Evaluating Beer Style Guidelines

Let’s get back to talking about beer styles, this time in the context of the style guidelines used for beer judging/awards. (For previous posts on beer styles see The Style at the Time and Further Ruminations on Beer Styles.) When a beer is entered into competition (homebrew or professional) the brewer/brewery says which style the beer fits into, usually from a list of possible styles (either BJCP or one created by the people running the competition). The list of styles can be quite large or small, depending on the competition and the expected number of entries. The set style guidelines then give the judges a common framework when evaluating the set of beers in any given style. It all seems relatively straightforward and harmless.

Before we get any further, perhaps it is wise to take a moment and look at some style guidelines. The most used guidelines are probably those of the BJCP. The Great American Beer Festival has their own list of style guidelines. The Canadian Brewing Awards uses a hybrid of BJCP, GABF and the World Beer Cup. Each have their own unique set of characteristics and lengthy posts could probably be written on each, but even I have limits to my own beer geekdom. When you hear someone talk about whether or not a certain beer is to style, the person is really saying how much a beer fits within understood guidelines like these.

These guidelines are not arbitrarily created, but use reference sources, historical documents and real life examples to establish the parameters of any given style. Regardless of that fact, it still seems bizarre to me to have limits set on aspects such as ABV or IBUs. What magically makes a beer an American IPA at 7.4% ABV and an Imperial IPA at 7.6%? Yes, these are guidelines and not rules, but it is hard to read them and not think that guidelines limit our thinking of beer styles.

One sentence stuck out from the BJCP FAQ regarding style guidelines: “Judges have an easier time selecting the best beer in a flight if there is as little variation as possible.” That makes sense, but it also seems to promote hegemony among the beers entered. It could be argued that style guidelines are decreasing the variation that people expect within beers of a given style and hampering the creativity of brewers. It also makes me question what a gold medal in a category really means. Did the best beer win or is the gold medal an indication that the brewery did the best job of brewing to style? This is a problem when beers aren’t judged strictly on their merits but how they adhere to the style guidelines. Variation from the style – whether positive or negative to the overall enjoyment of a beer – means that you’re beer is not to style and won’t score as well from judges.

Style guidelines are also problematic at a time when the beer industry is undergoing a period of experimentation. The BJCP guidelines only list three IPA subcategories (English, American, Imperial) at a time when Rye IPAs, Belgian IPAs, White IPAs and other IPA variations are becoming increasingly common. Most of these styles would likely get grouped into the BJCP Specialty Beer category, a weird mix of all styles they couldn’t fit anywhere else. It strikes me as odd that a set of guidelines set to limit the variation within styles then puts Kellerbiers, English Strong Ales, Honey Beers and more into one giant category. In my opinion, style guidelines should be constantly changing and updating as new styles come to the fore and hybrids become popular.

Is there an easy solution to the problem of style guidelines? Not really. One solution would be to axe them altogether, but then the judges have free reign to impose their personal ideas of what is to style. It would be nice to see more flexibility within the categories, possibly to allow variations like a Rye IPA into the American IPA category. The Belgian IPA can go into the American IPA category or Belgian Pale Ale – whatever the brewery thinks is suitable. It is important not to lose a rough definition for traditional styles, but it is time to loosen up style guidelines as more breweries playing around with styles and flavours.

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One response to “Evaluating Beer Style Guidelines

  1. You’re a librarian, right?

    Well, beer styles are like the Dewey Decimal system. They are a system of cataloguing information. No more, no less. The important thing to remember is that they have only technically existed as a concept for 35 years, so their stability is somewhat crucial to the continued existence of the body of information that they catalogue.

    The answer to your IPA variants, then, is to add subsections to extant stylistic guidelines such that there is development without compromise of the existing guidelines.

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