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Oakes Weekly - January 27, 2005
On the Origins of Beer Style
January 27, 2005
Written by Oakes
The concept of beer style is such a fun one to delve into. It has all the classic components for great debate – a mix of historical & modern context, regional viewpoints, multiple competing schools of thought, and no shortage of grey areas. Most beer-related information sources have their own ideas on the subject. I actually like this. Despite the fact that I publish my own thoughts on beer style (which I am in the process of updating, hence why the subject is on my mind), I don’t dismiss the other thoughts. There once was a time when I did. I would sit down, look at somebody’s set of style guidelines, and spend more time ripping apart their theories than building up my own. I’d get really nitpicky, too, and I once in a while still do if I’m in the mood (Carnegie Porter is NOT a Baltic porter!).
But maybe, just maybe, I’ve mellowed out a bit on the subject, because I don’t remember getting into nearly as many arguments about beer style over the past couple of years as I used to. So while I am contemplating the finer points of all the world’s beer styles, I wanted to take a closer look at some of the basic sources of debate. After all, beer styles are a matter of someone’s (or some group’s) interpretations of an entity (the world of beer) that is not concrete. People interpret things differently, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that. But I’ve been thinking a bit about where these different interpretations come from because that has a lot to do with where all these different sets of style guidelines come from.
There are some crucial questions that must be answered when pondering the issue of beer style. First, where do beer styles come from? To an extent, this will be a reflection of what you think beer styles are. So, what constitutes a beer style? The answer to that question lies in the question of “for what purpose are you categorizing the beer styles of the world?”
First of all, the concept of beer style is as old as beer. The Egyptians had lots of different terms for beer, depending on how it was made, for whom it was made, and from what it was made. So the drawing and re-drawing of beer style guidelines has been going on for millennia. Even if nobody ever sat down and wrote it out, the public was aware that there were different beers of different styles. 1970’s Americans, the poor bastards, might have been the only society that didn’t know about beer styles.
The modern take on beer style theory is credited to Michael Jackson and his work provides the foundation upon which all schools of beer style thought (in the English language anyway) are built today. He originally outlined beer styles in the 70’s and 80’s, based on his first-hand observations and extensive travel in the world’s major beer countries. Indeed, the world of beer style has changed since then – new styles have emerged and some of those old ones may have mutated, died off in their homelands, or otherwise are reflected differently today.
Regardless, a key element in beer style is the degree to which Jackson’s original concept of classic beer styles ought to be adhered. It is my belief that this concept is the strongest foundation we have for documenting beer style, and that the word classic has been forgotten by some. The word in this context has meaning. It represents the concept that beer styles are forged of history and tradition, of regional character and the test of time. When one is pondering beer styles, their attitudes towards history, regional character and time will be reflected in one’s view as to what constitutes a beer style.
For example, I believe strongly in history and the test of time. Beer is history, and the events of human history plays a major role in the development and ongoing drift of styles. The massive changes to beer styles in the 20th century were forged from war, temperance movements, the advent of mass-production, the advent of mass-marketing and finally consumer backlash against the latter two. History is vital in the consideration of styles.
However, in a world where one can access ingredients, equipment and information on brewing techniques from all over the globe with the click of a mouse, I feel less strongly about regional character being a defining characteristic. It used to be, without question. In the 70’s, nobody knew what was going on in other countries. Now, however, I preside over beerological minutiae from the four corners of the globe. Furthermore, brewers themselves pay less attention to regional characteristics. Maybe it’s the aforementioned availability, or maybe it’s just the experimental nature that the industry has adopted, or something else entirely. But in a world where a brewer in the US can make a Belgian-style beer with German ingredients, regionalism’s role in beer style is, to me, falling by the wayside.
There is also the question of purpose. Different style guidelines are built for different purposes. I think the new BJCP guidelines look great. But I wouldn’t use them on Ratebeer because a) they’re copyrighted and more importantly b) Ratebeer isn’t a homebrew competition. To pick a non-controversial example, we don’t need a Classic American Pilsner style because it is seldom if ever commercially brewed. It’s a homebrew thing, and that’s what BJCP is all about. What this means is that different style guidelines are not wrong. It just means that the authors may have taken a different approach from the outset. Beer style guides are not a one-size-fits-all type of product.
