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What’s in a style? And are you in ‘Raptures’ over them?

May 22, 2011

OK, as far as I can tell there was no Rapture yesterday, so since I am still able to, I thought I should go ahead and blog about the Rapture’s relationship with beer styles – yes, there IS a relationship between the two – well, sort of!

What’s in a style? Well a bit like religion, that depends on who one asks. In the USA the BJCP identifies around 80 beer styles (plus Meads & Ciders), the Brewers Association identifies a bewildering list of close to 150 , beeradvocate.com identifies over 100, ratebeer.com identifies slightly less, and umpteen other organizations all numbers in between and beyond. Even if we could agree on an actual number of styles that exist (which we clearly cannot), we then get into impossible arguments of taxonomy, derivation and historical relationships which can never really be fully resolved. Take a look at this tiny sampling of efforts to organize things (some more serious than others) that illustrate the profound difficulties in attempting to do this.

The Beeriodic Table 1

The Beeriodic Table 2

Beer Styles Spectrum as seen at ‘The Beer Sessions“.

Beer Style Chart as produced by Fastcodesign

Beer Styles in a Google Docs Spreadsheet

Michael Jackson’s Beer Style Index

The German Beer Institute Styles

If you ask a beer historian about the difference between a stout and a porter all hell can break loose. Even the modern (and pretty convenient) categorization of beer into the gross groups of ‘Ale’ and ‘Lager’ can produce heated arguments. Don’t even get people started on Cascadian Black Ales versus (the ludicrous) ‘Black’ IPA’s’, and rest assured there are a thousand and one other arguments that can erupt when discussing the classification of beer.

Amongst the carnage of disorganization in front of us, there is one constant that serves us well when thinking about styles of beer, i.e. the acceptance that at this stage of beer evolution there really is nothing new that can be brewed. Even beers which claim to be the ‘innovative’, first examples of a new style, are really only extensions and bastardizations of the already well-established spectrum. It’s also perfectly clear from the abundance of attempts to classify beer in charts and diagrams, that from their complex, confused relationships, plus the arguments that ensue when this subject is brought up, that there are indeed style boundaries that are not clear and that the blurred divisions between any two (or perhaps even three or four different styles) can vary tremendously and get very fuzzy. HOWEVER…

…despite all of my admissions about the difficulty associated with styles and their boundaries, my firm belief is that there ARE limits, and style boundaries should NOT be an anarchic, free-for-all where anything goes.

It really ISN’T OK to bottle a dark beer that includes roasted malts that has a significant amount of brett character, that results in a mouth-puckering, acidic character and STILL call it a stout; it’s simply NOT OK to load an unfiltered, German wheat beer with a massive amount of hop bitterness, in the process removing all of the banana & clove notes and STILL call it a Hefeweizen; and it’s really NOT OK to humongously over-hop a malt-based, biscuity, subtle English style bitter, make it 10% ABV and STILL call it a classic ESB. It’s misleading to consumers, takes a bunch of liberties with commonsense and frankly abuses tradition.

Of course there’s nowhere on the planet where such cavalier attitudes are applied toward beer styles more than in the US. There is an acceptance (and perhaps in some cases even an expectation) that brewers will, at least somewhere in their portfolio, produce a ‘crazy’ beer that blows away all style conventions and is ‘innovative’ (despite the fact it’s really all been done before). The usual tack for justifying the madness is, ‘if it tastes good, why not?”. OK, fair enough I can live with that to a degree and indeed I have been full of praise for some such brews from breweries like Dogfish Head in the past, BUT all too often it just DOESN’T (taste good)! Too often these beers are in bad taste (in both senses of the phrase) and represent a crass, ignorant reincarnation of a great, traditional style that (importantly) does not add to the genre but serious detracts from it. When brewers start to include bizarre ingredients that make beers assigned to one style simply NOT taste anything like that style, that’s a problem. In fact it actually gets annoying, especially when the beer doesn’t do what it says on the label.

I blame the First Amendment and the mindset that it fosters in the US. For those of you that don’t know, the First Amendment to the constitution of the United States essentially guarantees free-speech. A very noble goal that is rooted deep in well-meaning, but at its heart flawed when taken to extremes. Consider the Westboro Baptist Church and their hateful campaign of picketing the funerals of American servicemen that was recently upheld in the Supreme Court of the US. Even otherwise sane Americans will defend this decision saying that it (the right to free-speech) is at the heart of everything, well, ‘American’. Non-Americans that otherwise admire such noble goals as free-speech like myself, will look at that decision with utter horror and simply say that this is NOT the top of a slippery slope and that this simply doesn’t make sense. They will say that people CAN distinguish between genuine free-speech and hateful insanity WITHOUT jeopardizing the whole of the USA and its constitution. That’s why Westboro Baptist Church was banned from the UK!

