IN DEFENSE OF BEER STYLES

Why do we care about beer styles? What difference does it make if a beer is a Porter or Stout? An Amber Ale or a Red? A Russian Imperial or an American Double? The Aleheads are as guilty as anyone of focusing on what pigeonhole a specific beer is supposed to fall into. Does it really matter?

Martyn Cornell would say “absolutely not”. The British beer historian is one of the most respected beer writers working today. His blog, Zythophile, is a must-read for any beer enthusiast. Now, I’ll grant you that being one of the most respected beer writers is like being one of the most venerable porn stars. It’s not exactly a field that inspires reverence. “You write about beer? Good for you! And what’s your actual job?” But for those of us who care about beer, Cornell is a voice that commands respect. To be sure, he can be a bit of a crank. And sometimes his opinions just blatantly piss me off.* But he’s a true beer historian who relies on primary sources and never lowers himself to superficial on-line searches or Wikipedia quotes (like, umm, us). He’s a challenging, obstinate writer who likes to push buttons and illuminate the masses. If his posts sometimes read like he thinks he’s better than you, well…in terms of beer knowledge, he probably is.

*For an example of a Cornell post that I find infuriating, check out his “you’re not using the word ‘ale’ correctly” post. Essentially, since ale used to mean something different in centuries past, Cornell is  peeved that the word’s definition has been altered over the years to mean “any warm/top-fermenting malt beverage”. He doesn’t like to have to explain the true etymology of the word over and over again and he is clearly frustrated that the term no longer means what it used to. My take? He sounds like an old man bitching about how much better everything was back in the day. The word “gay” doesn’t mean what it used to either. Get over it.

Cornell recently took up the debate about the proliferation of beer styles and the overwhelming importance they seem to command in the brewing industry today. He points out something I think most of us were superficially aware of but never put much thought into. Namely, the whole concept of “beer styles” is an extraordinarily recent invention. He traces it back a mere 33 years when the most celebrated beer writer of all time, Michael Jackson (not the pedophile one), coined the term “beer styles” in his seminal work, The World Guide to Beer.

Since that time, beer style differentiation has become a cottage industry. Today there are debates over whether a brew is a Cascadian Dark Ale or a Black IPA. Double, Triple, even Quadruple IPAs stock our package store shelves. There are multiple types of Imperial Stouts, a variety of Wild Ales…even a style called “Wheatwine” which is basically just a Barleywine made with 50% or more wheat malt. The whole concept of beer styles sometimes seems to threaten to strangle the entire brewing world. Why not just sit back, crack open a beer, and enjoy it without worrying about whether it meets the industry’s rigid standards for the style?

I’m fairly certain that Martyn Cornell blames the proliferation of beer styles on one thing: Americans. Spend some time perusing his posts (and particularly his responses in the comments sections after the posts) and you’ll see that he doesn’t hold us Yanks in the highest regard.*

*Here’s a choice anti-American quote from the “ale” article I referenced before. “It may seem dumb to you, matey, but that’s because you’re too dumb to have the imagination to realise that words didn’t always mean what a 21st century American thinks they should mean.”

I get the impression that he thinks our obsession with styles and guidelines stems from Americans’ deep-seated need to categorize and judge things. We need to proclaim “winners” and “losers” which means that beer judging has reached its zenith (or nadir, depending on your POV) in the States. As beer judging and beer competitions have started to dominate the brewing landscape, a concrete rubric for how to judge beers has developed along with it. After all, you can’t judge a beer unless you know what it’s “supposed” to taste like. Thus, beer styles have become more rigidly defined and their specific characteristics are being constantly debated and challenged by Aleheads.

Whenever I read one of Cornell’s (and other, mainly British, beer writers) frequent digs at American beer style obsession, I bristle a bit. This is for two reasons. One, while I like to mock America and all of our faults on an almost daily basis, I don’t like it when people from other countries do it. You have a Queen you crumpet-eating, loo-user…so stop throwing stones. And two, it bothers me because he’s correct. The recent focus on beer styles IS almost 100% due to America’s influence on the industry. We really ARE the culprit. But why?

