Further Ruminations on Beer Styles

Here is a scenario that has probably happened to most of us: you buy a new beer with certain expectations based on name/packaging and then find the beer to be drastically different than you thought it would be. Perhaps it was called an IPA and is really more of a brown or red ale. It’s not necessarily bad, but you feel misled. Sound familiar? I hope so, because it’s from this point that I wanted to continue some thoughts on beer styles that didn’t really fit into “The Style at the Time.” That post assumed that beers were correctly labeled a certain style, whether it was an established style or an experimental one. But as Al pointed out in the comments, some beers claim to be of a certain style but don’t really fit. It is a common phrase in the beer world: “It’s good, but it’s not really a (blank).” (For a recent example, see Stephen Beaumont’s review of the Great Lakes 25th Anniversary Belgian Saison.) Let’s decontruct what is really going on when someone makes a comment like that.

Perhaps we should start at a question I’ve never heard asked before: what’s the point of having codified beer styles? Is it so that brewers have a guide for when creating beers or that breweries have a way of marketing their products? Those could be valid reasons, but I would argue the main reason is to help beer drinkers choose what they want to drink next. We all have certain connotations for beer styles and that has a huge influence when we are selecting a beer. If it’s a hot, humid summer day and I want something refreshing, I probably won’t order a stout because I would expect a beer that relies on roasted malts and is heavier than is appropriate for the weather. That’s not exactly revelatory, but my point is that styles exist to help the consumer more than anything else. Styles help us make assumptions about what a beer will taste like, which determines our purchasing decisions.

Obviously styles are somewhat subjective – what may seem like IPA to one person may be a hoppy amber ale to another. Most of us don’t go out drinking with in-depth knowledge of the BJCP guidelines or know the IBU of most beers in a bar. (The BJCP aspect will be fodder for a third post, no doubt.) We use our previous drinking experiences and our own ideas of what defines a style to help in our judgment of a beer. Occasionally our notions of a certain style will clash with the beer we’re drinking, leading to the “It’s not really a (blank)” statement.

These can be disappointing beers. When you want a big, punch-you-in-the-face IPA only to get an amber ale, that just sucks. As consumers, we tend to blame the brewery – they shouldn’t have called it that style, because the taste doesn’t fit. Maybe they tried to make a Cascadian dark ale but it came out as a porter. There are times when I wonder whether a brewery has called a beer an IPA just to jump on the trend. Beer geeks often make fun of Keith’s IPA because it’s not an IPA, but imagine how many Keith’s drinkers have been thrown off by ordering an IPA and getting Mad Tom, Smashbomb or Boneshaker. The impact that one or two words can have on our drinking experience is quite astonishing.

It is at times like these that styles fail everyone – the brewery and the drinker. The beer could fit within the style (as defined by BJCP or some other set of criteria), but not within our perceptions of the style. Sometimes styles just overlap – I often think that Imperial IPAs and American barley wines are inbred cousins of the same style. Tell someone that a beer is an IIPA and they may find it too sweet. Give them the same beer as say it’s a barley wine and have it become amazing. (Note: I should try this trick at a tasting.) Due to the subjectivity of styles there will never be a time when everyone is satisfied. (In the case of hop heads, they’ll just demand more hops regardless of style. Style be damned!) There can also be such wide variations within a style – does your IPA have pine, citrus, floral notes or a combination? – that a simple label cannot be fully responsible for creating an accurate representation of the beer we are going to drink.

There isn’t really a fix to the problem and it’s impossible to assign blame. Will some breweries keep putting beers in the wrong style? Yes. Are they going to setup a style sub-committee of the OCB to vet all beers? No, because that’s ridiculous. Will people keep ordering beers without asking servers about them? Yes, so don’t complain if you buy a maltier IPA than you expected and didn’t ask. Will language continue to fail us? Yes, until we develop 1,200 different styles that accurately describes each beer flavour that could ever possibly be made. Styles are fallible, just like our palates are after drinking a big imperial stout. Sometimes beers have to be judged outside of the boundaries of style. If a beer is pleasing to drink, style shouldn’t be that important.

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