Styles & Why They Do/Don’t Matter

Beer styles. God, but I’m tired of debating them. It’s gotten so we can’t even speak of something so simple as a “session beer” without some people getting the britches bunched up in apoplectic rage over the bar being set too high, or low. Certain folk want to quantify and categorize every last little ale or lager; others are free and easy and don’t really mind if you just call it “beer” and sod the stylistic nonsense.

Me, I’ll admit to freely vacillating between the two poles over the years, but more recently I’ve been steadily shifting away from categorization. Here’s why.

Beer styles help me educate others about beer, which is part of what I do to pay the mortgage. If someone knows nothing about, say, IPA, it is immeasurably helpful to have some sort of style guidelines to help them wrap their brains around it all, preferably mixed with a shot or two of history and a whole whack of context. Which is why I believe Michael Jackson defined two pages worth of “classical beer-styles” early in his seminal “World Guide to Beer,” first published in 1977.

Problems arise, however, when we attempt to create new categories for everything rather than defining them within the context of those style we already understand. Take the double IPA, for instance. A proper double IPA is a strong and very hoppy IPA, period. It doesn’t need any further definition, in this writer’s opinion, just as a coffee stout is a stout flavoured with coffee, rather than a singular entity on its own. A “session beer?” Well, that’s a lower alcohol beer suitable for drinking over the course of a “session,” which for me could be a 4% bitter or a 5.1% pilsner, or even a 7% Belgian ale, depending upon the time and context of the “session.”

In the end, there are probably two or three dozen or so styles we really need to acknowledge, with everything else slotting neatly into some variation on those themes. Experimentation? Innovation? “Moroccan” saisons?  Bring ’em on, says I. Beer is about variety, and variety is, you know, the spice of life. I like it spicy and so I shall embrace all comers, unless, of course, they suck. But I shall not imagine that each and every one of them is deserving of its own new category.


Filed under beer & the web, beer blogs, beer style, beer terminology, brewing history, drinking quality, session beer, social commentary

20 responses to “Styles & Why They Do/Don’t Matter

  1. I’m moving towards the idea that sometimes it’s easier to talk about “types” as well as “styles” – “session beer” is a “type”, which can come in a number of “styles”. That doesn’t automatically stop the disagreement about where the limit should be put past which a beer is no longer a session beer, of course …

  2. Well, firstly ‘session beer’ has never been a ‘style’ so that should be made clear from the start; it’s simply been a ABV limit. It is of course true that traditionally it has been associated with a handful of (British) styles, but that’s not the point.

    As for the general importance of styles I think they are absolutely crucial for, as you say, education and communication. Just like the term ‘session beer’ becomes meaningless (even though it’s NOT a style) when one starts to ignore the ABV, then ‘IPA’ would be also become meaningless if we started to ignore that these are ‘generally hop-forward beers’. When people start to classify ‘session beers’ as 6, 7, 8+% ABV, I reserve the right to start calling pale, wheat beers with fruit adjuncts added, ‘Porters’. Then we can all be hopelessly lost together! No parameters means no understanding.

    In a wider sense this brings up the following ‘note to the Internet’ – not EVERYTHING is subjective, not all opinions are equally valid, and not everyone knows what they’re talking about. Making up stuff and attempting to perpetuate its use by misusing it over and over and over again is NOT the same thing as the ‘evolution’ of language.


  3. Another example of a conversation that would be a lot easier if more people used words and phrases such as “sometimes”, “tend to”, “in certain contexts”, and “in my experience”. The desire to turn categories (a useful way of enabling discussion) into rigid rules (an excuse to shout at and correct people) baffles me.

    • >Another example of a conversation that would be a lot easier if more people used words and phrases such as “sometimes”, “tend to”, “in certain contexts”, and “in my experience”. The desire to turn categories (a useful way of enabling discussion) into rigid rules (an excuse to shout at and correct people) baffles me.

      Further to my point above, SOME things ARE ‘absolute’, ‘black & white’ and NOT subjective!

      • “Session beer” isn’t one of those things.

      • I would hope that not writing is all-caps and not writing long and hard about a subject without a thick layering of citation backing up the argument would also be a “black and white” part of good discourse. You may have a point in all of this, Ding, but with respect you are doing a poor job of making your point.

      • Bailey writes;
        >“Session beer” isn’t one of those things.

        Simply put, I believe you to be completely wrong in that assertion.

  4. As the Thirsty Pilgrim once said, styles should help us understand what a beer is and not what it ought to be.
    IMO the problem comes from those brewers that make beer according to BJCP or BA guidelines and the loud minority of consumers who believe each beer they drink has to be judged according to those guidelines.
    Personally, I divide beers into three broad categories, those that I like, those that I dislike and those that I don’t quite like but don’t mind drinking. All the rest comes basically from personal experience, I know that, although they are both strong and dark, a barley wine will be different than a Dopplebock not because I have read it in some book, but because I have drunk both types of beer…
    That said, I agree that some basic categorisations can help to educate people, at least at the beginning…

    • “As the Thirsty Pilgrim once said, styles should help us understand what a beer is and not what it ought to be.”

