The Essence of Style: Understanding Beer Styles

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Editor’s Note

This excerpt from Brewing Better Beer by Gordon Strong has been lightly edited for length and style.

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By Gordon Strong

Beer styles are part of a structured method for categorizing and describing beer. They are intended to be a convenient shorthand for discussing beer, and to allow all who taste the beer to be able to describe it using a common framework and language. A beer style is simply a structured definition of a certain type of beer that may have originated in a certain country, region, or city, or be known by its color, strength, ingredients, process, or flavor profile. It’s the quick response given when someone asks you, “What kind of beer is this?”

Beer style descriptions are typically organized into a comprehensive set of style guidelines, which can add another layer of structure by categorizing the styles into related groupings. The most common set of guidelines for homebrewers is the BJCP Style Guidelines, which are used in most homebrew competitions. The Brewers Association publishes guidelines for commercial competitions it sponsors, and several beer-rating websites (such as Beer Advocate) maintain their own guidelines. Beer writers often have their own categories; in fact, most modern style guidelines are based on the early writings of Michael Jackson and Fred Eckhardt.

In subsequent discussions, I’m using the BJCP Style Guidelines as my frame of reference since they are the most widely used beer guidelines for homebrewers. Those guidelines don’t describe every beer style made in the world but do include those most entered in homebrew competitions. The guidelines are based on currently acknowledged, world-class commercial examples, historical references to styles no longer brewed, and writings of noted beer researchers and journalists.

The Purpose of Beer Styles

Most style guidelines are created with a purpose in mind. The guidelines of the BJCP and the Brewers Association are designed to assist competitions by providing a frame of reference for brewers and judges, and by grouping together similar beer styles for judging purposes. Without beer styles, competitions would be nearly impossible to conduct. Judging would simply become a hedonistic event, where judges would pick beers according to their own personal preferences. The outcome would be totally arbitrary and would depend on the background and whims of those who judge the beers—not a desirable situation.

Style guidelines from consumer-oriented organizations are meant to provide an easy way to discuss beer and to compare similar commercial examples. Beer writers group beer so they can tell a story, usually discussing how styles were developed and how they are currently made. Whichever set of guidelines are chosen as a reference, be sure you understand why they were created and try to use them for their intended purpose. Problems arise when this advice is not followed.

For some professional brewers (and even homebrewers), even mentioning the subject of beer styles is like waving a red flag in front of a bull. Some beer enthusiasts support the idea of beer styles but strongly disagree with particular style descriptions or sets of guidelines. These strong responses are generally either based on a misunderstanding of the purpose of the guidelines, on observations of them being used incorrectly, or on a dislike of the person or group making the guidelines. These contentious issues are what led me to call beer styles a misunderstood necessity.

Some professional brewers look at the style guidelines as limiting, as if they are telling them how and what to brew. Nothing could be further from the truth; style guidelines are an attempt to categorize what brewers are brewing or what has historically been brewed. The guidelines take in the range of world-class examples and the characteristics that make these beers taste so good. Most individual beer styles have quite a wide range and allow for significant brewer creativity.

Guidelines naturally evolve over time as consumers’ tastes and commercial examples change. New styles emerge, while others tend to fade away and be forgotten. Some brewers continually push the envelope and try to create new and unique beers. Those are best judged on their own individualistic merits as Specialty Beers, the catch-all category in the style guidelines where creativity is king.

Even if the notion of style guidelines is not something you accept, understand that most craft beer aficionados will use beer styles to communicate. If you ask a bartender in a good pub, “Do you have any IPAs?” you should expect him to tell you about his hoppiest beers. If you go to a beer store and ask, “Can you recommend a stout?” then you should expect to be led to the dark beers. If you go to Belgium and ask for a tripel, you should ask if they got your order right if they hand you a glass of brown beer. Styles exist, even if people just think of them as “type of beer.”

Understanding BJCP Terms

The BJCP Style Guidelines use some specific terms with specialized meanings that might not be immediately obvious; the most important terms are Category, Subcategory, and Style. When thinking of beer, mead, and cider styles, the subcategory is the most important label—subcategory means essentially the same thing as style and identifies the major characteristic of one type of beer, mead, or cider.

The larger style categories are arbitrary groupings of beers, meads, or ciders, usually with similar character or historical ties. However, some subcategories are not necessarily related to others within the same category. If there is ever any confusion about inferring some attribute by how a beer is categorized, always defer to the specific descriptions for each subcategory.

The purpose of the structure within the BJCP Style Guidelines is to group styles of beer, mead, and cider for competition purposes—do not attempt to derive additional meaning from these category groupings. Seemingly unrelated beers may be grouped according to sensory impact. They don’t all have historical or regional ties, yet they are judged together so as to minimize variation in palate impact that judges would experience.

The ‘Narrowness’ of Styles

Some styles are quite well known, others are historical notions, while still others are artificial creations for the purpose of categorizing relatively unique beers or for grouping similar beers for judging purposes. That said, there is a notion of narrowness of style that applies to the variation between commercial examples within a style. Some styles are based on a small number of examples (e.g., California Common), while others may have explicit requirements (e.g., Kölsch)—those are narrow styles. Other styles embrace multiple stylistic variations (e.g., Foreign Style Stout, Old Ale), and hence are broader. Some styles allow a great degree of creativity on the part of the brewer, and therefore are wide open (e.g., Mild, Belgian Dark Strong Ale). All of these factors contribute to styles being handled differently.

