Beer Styles are intended as a way to respectfully segregate various beers. The intent, I suppose, is the same as the intent behind classification in any scientific endeavor: that is, it’s a combination of the geek’s desire to classify things and the connoisseur’s desire to avoid having to directly answer the question, “Is Stone’s IPA better than Avery’s Samael?”
The guidelines, though, have inherent shortcomings, and they seem to become more prevalent as I continue this Learning About Beer quest.
In typical Internet, bullet-point fashion, I’ll expand.
- No two style guides quite agree
Just like the Chicago Manual of Style and The Elements of Style don’t always agree, the two major sources of beer style guides don’t either. Beertown’s guide, for instance, separates Wood and Barrel-aged Sour Beers into a category, while the BJCP style guide has only a few entries on sours, and no mention of wood-aged sours being worth a separate category.
- There are dozens of different sets of guidelines
Michael Jackson has one of the most extensive sets that doesn’t claim to be official, but nearly every beer author has a slightly different take on beer styles. This is particularly true for the “fringe” classifications, like wild ales.
- Style guidelines my stifle brewer creativity
The real enthusiasts will say that people who want to be creative will do so regardless of the existence of style guidelines, but it’s hard to deny that many brewers will start their careers trying to brew a book-perfect American Pale. Whether this stifles long-term creativity, I’m not going to speculate, but the argument is out there.
- Style guidelines may complicate beer judging more than they simplify it
Guidelines help codify styles, sure, but what do you do when Avery Brewing wants to submit their SIXTEEN to a competition? It fits the style guidelines for a Saison… almost. The alcohol content is too high to fit the BJCP style. Do they have to enter it into Belgian Special Dark Ales as the guidelines imply, to compete with the likes of completely different beers? Rigid guidelines make it easy to answer this question, but not easy for the creative brewer to get good feedback or categorization of their unique brew.
The core issue here are that guidelines can’t keep pace with brewer creativity.
I say this as someone seriously investigating the time it would take to become a beer judge, and as a scientist that respects the desire and purpose of classification. There are billions of beers waiting to be made out there — are we going to try to create guidelines for every one?