. Think about the categories on the periodic table of the elements (metal, gas, rare earth, etc.).  They are very useful in a broad sense, but there still elements that fall between the categories. Further, if style is strictly enforced, the creation of new styles, the beers that fall between the cracks, will cease. So I say to you, Dear Reader, use style as a general guideline, never forgetting that the point is to make good beer.

What Is Beer Style

What is style as it pertains to beer?  It would appear that, to most people, it means a defined set of characteristics that cleave a beer to others with the same set of characteristics and cleave it away from those that do not share that set of characteristics.  To be useful, this set of defining characteristics should be agreed upon by the vast majority, if not a consensus, of beer enthusiasts and be easily recognizable. If only a minority agreed upon the defining elements of a style or if these elements were so obscure as to be beyond the ken of the majority, the style in question would have no meaning.  Thus, style is a matter of agreed upon definition.

So why do we have beer styles?  It is important to note at this time that traditionally style was a matter of social evolution.  Culture and geography would conspire and the result was a beer style.  To wit, the brewer used whatever ingredients were available and socially acceptable within their locality.  So, at least in the early days of brewing, style was not a matter of conscious choice.  Rather, style was a matter of necessity, massaged by society.

Thus, in its earliest form, beer style was a reflection, perhaps even an expression, of the brewer’s geography and culture.  In short, our early brewers strove to do the best they could within their respective contextual constraints and style was born.

The modern brewer faces far fewer limitations than his predecessor.  A brewer in Australia can easily obtain Irish Ale yeast and a Patagonian may have Munich malt almost at will.  Ah, FedEx, making a village of the once wide world.

A literary analogy rises here. Who is the better poet: One working within the framework of a sonnet, or one with the freedom of blank verse?  Thence, who is the better brewer: One toiling within the limits of place and society or one with access to a world of ingredients?  I see in this question the makings of a philosophical great debate and shall plea a respectful silence and return to the topic at hand.

To return, and summarize, the question of style has moved from one of necessity to one of intent.  This is best illustrated by comparing a double (or is it now triple) IPA to a Lambic.  The former is completely contrived and market targeted, the latter is so localized and specific in ingredients as to be nearly impossible to recreate outside its place of origin.

So what, ultimately, is a beer style?  It is a means of communication.  It is a way to let others know what you are doing. If one brewer were to say to another, “This is my cream stout,” regardless of the resultant product, the recipient has a notion the provider’s intent.  Which leads to another issue (this slope does seem to be getting a bit slippery, does it not?)

What happens when interlocutors cannot agree upon the elements of a style?  I cringe every time I hear the phrase, “good beer, but not to style.” This phrase is often spoken with a certain gravity of tone that bodes ill for anyone who should produce such a beer.  Given the preceding discussion, does such a statement have any meaning?   I would opine, no.  It seems to be a bit like saying a table with six legs is good furniture but not a table. While styles can be seen a pseudo-platonic ideals that aid in communication, they are, as with all ideals, open to interpretation and ultimately outside reality.  So what is to be done?

The upshot here is that all any brewer can do, if they would be true to themselves and their craft, is to use style as a starting point and brew the best beer they can.  Use what you have, get what you can and make the best beer possible.  Follow your heart.  If you end up with a rauchbier, excellent, if you create a new style, so much the better.  In the final analysis, the concept of established beer styles is most useful as a means of exploring new possibilities.  The ultimate aim is to make good beer.