I’m going to say something controversial that really isn’t: America is the best brewing nation on Earth. It sounds like fighting words, but it shouldn’t be. England invented most of the styles we take for granted today. Porters, Stouts, Brown Ales, IPAs. Germany has a horse in the race…it’s the birthplace of lager, wheat beers, and the Bavarian Purity Laws which essentially defined what beer was in Continental Europe for the past 500 years. And then there’s Belgium…a country whose sole purpose seems to be the production of high-quality brew. Even their monks brew beer. But all of those countries pale in comparison to the US these days. Why? Two reasons…

First, there’s the obvious answer. Volume! The US is the third most populated nation on Earth behind only China and India and we’re far and away the biggest beer-drinking nation. India isn’t exactly a hotbed of brewing since any grains produced in that country are generally used to feed their perennially starving populace. As for China, while their beer production is steadily increasing every year, beer culture is still fairly nascent in the world’s largest country. No matter how you slice it, America produces more beer than any other nation. We also have more breweries than any other country…roughly 1,500 with more and more cropping up every year.

The second major reason: America’s culture of innovation. I know, I know…we’re falling behind. Our schools are getting worse. We buy our cars and electronics from Japan. We buy our toys from China. We buy our clothes from El Salvador and Thailand. We call India when our computers break. We’re not what we used to be. But in the brewing industry, the US is still on top in terms of innovation and pushing the envelope. There are a few European ale factories like BrewDog that are making bold, exciting choices. But they’re the outliers. In the US, there are hundreds of craft brewers pushing the field to the next level. Breweries like Dogfish Head, Stone, Founders, Allagash, Avery…they’re exploring, experimenting, and completely changing the boundaries of beer-making. It’s an exciting time for American Aleheads!

All that variety and innovation leads to a couple of problems though. First is the issue of consumer confusion. Pop into a well-stocked package store and your head will start spinning. The options available sometimes seem limitless. It’s like walking down the cheese aisle at Whole Foods…it can feel like you’re just throwing darts at a board. If you’re just selecting beers based on the label or name, you’re not making a very informed decision. BUT, if the beer style is prominently displayed, life becomes a little easier. A Founder’s Dirty Bastard? That doesn’t sound very good. Oh wait…it’s a Scotch Ale! I love Scotch Ales! I’m definitely grabbing a four-pack of that. There’s no such thing as a perfectly informed consumer, but every little bit of information helps. When grabbing a beer at the bar or package store, knowing the beer style can mean the difference between finding something you love or being stuck with a six-pack you’ll never finish.

That first concern is universal, but the second is pretty uniquely American…our need to determine a “winner”. As I said earlier, we have a desire…an obsession really…to turn everything into a competition. Americans CRAVE winners. Everything has to be ranked. Everything has to be in a Top Ten list. We need to know who the best sports teams are. The best restaurants. The best colleges. The richest people. The same is true with beer. The most popular posts we write on Aleheads are lists. When we rank beers and beer names, our hits jump up. It’s bred into our genetic code as Americans.

Determining the best beers is an immensely subjective undertaking. Personal tastes rule the day. If a beer has a dominant flavor (say grapefruit hoppiness) that I love and you hate, we’ll clearly rate those beers differently. It’s not “fair” to judge all beers equally since our own personal tastes will always win out. But if we start listing beer styles and determining the characteristics that define those styles, we begin to eliminate some of that subjectivity. Maybe I prefer Dubbels to Witbiers, but if I can separate those two styles into two wholly separate categories, I can judge them on their own merits. No one is going to change the American need to determine a winner. But beer styles at least make that process a little more fair…it makes the world of beer judging a little more meritocratic. Clearly a delicate Kölsch can’t stand up to a robust Russian Imperial Stout. Thanks to beer styles, it doesn’t have to.

So Martyn Cornell and his ilk are right, as he usually is. Americans ARE the problem when it comes to the recent beer style obsession. And focusing too much on beer styles can certainly be detrimental. Sometimes it’s better to just pop the cap and sip than it is to fret too much about whether your Double IPA has the proper amount of IBUs for the style. That being said, I think Cornell (as he often does) is living a bit too much in the past. When he was a wee lad, the term “beer style” didn’t even exist. Contrast that with the Aleheads…we were all born AFTER Michael Jackson coined the phrase in ’77. None of us existed in a world where “beer styles” weren’t something brewers thought about. How can we be expected to ignore the categorization of beer when it’s been part and parcel with our culture since we first put pint glass to mouth? I’ve been taught to think of beer styles since I first started drinking. We all were! I can’t stop thinking about them any more than I can stop silently judging the merits of a beer when I’m drinking it. To be honest, the whole idea of beer styles and beer judging is a big part of WHY I love beer. Just skim our site. Every tasting note talks about styles. Every Podcast has some discussion of styles. Every lengthy diatribe touches on how well certain beers fit into certain categories. The idea of beer styles practically defines our blog and the beer culture we’re a part of. It is what it is, Mr. Cornell. You can fight it all you want, but as I once described the act of arguing with the Commander, it’s like punching the ocean.