Another major, but often overlooked perspective is whether the styles are to be used for rating purposes, brewing purposes, or informational purposes. This drives all sorts of things. It drives how specific the guidelines are written from a technical point of view. It drives what sorts of things are important in learning about a style (is it the history or the mashing technique, the richness of the aroma or the degree of allowable diacetyl?) If you are building styles for judging, you need to be more specific. The mandate of Ratebeer is not to judge to style, but to judge by the level of enjoyment. To paraphrase Joe Tucker, we’re not looking for the most stylistically perfect Bohemian Pilsner, we’re looking for the one that gives us the most pleasure, even if it means bending the guidelines a bit.
This outlook allows for a major deviation from most other schools of style thought. Most style guides out there are doing something totally different – they are trying to define styles in a way that practically every beer has a style to call its own. One advantage of our hedonic perspective is that guidelines can be a bit looser. It doesn’t have to be, and for certain styles (Kölsch, Gueuze, German Pilsner) it isn’t, but it can be where warranted. The coolest thing is given that a healthy number of brewers don’t adhere rigidly to beer styles, I personally think a little flexibility reflects the industry pretty well. It was not always that way – people weren’t going for all-out experimentation twenty or thirty years ago. But they are now, and for those trying to pin everything into a style, it has resulted in an explosion in the number of recognized styles. There are guides out there with over 100 beer styles listed. As cool as it is for style geeks – more to think about, more to fuss about – brewers are always one step ahead.
The idea of defining so many styles is to eliminate grey areas as much as possible. However, trying to fill in all the grey areas only serves to shift the problem the other way, resulting in too much overlap. Overlap makes placing beers in the right style just as difficult, if not more so, than with grey areas. You have to really have a keen understanding of not just every single style, substyle and variant, but also taste each beer in order to be able to place them in the right spot. Eliminate grey areas or embrace grey areas – I like both approaches but they both have flaws and you’ve got to pick your poison.
If you embrace grey areas, you end up with some styles that are so loose that they aren’t really styles at all, but rather categories. Belgian styles, even in rigid sets of guidelines, usually have a general, catch-all category for examples that don’t fit neatly into one of the traditional styles. I feel American beers are going in that direction, and therefore have left the categories open-ended, again because I think it reflects quite accurately the state of the industry today.
I stated above that I am not a big believer in declaring regional variants as separate styles. Other people clearly do not agree with me on that. If you go in the direction of trying to build a style for every beer (or thereabouts), your treatment of regional variants becomes a little inconsistent. Some become styles, some don’t. Of the ones that do, some are pretty obvious to the blind taster and that’s cool. Some aren’t, though, possibly because there are too many similarities with another variant, possibly because brewers have been known to mix elements of variants. For example, if a brewer in Sweden makes an IPA with American hop rates and English hops, what is it? How about a Canadian pale lager made with all Maris Otter and EKGs? Influences converge and whammo – those regional variants have a new grey area that needs to be plugged. I guess that’s why I embrace the grey areas – there are always new holes and it takes less work to pin down each and every beer than if you try to eliminate the grey areas. The latter approach is a bit of a Whack-A-Mole.
The examples in the previous paragraph represent examples of style drift. Every now and again a style is born with fire and brimstone and we can always know that pilsner was invented back in 1842 in the town of Plzen in what today is the Czech Republic. Splendid. It is also known that the characteristics of that brew are pretty much the same as the characteristics of the beer known as pilsner today. Fantastic. What about saison? Old Ale? Those styles have at least two main and fairly distinct sets of characteristics that define them (more like four, actually, for Old Ale). I mean, they are multiple styles under the same name! And nobody knows how they began or how/if they are connected. How about porter? Randy Mosher reckons that one’s changed character every generation.
The bottom line with style drift is that it forces you to have to constantly rethink your notions about beer style. If you look back over the past century, you can see some easy stuff like Baltic Porter, which is clearly an example of regional style drift away from its ancestor, Imperial Stout. But at what point, precisely, did that happen? For that matter, you have to ask if the style drifted at all – maybe Imperial Stout is the one that is totally different from the stuff sent to St. Petersburg back in the day. Thankfully today we have beer writers so we can track today’s beer styles and their drift for future generations of beer geeks. Your treatment of style drift will definitely colour your outlook on beer styles.
