I’m Sick of Beer Styles

Posted on 01.21.08 5:30PM under Style Profile

Periodic Table of Beer StylesFor a while, I reliably wrote a style profile each week on Monday. Then suddenly last week I found that I didn’t really care to write a traditional style profile. Here I am again, unmoved by the prospect of writing a specific beer style profile. Now please do let me know if you have been waiting for a particular beer style profile, and I’ll gladly write it up. But for now, here’s how I’m feeling about beer styles.

Beer styles are the basis that form our expectations about a beer that we’ve never had before. Sure, there are lots of people like me out here writing beer tasting notes and reviews, and BeerAdvocate and RateBeer are packed with more than enough notes on just about every beer you could ever find. But those are all subjective. Most beers on BeerAdvocate have some very low scores and some very high scores. What does that really tell you? Some people really like the beer, and some really hate it. OK. That’s because whether or not something tastes good to you can only be decided by you. Just because I love Old Rasputin or Hog Heaven or Horn Dog or Hop Wallop doesn’t mean you will.

Truth is, any beer is comprised of a handful of variables that combine to make the beer a certain style. Mainly, they are color (SRM), alcohol content (ABV), and hops bitterness (IBU). Stout, for example, is shorthand for high SRM, medium ABV, and medium IBU. But there are many different subcategories of Stout, such as sweet stout, dry stout, oatmeal stout, etc. It can get really tedious detailing every different type of stout, especially when they’re all basically pretty similar when compared to a (low SRM, medium ABV, low IBU) wheat beer. Of course, there are more factors than SRM, ABV, and IBU, but maybe I’ll go into those some other time.

The thing is, even with so many beer styles, often times beers are difficult to call one style or another. Like this Flying Dog Road Dog Scottish Porter. First of all, there’s no such style as Scottish Porter. BeerAdvocate calls it a Scottish Ale. Personally, I see it more as a Porter. I guess that’s where they came up with Scottish Porter. Classifying this beer could probably be the subject of a vigorous debate among some sets. Now I’m not about to say that The Alstrom Bros don’t know what they’re talking about – they are some of the best in the biz at describing and appreciating beer. The point is that many of the beer styles have overlap. I could imagine a beer that could be classified as a Porter, a Stout, a Scotch Ale, or a Doppelbock depending on who you ask. I know, a Doppelbock is a Lager, but judging only by the sensory experience of the beer you might be hard pressed to classify a dark beer with low to moderate hopping unless you were an uber-BJCP judge.

sSo in conclusion, being familiar with basic beer styles is valuable. It defines points of common reference and a basis for a universally understood vocabulary for discussing beer. At the same time, to say something like, “this isn’t a very good IPA, but it would be great as a Pale Ale” is sort of silly. Is it good or not? I confess, I did the same thing just this past week. I was expecting a light colored, crisply hoppy Pale Ale, and got a reddish-amber colored Pale Ale with a good malt-hop balance. I was disappointed for about half the beer. Then I realized that it was a great darker malty Pale Ale, it was just not what I expected it to be. My concept of the beer style guidelines for Pale Ale detracted from my enjoyment of part of that beer. Beer styles be damned if they’re going to interfere with my beer drinking pleasure.

Read Comments

  1. Posted by Boak on 01.22.08 5:02 PM

    And amen to that. Must say, we do like to laugh at the perceived obsession with beer styles in the US, particularly the BJCP listing, where some styles seem to have been invented on the back of one beer.

    I say perceived, because I’m sure there aren’t really that many drinkers out there who judge a beer on “trueness to style”. Are there?

    But anyway, style guidelines are an easy target, and actually, guidelines do have some use. I like your phrase that it “defines points of common reference and a basis for a universally understood vocabulary”… As long as it’s not seen as the whole story, and as long as you don’t take them as gospel, they’re a good starting point.

    It’s particularly useful for homebrewing, when you’re trying to imitate a specific style. And that is, of course, what they were invented for.

  2. Posted by Keith Brainard on 01.22.08 6:44 PM

    I do find beer styles useful in homebrewing, too. I will start with a concept, and develop a recipe. Then I usually try to find a style that’s pretty much in line with that concept. From there, I might adjust the ingredients a little to get it to fit into the official style parameters. Or I will intentionally make (for example) a hoppy American Brown Ale. It again gets back to the common reference point.