Sunday, April 27, 2008

Style creep: a modest proposal

Story 1
A few years ago, I ran into Greg Hall of Goose Island Brewery at the Great American Beer Festival. He laughed when I congratulated him on his Gold Medal in the English-style Summer Ale category. "I'm certain to read judges' comments that we brewed ours 'to style'," he said. "Who even knows what an English-style Summer Ale is?"

Story 2
A few days ago, I proudly informed the manager of a Maryland wine-and-beer store that Clipper City Brewing's Winter Storm 'Category 5 Ale' had just received a Gold Medal in the International Pale Ale category at the prestigious World Beer Cup.

He laughed, and asked me, "What's an International Pale Ale?"

Style Creep

In answer, the World Beer Cup responds this way:

Recognizing the creativity, uniqueness and variety of pale ales produced by innovative brewers throughout the world, entries in this subcategory may represent variations on classic English pale ale or American pale ale beer styles. <...> Many brewers choose to maintain the overall beer character of a particular style [English or American pale ale], but use new hop types, resulting in new interpretations of “traditional” styles of beer which have unique or non-traditional hop flavor or aroma characters.

Huh? International Pale Ale appears to be a style in search of a beer. This year, the World Beer Cup recognized 91 style categories. That's a creeping proliferation that dilutes the very intrinsic value and meaning of those styles.

Hugh Sisson, owner of Clipper City Brewing, earlier this year blogged this:
I also have no idea why we need 3 different categories for wood aged beer, 3 different categories for Pilsners, 4 different variations for English style pale ale/bitter, and 6 different versions of stout – just to name a few.

It is becoming almost as challenging deciding in which category to enter your beer as it is actually producing the beer. In my opinion that kind of misses the point.


In the 1970s, Michael Jackson trail-blazed the idea of beer styles for us, promulgating the idea as geographical types. Prior to him, there had been very little formal recognition of such differences.

In 1989, author Fred Eckhardt refined that recognition by color, body, and flavor in his concise treatise, The Essentials of Beer Style. Note that Eckhardt employs the singular "Style" in his title. He's describing the manner in which beers are different rather than ponderously listing beer vogues-of-the- moment.

Here's UK blogger Ron Pattinson, whom I've now quoted twice in one day:
Permanent revolution - as Trotsky advocated - is far more applicable. Beer styles change because society, legislation and economic circumstances change. I haven't even started on the effect of geography.

Compiling an all-inclusive, detailed set of style guidelines is a Stalinist fantasy. Every time a brewer successfully jumps over the wire, a new style is born. Pursue that path and you end up with hundreds of beer styles. In 2006 the GABF had 69 categories. Who wants to bet when they will hit 100? Will they stop then? I doubt it.

So what are you - a beer Stalinist or Trotskyist?

Even Bigger Great American Beer Festival

The festival has added 11 new styles for this year's competition (Denver, October 2008), almost fulfilling Mr. Pattinson's prediction.
  • Fresh Hop Ale
  • American-Belgo Style Ales
  • Leipzig-Style Göse
  • Belgian-Style Blonde Ale
  • Australasian-Style Pale Ale
  • Out of Category-Traditionally Brewed Beers
  • Wood- and Barrel-Aged Beer
  • Wood- and Barrel-Aged Pale to Amber Beer
  • Wood- and Barrel-Aged Dark Beer
  • Wood- and Barrel-Aged Strong Beer
  • Wood- and Barrel-Aged Sour Beer

A Modest Proposal

Scrap the styles as they are now.

Both the World Beer Cup and the Great American Beer Festival are celebrations of craft beers. But they are more than that.

Organized by the advocacy group for small US breweries, the Brewers Association, these festivals are promotions of the business of craft beer. To that end, let's make them more powerful and effective: to increase sales.

For the Great American Beer Festival, let's scrap the categories as they are now —appealing to beer geeks —and come up with styles meaningful to consumers. The current miasma of nit-picked styles means little to most of them.

Create a nationally-derived ad hoc committee of brewers and authors and academicians and retailers (and, gasp, consumers) to do so. Put their results to an extended period of public comment.

Next, let's dispense with the medal triad of gold, silver, and bronze. As much as I despise numerical scores, in this case —to promote business sales— scores might be preferable.

As it is now, a brewery may receive a score a mere point behind a bronze medalist ... and not be recognized for its effort. From a stance of promoting beer sales, that makes little sense. Wouldn't it make more business sense to allow dozens of breweries to display their acumen, with scores in the 90s? The literal winner could still be recognized as supreme in its category.

As to the judging itself: if the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) is to be the certification requirement, it needs to be brought under the aegis of the breweries. If such an annexation is unacceptable to that organization, the commercial brewing community needs to create its own program and requirements.

For the World Beer Cup, I would propose all of the above, but in concert with brewers' associations from all participating nations. If that would mean that the United States' Brewers Association would lose some control (financial and organizational), that might be a price to pay for a truly international competition.

In Clone-clusion

Winter Storm Category 5 Ale is a delicious beer, and I congratulate the brewers of Clipper City Brewing Company for their skill and creativity.

But, until the next World Beer Cup —which occurs in 2010— if you wish to brew an "International Pale Ale", you'll need to clone Winter Storm. It's indeed the paradigm of the style ... or so the judges say.

The wanton breeding of new beer styles needs a prophylactic.


Caveat: I am employed by the Clipper City Brewing Company. However, most of the opinions here are my own.

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