What’s your style?

You say tom – ay – to

Beer styles. Lager, Pilsner, India Pale Ale, Pale Ale, Session Pale, Bitter, Extra Special Bitter, Wheat Beer, Doppelbock, Lambic. You name it, there’s a beer style for it. Beer Advocate defines beer style as:

“Simply put, a beer style is a label given to a beer that describes its overall character and often times its origin. It’s a name badge that has been achieved over many centuries of brewing, trial and error, marketing, and consumer acceptance.”

A name badge.

The Beer Judge Certification Program’s current (2015) take on style is the following:

“The goals of the new edition are to better address world beer styles as found in their local markets, keep pace with emerging craft beer market trends, describe historical beers now finding a following, better describe the sensory characteristics of modern brewing ingredients, take advantage of new research and references, and help competition organisers better manage the complexity of their events” (p. iv).

Trained beer judges make perfect sense; unlike some competitions in the UK, where the experience levels vary and where discussions end up changing votes — taste is subjective, but it’s funny how a strong personality might be able to sway a whole table of judges, not always for the best. More knowledge and training in recognising off flavours can only be a good thing, of course not only where competitions are concerned.

It should be noted that competitions are frequently ‘pay to play’, which means that breweries pay anywhere between £100 and £200 to ensure that their beer gets some sort of stamp of approval. Yes, everyone one wins something. International Beer Challenge? Not much of a challenge if you’re assured a medal of some sort.

In the wine world, the IWSC functions similarly, it looks good if the wine can have a fancy medal rosette on the label; a selling point.

I say tom -ah – to

One of my favourite style-related stories is perhaps the tale of Fuller’s Extra Special Bitter. Introduced in 1971, it has since won many accolades, including a Gold medal at the 2006 World Beer Cup. Four years later, at that very same competition, the same beer was “disqualified… as not being to style (p. 134).” The mind boggles. Fullers is ESB, ESB is Fullers. A glimpse into the absurdity of style management.

Interestingly, brewer Chris Lohring, of Notch Brewing in Salem, Massachusetts, noted recently on Twitter that “2017, the year that beer styles die”. I see little evidence of this, really. Given the propensity for pun-laden, theme-driven, location-driven beer names* in the industry, a style descriptor might be the only way to figure out what a beer may or may be or taste like. There’s never a guarantee, of course, but some sort of shorthand is needed to tell the customer what he or she is about to purchase. A frame of reference, if you will.

Furthermore, breweries love to dive into brewing archives, be it via the help of Ron Pattinson or within their own research and development. Arguably, some styles have been brought back from the brink due brewer’s interests in them (Gose and Berlinerweisse come to mind immediately). Is that a bad thing? Probably not, they have proven to be quite popular.

To some, the BCJP style guidelines may seem a bit over the top, but they encourage judges to ‘keep an open mind (p.59)‘ especially when judging speciality beers. The BJCP lists 34 style categories, but at the 2016 GABF, there were winners in 97 style categories. I realise that not all breweries get a chance to compete at GABF, or are even interested in doing so, but many will want to do so. SIBA, the Society of Independent Brewers, only uses 10 categories in its keg competition, 9 in the cask competition, and 10 for small pack. Interestingly, “the use of non-typical yeast is not warranted as being enough for entry into this category” (p.1)  — this applies to all packaging formats. If I understand this correctly, a session Brett Pale is not a goer, it would seem.

Most likely, we’ll see more New England-style IPAs here this year (juicy, lower on bitterness, and hazy), as well as a lot of barrel-aged beers. Garrett Oliver reckons sour beers will gain further mainstream popularity But there have also been calls to “revisit forgotten beer styles and refresh unpopular ones, even if they’re not the flavor du jour.”

Craft milds and bitters, and of course, ESBs (please omit the crystal malt) anyone?

What do you think? (Leave a comment or give us a tweet @MaltingFloor). Thanks for reading.

* I chose these examples randomly, this is not a value judgment of the branding and naming styles of these breweries at all. Remembering beer names is a challenge for many.

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