I will still read Martyn Cornell’s blog religiously, of course. He is a better historian than me. He is a better writer than me. He has forgotten more about beer than I will ever know. Reading his blog shames me into realizing just how bad I am at beer writing, but it also inspires me to keep learning and growing as a beer drinker and thinker. He is almost always right when I am wrong… but when it comes to beer styles, I’m not bowing to him.

I say that beer styles are important. I say that with the amazing variety of beer options available to us today, they are entirely necessary. I recognize the problems with worrying too much about which narrow pigeonhole every single beer needs to fit into, but I think the good far outweighs the bad.

When I drink a beer, I want to know what it “should” taste like before I sip it. That’s important to me as a drinker. It’s important to me as an American. Hell, it’s important to me as a human being! If wanting a mental template to refer to before I consume something is wrong…well…then I don’t want to be right. I love beer styles…and I’m glad they’re here to stay.

6 comments

  1. Brother Barley:

    Good post! I feel like I understand the cranky old windbag a little bit better. And by that I mean you, not Martyn Cornell.

  2. sweeneyphi · ·

    I’m so confused….I thought Barley McHops preferred a world where we called everything by color and hoppiness or something.

  3. The Professor · ·

    Beer ‘styles’ are fine (kept within reason)…it’s the ‘style guidelines’ that are a bit of a laugh. Even there, I have no problem with the ‘guidelines’ obsession as long as it’s kept behind a fence in the homebrew competition arena where it belongs. That’s what they were designed for, and nothing else. That overwrought list of ‘guidelines’ that some love to invoke really means nothing at all when discussing commercially brewed beer and there, they serve only as an annoyance. I mean, who dictates what a given beer is “supposed” to taste like? Or what color or how hoppy it is?

    Basically I don’t need some bonehead sitting at the next stool over pontificating about his pint of ‘whatever’ not being ‘to style” …I’ve experienced this too much in recent years and the dreaded words “not to style” should be banned from beerdom.
    (and yes…I actually heard some clueless beer nerd in a bar say that Fuller’s ESB was “not really ‘to style”‘)

    Just my opinion of course (which is shared by a growing number of beer geeks). Your mileage may vary. Basically, whatever enhances your enjoyment of good beer is ok with me. I guess I just like to enjoy a beer on its own merits without worrying about how it stacks up against the data in an artificial (and very flawed) list of “guidelines that were developed strictly for amateur brewers.

    Cheers (love the website, by the way).

  4. Of course, Prof…I hope I made it clear in the post above that for the most part, I prefer just “gripping it and ripping it” when it comes to beer. My point was that, in this day and age, it’s impossible to just “ignore” the concept of styles. I can’t drink a Saison without mentally comparing it to every other Saison I’ve ever consumed…or to a rough mental archetype of what I think it should taste like.

    I think human beings are natural pattern-seekers and no matter how hard we try, we have a tendency to put experiences in little mental boxes. When I’m drinking beer, it DOES enhance my enjoyment if I know the style so I can reference a quick, internal checklist in my head. Let’s say I’m drinking a Dubbel…OK…sweet, check…fruity, check…a little yeast funk, check…robust mouthfeel, hmm, a little thin…good effervescence…maybe a little over-carbonated. Mostly what I’m doing is comparing it to Dubbels I like and Dubbels I don’t like. That doesn’t mean my personal preference will match everyone else’s (for example, the Brother Thelonious is one of my all-time favorite brews, but it gets just a B+ on BA).

    The mental checklist approach should never determine the actual quality of the beer, but it does give me a framework around which to build my personal relationship with the beer in question. I agree that beer styles are problematic and, for some people, they can greatly detract from what should be a purely pleasurable experience. But I’m an analytic sort, so for me, it’s important.

    Regardless, thanks for reading and for your candid comments. Clearly I have no damn idea what I’m talking about, so it’s good to have my opinion skewered once in awhile.

  5. […] have written about my enjoyment of and frustration with Martyn Cornell on these pages before. He is one of the pre-eminent beer historians and beer writers in the UK. But […]

  6. […] than the former). Personally, I think beer styles aren’t going anywhere and I’ve argued at length about how they’re a necessary evil that are helpful for both newbies and seasoned Aleheads […]

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