The nature of the research into the styles is another factor. Some styles have many commercial examples; these styles are relatively easy to describe. Some styles are historical, have few sources, or are not widely available; these styles may be less fully described. Styles also tend to evolve, and descriptions may describe variations over time. In some cases (e.g., English IPA), the styles describe beers the way they used to be made more than the way they are currently made. This allows the historic heritage of a style to be preserved and the beer to be brewed by homebrewers, even if most commercial brewers no longer make it that way. Styles may be rediscovered (e.g., Porter, Witbier) and be revived in their historical context. It is a judgment call on the part of the BJCP to decide how best to handle a style. Beers tend to be described in the way that they were when they were the most authentic and popular.

The Style Space

I like to think about the style space a beer occupies—that is, which styles of beer are closest to the style you are discussing, and which variables are different. For example, an American Pale Ale fits between a Blonde Ale and an American IPA in hoppiness and strength. Back off on the hops (and maybe the strength) and you have a Blonde Ale. Increase the strength (and maybe the hops) and you have an IPA. Tweak the malt-hop balance to favor the malt a bit more, and you have either an American Amber Ale or an American Brown Ale (add more crystal malt for an amber, add some chocolate malt for a brown). Play around with the varieties of malt, hops, and yeast while keeping the strength and balance the same, and you have an English or Belgian Pale Ale.

The style space also comes in handy if you’re interested in making a specialty beer. The gap between styles is fertile ground for identifying “out-of-style” beers that could be described by their own style. Black IPAs are an example of a gap in the styles. There are dark pale ales but not dark IPAs. American Stouts are dark, strong, and hoppy, but the roast character, body, and balance are different. If you can change a few variables and make a new style, then you have something you can enter as a specialty beer. There are black IPAs but no black pale ales; decrease the gravity of a black IPA and you have another style.

If you’re judging beer (even your own beer), it helps to know the nearest neighbors in the style space. If you think a beer is out of style, then maybe it’s a better fit in an adjacent style. Each different characteristic in beer (gravity, bitterness, color, flavor, body, etc.) is a potential vector in the n-dimensional style space. If you determine your own beer hits an adjacent style better before entering it in a competition, you may wind up with a higher score, since you’ll be judged against a different style description that may be a better match. If you’re judging in a competition, you may be able to give the brewer better advice on how his or her beer tastes if you can refer to another style by name.

Some people have attempted to map the style space graphically (I sometimes see charts like this when a brewpub is trying to explain its lineup). Such an exercise is difficult, because beers typically have more dimensions than are shown on the graph. You can show a few attributes, like color and strength, but those don’t fully model the profile of the beers. They only show you a small part of the actual difference between the styles. Those limited models may be helpful if you are only concerned about the balance between two of the variables (for instance, graphing bitterness versus gravity shows the relative hop intensity of a beer).

A better way to illustrate the style space is to focus on one style and then show only its nearest neighboring styles. This type of chart could show the attributes which, when changed, result in the adjacent styles. That’s much easier to understand and use in the general case, but it doesn’t show you the full landscape of beer. You would have to compare multiple charts (or use spider graphs) to get that type of information.

How to Read and Apply the Styles

As someone with a keen interest in improving the BJCP Style Guidelines, I’ve observed countless times how the descriptions are used in practice. Most people generally understand how to use them properly, but I’ve also seen many get confused and wind up with poor results. I’d like to cover the practical use of the style guidelines and how to identify what is important to know when brewing beer, entering competitions, and judging beer.

Here are my lessons learned in how to properly read and apply the guidelines:

  • Don’t overfocus on a single phrase in the style description. You may be giving it more importance than it is due. For example, if a hefeweizen is described as “may have a tart character,” don’t think you have to add lemons or acid malt in order to generate this impression. It’s a natural component that can come out in some beers; don’t force it.
  • Pay attention to the order and intensity of the descriptors; this will give you an idea of the overall profile. Try to map out primary, secondary, and background components. Your idea is to capture the balance; if you change the priority and intensity of the style components, then you are describing a different beer.
  • Understand what is required versus optional in a style. For example, old ales and barleywines may have an oxidized character; don’t penalize beers if they don’t. IPAs require a hoppy aroma; if it is missing, then it’s not right.
  • Avoid the halo effect of a single commercial example defining the entire style for you. For example, not all American pale ales will taste like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. That doesn’t mean they aren’t good examples. Styles aren’t meant to be a clone beer exercise.
  • Understand the range of the style (how narrow or how broad it is, as described in the “narrowness” discussion). This defines how much creativity a brewer can apply and still be within style. Don’t make a style more narrow or broad than it is; think about the overall style space.
  • Avoid looking at the details without looking at the overall impression. The various attributes of beer styles have some range to them (for example, the allowable bitterness or hop flavor). It’s possible to choose values for each of these attributes that seem to fit the style definition yet create a beer that doesn’t fit the style at all. When in doubt, the overall impression and balance trump the individual style attributes. The beer as a whole has to make sense for the style.

These factors help you understand what is important for the style. As you can tell, I’m trying to get you to envision the essence of the style, the overall impression and balance of the components present, to know what must be present for the style to be valid and what separates it from other styles. That is how a style is defined; by the big picture.

Gordon Strong, author of Modern Homebrew Recipes: Exploring Styles and Contemporary Techniques (Brewers Publications, 2015) and Brewing Better Beer: Master Lessons for Advanced Homebrewers (Brewers Publications, 2011), is the only three-time winner of the coveted National Homebrew Competition Samuel Adams Ninkasi Award. He is president emeritus and highest-ranking judge in the Beer Judge Certification Program, and principal author of the BJCP Style Guidelines and the BJCP Mead Exam Study Guide.

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