Thursday, 15 November 2007

Things I like about the BJCP style guidelines

I've gone for another easy one today.

There's so much good about the BJCP style guidlines, that it's difficult to know where to start. Here's a try.

  1. They start at number 1.
  2. They are innovative and forward-facing. (I got that one from "Management bullshit for idiots".)
  3. They cement the beer world in the mid-1970's - just when I started drinking.
  4. They inspire insights like "this beer is too roasty for a Porter".
  5. They don't mis-define Czech lager styles. They don't realise they exist. I promise not to tell them about them if you don't.
  6. When I'm bored at work, browsing them provides endless amusement.
  7. They are imaginative. They've invented whole families of beer styles. Think Scottish Ales.
  8. No-one in Belgium pays the slightest attention to them.
  9. They combine Belgium and France (styles 16 A to E) - something the Congress of Vienna was determined to prevent.
  10. They finish at number 28, having used all the integers from 1 upwards.

Tears of laughter prevent me listing any more. Tears, at least. Just the boring sort: tears of despair.


Alan said...

It really is a list for homebrewers that has been transferred beyond what it ever should have. Is that because the main US homebrewer's organization from the 1970s morphed into the main craft brewers association of the 2000's?

Ron Pattinson said...

Somewhere "guide for homebrewers" and "official definitions" got mixed up.

Nostalgia has ruled my life since the good old days. So it's odd that my main complaint (sorry, second, after historical inaccuracy) is fixing beers styles at some arbitrary moment in the past.

How beer styles have changed and why. That I find fascinating. Pinning butterflies to a board - where's the fun in that? Metamorphosis is your man.

Alan said...

I think there are another couple of points. Traditionally, brewers did not brew to style, they brewed to other externalities: ingredient supply, taxation, local tastes defined by local food supply. Style identification followed production practices and so is inevitably mere lumping to one degree of success or another.

The second is clearly an outcome of having such a great voice in beer as Michael Jackson. The UK writers on beer who predated his first book in 1976 are virtually ignored and those who came after repeated much of what was stated by him if only through the sheer viruosity of what he stated. It is not a dishonour to revisit his standards now as there was no magic to the state of brewing in 1976 anymore than 1876.

Stan Hieronymus said...

What would you suggest as an alternative for amateur competitions (U.S. only if you prefer)?

Ron Pattinson said...

Time, manner and place. It's a German grammatical rule of some sort (don't ask me, I did Latin instead).

Time and place are vital elements of beer style. To ignore them is to deny much of beer's diverstity.

Taxation, regulation, demography, geography even geology all play their part. Beer is culture specific.

I'm explaining this very pompously and very poorly. Why should anything stay the same? Music doesn't. Clothes don't. Neither does food, or cars, or lightbulbs or children's television (for us Noggin the Nog was a highlight). In just the same way as, even in this age of globalisation, pop music, children's TV, food, sport - and I hope much more - aren't exactly the same, neither is beer everywhere. Even if it bears the same syle name.

And the past is another country.

Michael Jackson's World Guide to Beer was written around when I stared drinking. It describes beer of the mid-1970's quite well. But it was a snapshot. Beer styles have changed since.

Change is a slower and more gradual processs in European brewing. But it's there.

Ron Pattinson said...

stan, people can use what ever rules they want for homebrew competitions. You don't have to have ones like those of the BJCP. There are other ways to judge beer competitions.

If the BJCP stuff only came up in a homebrew context (I really should stop working, I keep picking up all this horrible maangementspeak) I wouldn't mind. But it is used as a tool to classify beers out in the wild. (I like to think of draught Mild as a kind of shrew or vole. Bitter is a badger or owl. Brown Ale I imagine as a brown trout. Stout in my mind is a mix of stoat and trout - not to be put down the trousers, but tasty grilled accompanied by boiled Lincolnshire potatoes and garden peas. Though you could substitute any vegetable in season with a name starting with the letter p. Or q.)

St. Bernardus. Brain food.

Alan said...

I think jurisdictions are at least as useful a means of understanding beer as style classification. I think I will understand a pale lager or ale more if I know it is a beer of Ontario than if it is, say, a helles. An attempt to sell helles in Ontario will usually reflect Ontarioness more than other helles in that it better be grainy or it will not sell to a people who drink rye. Similarly with the concept of a US brown ale. It is the US-ness than defines the taste (hoppy) more than anything.

Stan Hieronymus said...

If the BJCP stuff only came up in a homebrew context I wouldn't mind.

You sure?

It seems to me that one of the things you like best about the BJCP Guidelines is making for of them.

I don't mean that in a contentious way, even though it sort of looks like that in print.

Ron Pattinson said...

stan, what I like best is them is that English Brown Ale is style number 11. That says it all. Number 11, I ask you.

Stonch said...

Stan, I'd turn your line of enquiry around on you, and ask why you'd seek to defend something so obviously ridiculous as the BJCP guidelines? I mean, putting aside arguments about whether such a venture is a good idea or not, they're just wrong. They always have been, and the extent to which they're wrong increases every year.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a homebrewer, but the concept "homebrewing competition" has always struck me as strange. Do amateur cooks have cooking competitions? How about knitters? And, even assuming there need to be these competitions (though, I can't imagine why), why must they be structured this way? Why not, for example, different interpretations of a particular beer? Why not attempt to re-create a beer that is no longer brewed? And why not judge them by how good they taste rather than how close they follow someone's rules?

Stan Hieronymus said...

Stonch - Looking at the history of the comments I don't think I've been offering a defense, but expressing curiosity why they are so unloved.

