Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Beer styles: relic of the past, or cherished tradition?

Since the boom in homebrewing and breweries started in the early 1980's, a lot of new styles have emerged, and  the freedom the (home)brewers have enjoyed in creating their beers have made a good number of people question the need for styles altogether. Before we tackle that question though, we need to look at some of the facts (and some of my own more subjective opinions, for what they're worth).

Great chart from the pop chart lab.
The American craft beer revolution definitely has impacted the world of beer. But there have been other places as well where movements, similar to the American craft beer movement, have come up more or less independent. In Belgium, for instance, a number of very small breweries started to challenge the 'traditional' beers, and added new tastes. Similar moves happened in other countries as well. It is helpful to note that the American craft movement really broke through only in the last 3 or so years. After a slump between 2000 and 2006, the number of breweries started to bounce back again, and Craft Beer somehow became part of the mainstream. Every self-respecting restaurant or bar, for instance, has at least some craft beers on their lists (I know, a lot of room for improvement, notably on the vision behind the beers, and teaching the bars and restaurants that there is so much more to craft beer than to treat it just as the hot novel thing). People are now much more aware that craft beer exists, and that is huge. The exchange with other breweries around the world has really come up in these last few years as well. You see Belgian breweries making American styles, or beers mainly intended for the American market (IPA's, Belgian IPA's, sours, saisons,...) and those new flavor profiles and vision is trickling down to the beers they make for their local drinkers as well. Some of my friends in Belgium tell me that they really like the more bitter beers (meaning the IPA's), brewed with hop varieties hereto unknown to them (Simcoe, Cascade,...).

With this explosion of growth and the continued new discoveries of so many beer drinking people, it isn't but normal that the old styles are shaking in their foundations, being challenged, replaced, added onto, etc. Some people think that is the new norm, in a very post-modern worldview that does not really like 'strict rules'. But I would contend they are mistaken, and that this is only a phase of finding a new equilibrium. One that in a later period of time can be challenged of course, but a new equilibrium nonetheless.

People mistake freedom as 'absence of rules', where that absence would only be the worst kind of nihilism. True freedom is having rules in place, but with the ability to choose whether or not to follow them. Beer styles work the same way. A brewer is under no circumstances obliged to follow any set of style guidelines, does not need to understand the tradition and heritage from any given beer style or substyle he or she wants to brew. But it offers a much deeper understanding of their craft, that more often than not will allow them to make better beers.

To me, beer styles are like different cuisines. Each has their own traditions, styles, history, a different understanding of the ingredients and flavors and how to put them together. If you want to name your beer a 'Belgian Triple', you can follow that tradition and understanding closely, or give it a twist by applying them more loosely. But there is a point where your beer will cease to be a Belgian triple or a triple altogether, which is something you as brewer need to understand and acknowledge (by no longer calling it a Belgian Triple, to begin with). An overly assertive hopped triple is not a Belgian Triple, regardless of the yeast you used. It will be a pale ale, leaning closer to IPA. A triple derives most of its flavor and character from the yeast and the way the malt was treated, not from hops. Understand that, and you can make awesome triples, even playing with the new hop styles as you now know how these hops can add to the beer, in a supportive role, not leading. Similarly, adding too many jalape├▒os to a shepperd pie, will make it much less a British dish and more of a Mexican or fusion type dish. You can do it, it might taste delicious, but it isn't British anymore.

The FAQ section of the BJCP website has the following paragraph:
The groupings in the Style Guidelines are somewhat arbitrary, and often did not represent a unanimous decision of those on the Style Committee who worked on the document. There are two conflicting schools of thought represented in the guidelines. The first says that Style Guidelines should describe beer in the way you would think about it historically, or the way you would teach it in a study class. Similar to a Michael Jackson book, subcategories of beers should always belong to a logical style family from which they are derived. The other school of thought says that subcategory descriptions are the vital notion, and that style categories are simply logical groupings of similar beers for purposes of judging. This group believes that beers from many style families can be combined into judging categories so as to reduce the sensory differences a judge will encounter in judging a single flight from that category.
As you might have guessed by now, I am firmly in the first school of thought. Beer styles are not solely there to help judge a beer in competition, but to tell the drinker what to expect. The style designation will give a lot of information about where it comes from, it's history and tradition. It is a way to respect all the brewers before us, who put their heart and soul in their brews, making them unique, to the point of becoming a style. Honor them in their achievement, and find new ways of brewing to create your own style (you'll find that very hard, and will gain new respect for the brewers of old). Above all, do not hijack an existing style to hide your own limited grasp of the rich diversity of beer.

So, drink your beer tonight, with a toast to the old brewmaster, and enjoy the brilliance of how they managed to create a style, with all those elements and ingredients so well put together to offer you that well balanced and rich brew you're sipping.

* The first image is a chart from the Pop Chart Lab. Check out their site to purchase a print from this great beer style chart!

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