It seems to be the same with beer styles in America. People defend the right of brewers to play fast and loose with beer styles in the name of ‘freedom of expression’ when commonsense tells us that more often than not, it produces a crazy, nonsensical mess. It’s often covered by the associated, “It’s extreme so it must be good” school of thought (as well as, ‘let ’em do what they like’), but when a beer is created that breaks all conventions within a style but still carries the moniker, then the very history and tradition that got us here is being abused. That’s to say nothing of the difficulty that it presents for the customer as they get the beer home and find something in the bottle that is ridiculously removed from the original style noted on the label. In just the same way, applying commonsense  and avoiding the total freedom of associating ANY style monikers with ANY beer will not cause a sudden stifling of creativity amongst American brewers (no matter how much I might WANT that!), but rather it might restore a degree of sanity to certain beer makers and their products.

Now before anyone loses their mind over this analogy I should make it clear that it is made firmly with tongue in cheek, is apropos since we are coming off the weekend Rapture predictions by the Californian Family Radio crowd, and I am most definitely NOT attempting to liken the (according to all reports) most venerable and charming Sam Calagione with the astonishing hateful Fred Phelps, but I am saying that a tolerance of ANYTHING & EVERYTHING in the USA does lead to extreme madness at the extreme ends of ANY spectrum, and that underneath the apparent oddity of the analogy, there is a certain element of truth about its application to beer styles in the US.

I suppose that all of this does provoke the classic ‘American’ question, ‘who the hell are you to tell me (where style boundaries CAN be extended to and where they CAN’T be extended to)?’. My answer is simply, ‘pull yourself together and get a grip’, or less provocatively, ‘be sensible’. There’s no need to equate my appeal for style-restraint with a call for communist style conformity, but I bet it’ll happen!

Although this piece may suggest otherwise, I do not feel like (or consider myself to be a member of) the style police. On the contrary. I’m experienced enough to know that beer style boundaries are indeed flexible, but the beer-sane amongst us know that there ARE limits that make sense, and that speaking up for some of those artisanal cornerstones will ensure the sustainability of beer into the long-distance future. That’s the key. Traditional exists for a reason, and the erosion of, and riding roughshod over, the styles that have brought us to this point in time, ultimately I fear, has the potential to breed a whole new generation of beer folk with no clue about the historical significance of some styles and no appreciation for them. That’s not good, and ultimately I will not paint a bright future for beer in the US even if it doesn’t ultimately mean the end of the world!

Now, where’s that bottle of Unibroue, Fin du Monde?


  1. MildAleBrewer

    ” that a tolerance of ANYTHING & EVERYTHING in the USA does lead to extreme madness at the extreme ends of ANY spectrum”

    That’s what keeps us on our toes. We like it that way. Always have. Always will.

    • Ding

      Oh believe me I know, and see it everyday. It’s one of the quintessential American traits and is both a curse and a blessing for you.

  2. jazzyfool

    I disagree with a lot of what you say, but always respect it. You back up your opinions well and I can’t fault you for being outspoken.

    I find in this case it seems like if what the brewers are doing isn’t harming you, just let it be. If the beer sucks then don’t buy it. Buy what you like, drink what you like and if brewers want to do stupid stuff with styles let it be. Surely there’s people who enjoy these experiments (typically not me) and isn’t it in their right to have whatever crazy concoction they want?

    If I’ve misunderstood, and you’re more saying that the labeling of these crazy/extreme beers as the standard styles is the issue at play here then thats a different argument. We (humans) like to categorize things. Genres, styles, stereotypes. It’s not a great way to do things but it makes discussion, classification and organization easier. I understand disliking a brewer’s 10% beer that’s called an ESB. But, what would you have them call it? Are we going to add Imperial to everything? Imperial ESB? What about a hoppy Hefe? Imperial Hefe? Do we create a new style to fit what people are doing, or allow them to work under these style guidelines with the understanding that they are straying for the typical basic definition of it?

    I guess I’m just saying don’t get so riled up – relax, enjoy what you like and ignore the rest. Live and let live and if someone calls something they shouldn’t then don’t buy it. Speak with your wallet.

    • Ding

      Thanks for the thoughtful reply.

      It really IS more to do with labeling, BUT I have to say that I fear for the future sustainability since a whole generation of beer geeks are being brought up on hype, and are failing to connect with beer in its intended, low-key, everyday way.

  3. JHM

    I think it’d be helpful if you did a post with some common beer styles and brewers/beers that you think typify that style – preferably beers that are more widely distributed.

