23 Feb 2010 @ 9:00 AM 

Not long ago, in a private conversation about what makes a Classic American Pilsner different than a Standard American Lager, I was accused of getting caught up inside the box of style guidelines. While everything was civil I thought it would be a very interesting topic of discussion, so I present it to you here.

The thing is, he’s right. I DO get caught up in the details of style guidelines. It’s probably the years I’ve spent doing database management that makes me like to see things neatly filed into their own little boxes. Of course, if that were entirely true perhaps my desk, office, and closet wouldn’t be such an enormous disaster area. I would probably have things neatly filed away and labeled in really clear ways: “Non-pink-and-scoogy paperclips.” “T-shirts that still fit me.” and “Pants without holes in the crotch.” That kind of thing. And I don’t. Getting dressed in the morning or reaching into any one of my desk drawers is still a game of Russian Roulette that my co-workers have to pay for on a regular basis.

So, if I can’t figure out where my pants are, why should I get so caught up in Style Guidelines? They’re moving targets, at best. Just this weekend I was discussing with a friend where his beer might fit within BJCP style guidelines for an upcoming homebrew competition. Fact is, it could really fit into a few of them given the width of ranges of most of the style definitions.

Here, take a look at these stats which I have cut and pasted directly from the BCJP site:

OG: 1.056 – 1.075
FG: 1.010 – 1.018
IBUs: 40 – 70
SRM: 6 – 15
ABV: 5.5 – 7.5%

OG: 1.050 – 1.075
FG: 1.010 – 1.018
IBUs: 40 – 60
SRM: 8 – 14
ABV: 5 – 7.5%

Just off the top of your head, which one of these is English IPA and which one is American IPA? The primary difference between the styles is where the hops are grown. From a technical standpoint, it’s also when the hops are added. It’s not like one is a lot stronger than the other or more bitter or significantly different looking or anything, or even different in strength.

As an aside, my favorite one to do this with is Saison and Oatmeal Stout:

OG: 1.048 – 1.065
FG: 1.010 – 1.018
IBUs: 25 – 40
ABV: 4.2 – 5.9%

OG: 1.048 – 1.065
FG: 1.002 – 1.012
IBUs: 20 – 35
ABV: 5 – 7%

(I’ll hold the color measurements and let you decide on your own.)

Now, obviously I’m over-simplifying this. The numbers don’t do any sort of justice for what’s really in the style descriptions. Which are things like:

Color may range from rich gold to very dark amber or even dark brown.


High fruitiness with low to moderate hop aroma and moderate to no herb, spice and alcohol aroma. … A low to medium-high spicy or floral hop aroma is usually present.

(I like the “low to moderate hop aroma” followed by “low to medium-high spicy or floral hop aroma” – so low-to-medium that they had to say it twice!)

Barleywine and saison, if you’re wondering.

My point is not that the style guidelines are weird or wrong or too wide or anything like that. If anything, I think they speak volumes to the wonderful variety that is present in beer and what makes it such a superior beverage, especially when paired with food.

No, my point is that getting stuck into style guidelines is:

1) Difficult, since the style guidelines range so widely.
2) Easy, because style guidelines range so widely.

Okay, maybe I’m being a little bit of an asshole, too.

Here’s the deal: The guidelines overlap like CRAZY. I have a chart that I built of all the numbers for all the styles and most of them are practically identical. If you put together all of the “low-to-medium-high” flavor descriptions it’s almost ludicrous how much they sound alike. But I’m here to say that style definitions – and getting stuck in them – serve a huge purpose in craft beer:

They manage your expectations.

Look, the casual drinker on the street doesn’t know or care about BJCP, World Beer Cup, or BA style definitions. They care about being able to pick up something in the store and being able to reliably identify what’s in the package. You want to know why BMC is so popular? Well, go back to the beginning of this paragraph and start over again. Craft beer can learn a lot from this.

So, yeah, I’m stuck in style guidelines. That’s not to say that I don’t do something wildly different every once in a while – I made my own Black IPA recipe up before people started clamoring for this whole “Cascadian Dark” style. I regularly play outside of style guidelines. I love playing with non-traditional ingredients. There’s no other way to move forward than to experiment, play, and indulge in creativity. In fact, that might be the single most important characteristic of the craft beer industry: creativity.

(Honestly? I can’t get behind “Cascadian Dark”. Yes, Black India Pale Ale sounds stupid. But “Cascadian Dark” has the following problems: 1) It suggests Cascade hops. 2) It’s ridiculously regional and totally ignores that 48 other states have breweries and the ability to make dark, hoppy beers. 3) It sounds like it’s made by elves or centaurs or some shit. I could – and may – write a whole column just about this.)

But you need to manage expectations. If someone comes to my taproom/kitchen and pours a beer, I want them to enjoy it. If I made a porter, but I ramped up the roasted grain, gravity, and hop bill through the roof, then I didn’t make a porter. I may have even made an Imperial Stout. But if I give it to people saying, “This is my porter!” then they’re either going to think the wrong thing about porters or think that I’m not very good at making beer when in reality what I suck at is telling them what they’re drinking.

This past weekend, I “judged” at the homebrew festival that I was at. There were no style separations and no information about what kind of beer it was I was drinking. Many times, when I was tasting the beers I was given I found myself thinking: If I knew what style this was supposed to be, I might really like it, but without an expectation built in it’s almost impossible to be able to tell if someone did what I was tasting on purpose or by mistake. It’s hard to tell if something is well-crafted if you don’t know what they were shooting for.