Another big issue, one that I alluded to earlier, is the concept of classic beer styles. These were defined by history, regional character and the test of time. When Michael Jackson started writing about beer style, he was documenting the styles in existence at the time (late 70’s). Beer was driven heavily by tradition back then. All the style back then had a history and all had stood the test of time. Now, innovation is driving beer. This has led to the decline of the concept of classic beer styles in beer style thought. Somebody is declaring a new “style” every other week. If you predicate your theories on beer style on the recognition that innovation is more important than tradition in today’s beer world, that’s not a problem. If you adhere to the belief that tradition still remains more vital than innovation, you probably should not be jumping on every new style bandwagon.
Another crucial component of style is that something needs to be recognized as a style. The degree to which recognition is insisted upon comes into play when people consider whether something is or isn’t a beer style. The key constituents are the brewers, the beer media and beer drinkers. No matter where a style comes from, no matter how it was conceived, these constituents must recognize something as a beer style in order for it to be so. But the obscurity threshold varies from guideline to guideline. For me, it ought to be something that appears on the labels of beers. If brewers can’t bank on consumer recognition of a term or phrase to the extent that the consumer knows what’s inside that bottle, then that term or phrase does not yet equal a beer style. In other words, a style has to have a name, many beers should use that name and everybody should knows what the name means. This can take a short time, as happened with Barrel-Aged (ok, only Americans understand this so far and there is still some disagreement as to what precisely this means but we’re getting there) or it can seemingly take forever. As an example of varying thresholds for recognition, consider the following case. No matter how much has been written, the beer-drinking populace at large and the brewers of Belgium haven’t really set out a definition or name for a Duvel-type beer. Most style guidelines talk about this type of beer, but outside of beer geek circles, you’d get zero recognition of this “Belgian Strong Golden Ale” style. That doesn’t mean those guides are wrong – most hardcore Ratebeerians get what they’re getting at – but it definitely depends what your definition of a beer style is as to whether you believe this is a concrete, existing beer style or just a popular beer and some knockoffs.
One last consideration, which may lie outside of this topic about the perspectives that underpin modern beer style theory but is on my mind all the same – when do styles disappear? I suppose some are pretty obvious. If everybody knows “this is the last mars lambic” and then it gets discontinued or the brewery goes under, then we know that style has disappeared. But some styles seem to disappear more from drift than from outright commercial obsolescence. They morph into other things. Pilsner has long been father to illegitimate sons of a lighter shade – what if three hundred years of Coca-Cola causes major genetic change and wipes out the human capacity to tolerate bitterness beyond a minimal threshold? All bitter beers, including pilsner, would disappear. But as such genetic change would be gradual, we’d never really be able to tell when the last pilsner truly disappeared. Because pilsner may already be shifting out of relevance in favour of pale lager. Scary, yes, but style drift is known and if every example of a style does it, when do we pinpoint it? If you love thinking about beer style, this is good news, because you have good reason to think about it constantly. I don’t know if anyone’s ever actually dropped a style from their beer style list because it ceased to exist. You may find situations where the name of a style still shines on the marquee, but the flavour profile has left the building and some other flavour profile has taken centre stage. In the hypothetical example above, this would surely happen to pilsner as there are already non-pilsners with the word on the label. Every major beer style theorist has inaugurated new styles, but has anybody ever stood up and declared a beer style dead? I suppose that goes back to one’s perspectives on tradition, history and drift.
So yes, it’s a fun topic to discuss. Every serious beer lover has a little bit of Style Police in them. It makes for good conversation when you’re hanging out with other beer geeks. I’m glad I don’t argue about it much anymore, though. It’s not that serious an issue. Especially when you realize that most of the style guides out there are well-written, well-thought-out, and built to serve a purpose. Which one makes most sense to you will depend more on what drives your concepts of style. As long as you understand how you view things, and have a sense of how the guide’s authors view things, you’ll know why some parts of it make sense and other parts of it don’t. Perhaps more importantly, you’ll be better equipped to learn from style guides that don’t fit your viewpoints.
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1970’s Americans, the poor bastards, might have been the only society that didn’t know about beer styles.
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