  4. bryan

    I agree that there is no excuse for mislabeled beers but if that 10% Hoppy ESB is really a very nice American or English barley wine I’m probably still going to enjoy it. I think this has more to do with some breweries failure to put even basic information about their beer on the label.

    Most American wineries list flavor descriptors, terroir information, grapes used, and techniques used in the making of the wine. Unfortunately until the American public catches on to good beer most breweries are not going to put this information.

    Of course this is Ding’s beer blog, but I think a lot of the comments you have made on Americans over doing beers are pretty subjective. The Belgians and French have been brewing unexpected examples of styles for far longer than the US.

    With any form of art there are people who are going to like certain examples of that art, and people who are going to hate certain examples of that art, and people are going to forever argue whether a piece of art fits into a certain style, whether it craps all over tradition, or whether it is even art.

    Lastly, here is an interesting and short essay by Brian Hunt on American beer styles, and their future development, I’d love to hear what you think about it.


    • Ding

      Re: Brian’s article.

      Thanks for pointing me to that. To be honest though, it’s too late – it’s all been done! Just an accident of history that American has to live with.

      • Dan

        Er, I think Brian’s point is that it’s only all been done in the context of supposedly traditional European styles and their variants. What would a wild ale from the Connecticut River valley be like, if it weren’t attempting to imitate a Belgian style of some sort?

        Ding, as I said before, I usually agree with you but the one area where I think we differ most is that what you refer to as “traditional” beer styles are to me actually just a snapshot in time and space, or at any rate several such snapshots. Beer was different before that and in other lands, so why should it not be different in the future?

      • Ding

        It most certainly CAN be different, but just don’t call it something that it’s not.

  5. Jaxbeerlover (azorie)

    It’s really funny we will have to meet up someday, both of us seem to think alike.

    I know I posted something similar on BA once and it as expected did not go ever as well. Of course I did not bring in the 1st amendment or those Church nuts, still I totally agree. But as many have said you just have to just ignore them, kids will play. Sooner or later things will settle out, it might take 20 to 40 years, but sooner or later, regular folks will get sick of all the barrel aged, imperial nonsense and just want a decent ale at a regular price.

    Take the 2 local breweries that opened up here (please they both suck). Neither one can brew a beer to style yet or even to the excepted normal ale that you think any home brewer type might be exposed to. Why I guess its just an American thing you have to be different even if your the 50th hamburger stand in town you have to have a twist , something different. Heck I think its even taught in marketing school here in the States.

    Anyway I learned I can bitch about it all I want too, and nothing will change, or just drink what I do like and hope that the sells numbers will force them to give up on extreme and crappy beers. If you ever read any of my old posts (on BA) you see I have bought up similar topics in the past.

    Anyway I get the humor and the dry wit, good stuff.


  6. Scott

    I have to agree on this one. As a consumer, I dislike buying something based on a label when the contents are nothing like what is expected based on said label.

    If a brewer wants to brew something that does not fit neatly into an established category, that is their decision. Please do not label it as something it is not. This does not require the creation of new styles, only a few words on the bottle describing the beer – such as the New Belgium approach with the Lips of Faith beers. Of course, for a lot of these special releases and one-offs all that is needed for a description is “Not worth drinking”.

    • Blackdog

      I agree with the central point of your thesis, that descriptors of beerso need to fit within proscribed definitions. Words mean specific things. I don’t much mind if a brewer makes a beer that doesn’t fit BJCP definitions, so long as the brewer tells me what is inside the bottle, with a reasonable degree of accuracy.

      I also agree that things like “Black IPA” are historical farces. I was once served a beer that was described to me as an Imperial ESB, and was disappointed with the brewer playing fast and loose with the ESB name.

  7. Brian Yaeger

    Great blog from the topics to the clarity of your positions. In some ways, I’m as liberal as they get, but in a good number of ways I’m old fashionedly conservative, which is why I agree with things like a sour dark beer should not be called/labeled stout or that a 10% anything shouldn’t be dubbed ESB. Funny how a lot of commenters above didn’t get that, at the heart of it, you’re not saying those beers shouldn’t be brewed, just that the brewers shouldn’t be misleading (or, really, lazy in their naming). Then again, I may be one of the few American beer geeks out there who genuinely enjoys (and often prefers) ESBs (not just cask but even when they’ve been carbonated). Grand Teton used to make a great ESB (Bitch Creek). Then at some point they bottled a Double Bitch Creek and I couldn’t get down with it. Now the Bitch Creek is a bit darker and 6% and they’ve wisely started calling it an Extra Special Brown (and winning medals in the brown category, not ESB).

    I seem to have derailed myself, but who really reads till the end of anything anymore anyway?


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