      Did I say that? Not bad. I’ve since honed my definition of style to “a useful failure of imagination.”

      I encourage anyone new to the wider world of beer to avoid learning about “styles” altogether. Taste what you can and what you like, then make your own categories that describe the world as it actually is. They will be different from anyone else’s, I promise, and much more useful when you go to the bottle shop.

  5. Mike

    Well, for a change, I partially agree with you – especially the “don’t matter” part. There are certainly people, primarily, in my experience, people with little understanding of beer, who use styles as kind of a crutch, if not to stand on, then beat people over the head with.

    As a beer drinker, I find no need at all for styles. I use a system not very different from Max’s. Sometimes, it can be abbreviated even more: large and small.

    I think also the idea of education can be a problem when there are as many styles as the BA thinks there are because with numbers over 100, it is simply confusing for beginners and gives a very distorted picture of how beer really exists outside the festival hall.

  6. Derek

    I completely agree that brews should be classified as sub-styles whenever appropriate (much like the taxonomic hierarchy that’s used for biological classification).

    This could result in well over 100 sub-styles, but what’s the problem with that?

    There’s probably over 100 different types of grapes used for wine and their character varies by region and even the growing season… there are different blends, they have varying degrees of dryness, they might be finished with oak or a malolactic fermenations… all of these things affect the flavour and they’re communicated to the consumer.

    There’s even more variety with beer, why not communicate that?

    I’m not saying that everything should be brewed according to strict guidelines, as I often enjoy well-crafted brews with unique flavours that set them appart. But that’s easily communicated as well.

    I agree that not everything is subjective, and that “styles should help us understand what a beer is and not what it ought to be”.

  7. I agree we need some general styles, but I don’t think we need a sub-category for every unique brew that comes along. We need styles for a basis of comparison and as a quick way of communicating how a beer is brewed. I view craft brewing as a multi-faceted conversation and it’s important to know which part of the conversation a brewer is trying to contribute to.

  8. Gary Gillman

    I see it as Derek, does, that styles should be classified into sub-styles “whenever appropriate”. An entrant in a beer-judging competition will say,
    “please don’t put my 5% stout with the Imperials, by definition the latter stand out”. The Russian Imperial entrant will say, we need a category for beers using wood-kilned malt, otherwise my smoked Imperial stout will taste weird against the others.

    “Whenever appropriate” could include, too, enthusiasts who just have a yen for detail. Not all beer lovers are the same, some want a lot more detail and information, or on different aspects of the drink, than others. I know many devoted beer fans who couldn’t give a farthing for its history, or production methods, or classification. Some like to know how beers are classified but don’t want an over-complex schema, etc.

    It’s lumping vs. splitting, something forever with us in the beer world as others. One thing that has changed since I started to learn about beer in the mid-70’s (pre-Jackson) is that national classifications seem less important than formerly. At one time, even though the underlying “reality” was different, beer was “British”, “German”, “American”, etc. British beer was mostly bitter ale (even thought lots wasn’t), German beer was Munich blonde lager (even though lots wasn’t) and American beer was light lager using adjunct (and most of it was!). Today, we don’t speak of beer this way, largely, except for Belgian beer to a degree.


  9. Brian

    I strongly agree with your statement that “there are probably two or three dozen or so styles we really need to acknowledge, with everything else slotting neatly into some variation on those themes.” The 100+ styles the BA acknowledges has more to do with giving out as many awards as possible (particularly to macrobrewers) than it does with classifying beers for taxonomic purposes. Some of the categories are downright silly! For example, the Out of Category – Traditionally Brewed Beer category is oxymoronic! The number of aged beer categories is simply astounding with the Aged Beer (Ale or Lager) category being almost all-encompassing. (If I let a beer sit on the shelf for a year is it an “aged beer”?) The Black IPAs so commonly seen here in the States is another real laugher– black and pale?

  10. Everyone’s out of step on session beer except Ding.

  11. Bravo! It especially irks me when a known style is debated to death because the brewer took some liberties with his own interpretation. Even BJCP judges are taught that there are broad and general guidelines for interpreting each style they judge. Download the free BJCP app if you haven’t already. It’s immensely helpful. I LOVE experiments and most especially fusions of styles. Above, Brian mentioned Black IPAs which yes, is yet another stylistic denomination but I view it really as a fusion and what the heck else would you call it anyway? Love the blog and the content!

  12. Pingback: More on Styles | Old Bunny Brewing

  13. “what the heck else would you call it anyway?
    Indian Black Ale 😉

  14. Pingback: Cottage Country invades the LCBO (we’re talking craft beer here) | Wines In Niagara

  15. Pingback: Session #79 – The round up and a few rebuttals | dingsbeerblog

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