So, touche, sir. You were right. I do get stuck inside guidelines. Constantly. But only so much as I want to tell people what they’re getting. Information helps people enjoy my beer. Part of that information is a concise definition of what they can expect when they raise that glass in front of their eyes, to their nose, and to their lips. If you’re not stuck inside the style guidelines then your customer – the person drinking your beer – has no easy way to appreciate the beautiful thing that you’ve crafted for them.

I’ve heard it said that style labels are a very American sort of thing. That before we started building up all of these style guidelines people just drank beer and they didn’t care if what they were drinking was a porter, a stout, or a brown ale. Style be damned!

I’d like to posit that Americans need to create style definitions because of the breadth of styles we make in our creative marketplace. We’re not bound by regional specialties that are based on what ingredients were historically available in a given area. The American craft beer market is dynamic and exciting and without style definitions I don’t think we’d see nearly the amount of variety we do. Further, I think it’s the very presence of the definitions that allows our customers to appreciate just how dynamic and creative we are, especially when we do play outside the definitions.

Do I think we have to stick to them and get stuck inside of styles, making only beers that meet a certain numerical specification? No. But we need to promote them and use them, because they are the definitions of our success.

Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 23 Feb 2010 @ 09:01 AM



Responses to this post » (15 Total)

  1. Thomas says:

    They also provide a common dialogue starting point, if we both know what a Northern English Brown are and I say I make mine with rye, I am giving you something you should be able to imagine. I am not a style Nazi, but appreciate them for a baseline to work from.

  2. Russ says:

    We call it a Cascadian Dark because calling it a Hopped-Up Black might get us beat down in a few neighborhoods…

  3. christopher says:

    The other reason BMC is so popular is our dulled sense of taste and desire for sameness. A McDonalds hamburger will taste the same no matter where you are by design. This is the same reason the new McDonalds super-spicy chicken is neither spicy nor super. There is a huge population that just wants to know exactly what they are getting even if its bland. Craft beer has the advantage of going for that inner sliver of the venn diagram.

    Since I’m almost as new to beer as to brewing I continue to struggle with the guidelines. They are what beer is; Apollo and Dionysus – order and chaos. It seems stupid that two wildly different beers should have basically the same description or a “mild to high” attribute. At the same time the guidelines are an invaluable reference while figuring out a recipe. “Guideline” is a good term, neither completely fixed nor rigid and gray areas all between.

  4. Jimmy says:

    If you went to the ice cream shop and none of the 31 flavors had any labels on them, that would be dumb.

    If every ice cream shop in town had a different name for butter pecan, that would be even dumber.

    If you went to the ice cream shop across town (because they do name their ice cream) and they only had “out of the box” flavors like Black Pecan (butter pecan with chocolate!), that would be the dumbest thing ever.

    Eventually you’d give up on eating ice cream because just trying to get what it is you wanted in the first place would be too annoying.

    This applies to pretty much everything in the modern world. Music, cars, food. Why should beer be any different?

    • christopher says:

      I doubt many homebrewers would give up ice cream. Instead they’d start making it themselves and dream of one day opening their own ice cream shop.

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  5. Sarah says:

    You know what else would be annoying? (to follow up on Jimmy’s analogy) An ice cream shop that advertised a “new!” kind of vanilla ice cream with extra cool ingredients that turned out to be nothing but butter pecan. Except they didn’t know butter pecan already existed because they’d never read the ice cream recipe book all the way through.

  6. meg says:

    I’ve been meaning to ask – how about a Best Bitter t-shirt from TopFermented?

    Also, I had no idea Boddy’s is a bitter!

    Also also, I couldn’t agree more about expectations informing/shaping the reaction & perception of the consumer. Taste is so much more than physical. I think this is why I find blind tastings both interesting and frustrating.

  7. erik says:

    Best Bitter! I’ll make one up. 🙂

  8. Erik,

    Agreed on the style guidelines. Working definitions for what styles are would be nice. To me, it’s a bit like a language. Rules are descriptive and not prescriptive. it tells you what’s happens normally but not with complete rigidity. All I mean is that there is a degree of normalcy (aka rules) that have occasional exceptions. If you are in a situation where the said style is being made, then there needs to be some level of expectation as to what defines said style. If not, then you must identify it as an exception to the rule. Your point of about consumer expectation and confidence is an important one. Other points in the marketplace don’t allow the same fluidity as we do with craft beer. I can’t imagine a Flank steak being sold under the name of a Filet.

    Normative expectation is not a bad thing and there ought to be something out there.

  9. One more thing I want to mention. I know you already know this but Stout came to mind. When traditional porter was being pushed beyond normal, it was given the name stout porter to distinguish it from normal/brown. Finally, it became it’s own style. It seems that this used to happen more naturally then now. Was the public more informed? The brewer more meticulous? The world of beer (and the world in general) less convoluted? No doubt the range of styles and types has become more complex, which creates all the more need for definitions…and perhaps a few more categories as well.

  10. erik says:

    You know what else I’m reminded of? A little axiom that I remember from some writing class I was in years, and years ago when someone (probably me) was trying to do some sort of artistic writing crap and the teacher said:

    Stop. You can’t do this now. Once you know the rules and you can demonstrate that you know the rules? Then you can break them.

  11. Nate says:

    There’s much I can add to this…the last few comments and the writing class metaphor are spot on. An old friend emailed me and said that he brewed his first batch of beer and that it turned out horrible. Apparently he added profuse amounts of peaches and coffee grounds. Yes, know the styles before you breech them.

    The more I brew and the more I learn about beer, the more I respect guidelines and rules, even if I stray from time to time.

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