To roll out a defense here would be akin to dousing myself with gasoline and wandering into a fire.

Now, more curiosity. You wrote:

They always have been (wrong), and the extent to which they're wrong increases every year.

Why "increases every year?"

Alan said...

Also not baiting, Stan, but have you ever had a beer, smacked your lips after the first long pull and thought "my God, how wonderfully dead on style!" My problem is that they are a education tool at an early intermediate stage of beer understanding. They are not a goal and their achievement is not what makes a beer good.

Stan Hieronymus said...

Alan - I believe in a judging situation I have said "That nailed the style." Meaning it is a great beer and fits within the guidelines for a particular style, which generally are pretty broad.

My problem is that they are a education tool at an early intermediate stage of beer understanding.

I disagree. The guidelines are one part of the the BJCP. You'll notice there is an entire continuing education program.

Most people in the program are going to be brewers who want to be better brewers still. Evaluating beer and understanding why flavors - good and bad - are there helps you figure out how to brew better.

And if you are any good at it then you are providing feedback that helps the brewer whose beer you judge brew better beer down the road.

Have I wandered into a part of the discussions I was trying to avoid?

Alan said...

Well, that may have be the problem then Stan. There is a vast difference between the techniques of the creator and the experience of the consumer. Think of the theatre analogy that I trot out from time to time. Does the happy audience care for the means used to suspend disbelief or even the curtains? Not at all. My experience of beer - the only important one - is in the drinking. I want it to be interesting and familiar, comforting and noteworthy. I do not really care if there is too much dicetyl for style.

Plus, while it may be a useful tool for training brewers, you are indicating that it creates what was called in early 1800s art "mannerism" - a conservatism in theory dependent on pre-existing approved expression. Add to that Ron's observations on the arbitrary nature of that conservative theoretical standard which is relied upon and the BJCP still seems to me a good intermediate tool but as with the movement from homebrewing to craft brewing, one that only gets us so far.

But it does get brewers well down the road so it is not something I would laugh at so much as to be aware of its place.

Stan Hieronymus said...

Add to that Ron's observations on the arbitrary nature of that conservative theoretical standard which is relied upon and the BJCP still seems to me a good intermediate tool but as with the movement from homebrewing to craft brewing, one that only gets us so far.

I don't care about the movement from homebrewing to commercial brewing. If I am entering competitions I want a hint about what might make my beer better.

As a judge I want to provide decent feedback.

That simple.

Alan said...

Beer is much more than that simplicity. I wonder if brewers are aware of that?

Anonymous said...

I'm a little late to this party, and no trolling intended, but ... :

I don't want to criticise American brewers or American beers (I like a lot of them), but after having a look at the BJCP Style Guidelines they give me the impression that they are expressly set up in such a way as to assure that there are at least a good number of American winners by defining "American" varieties of certain styles.

I think beer styles are (or should be defined) much more universally (so the "Belgian" should also be dropped from a number of styles). The length of that style list is ridiculous in my opinion.

Kees Beerepoot

Anonymous said...

Question: how many pro brewers do you think pay one bit of attention to the BJCP guidelines?


Stan Hieronymus said...


Beer is much more than that simplicity. I wonder if brewers are aware of that?

Huh? What does this have to do with the hobby?


The guidelines are basically for homebrew competitions in the United States. Some of which draw more than 1,000 entries, and the goal is to provide every entrant with decent feedback.

Here is an example of a scoresheet:

You might find this a bit much. It can be, and some amateur brewers choose not to get involved for that reason. But it has an express purpose, which is for homebrew competitions. Not all comps use BJCP scoring.

Alan said...

What does this have to do with the hobby?

I suspect we are talkinga bout two hobbies - homebrewing and good beer loving. It is a fine tool for homebrewing up to a point but it's expansion into the world of beer has its downsides as has been described. I think they are more distinct that people assume with differing interests and elements.

Ron Pattinson said...

Loren, I suspect the brewers of these beers may have been influenced by the BJCP:

Alehouse Robust Porter
Amicas Flaretys Entire Robust Porter
Beechworth Robust Porter
Big Sky Robust Porter
Black Forest Brau Keller Robust Porter
Bru Robust Porter
Coast Range Farmhouse Stone Fence Robust Porter
Cold Nose Daves Robust Porter
Crooked River Robust Porter
Draught House Robusto Porter
Four Sons Robust Porter
Glacier Robust Porter
Graf Zeppelin Robust Porter
Hallertau Brewbar Robust Porter
Hams Brewhouse J. Allyns Robust Porter
HopTown Porter Robusto
John Harvards Robustist Porter
Los Cauquenes Cauquen Porter Robust
Nimbus Robust Porter
Ottos Arthurs Robust Porter
Papago El Robusto Porter
Redoak Robust Porter
Rock Bottom Robust Porter (Chicago)
Rock Bottom Robust Porter (South Denver)
Rock Bottom Robust Porter (Yorktown)
Schmohz Mad Toms Robust Porter
Shenandoah Robust Rye Porter
Smuttynose Robust Porter
Sonoran Robust Porter
Sprague Farm Hellbender Robust Porter
Stewarts Robust Porter
Stews Prospector Robust Porter
The Tap Robust Porter
Times Square Robust Porter
Triumph Robust Porter

Ron Pattinson said...

Just used by homebrewers, eh? What about the Brewers' Association? Aren't they professional brewers. Their style guidelines look eerily familiar:

Alan said...

Good examples - I have never had a porter that told me it was "brown" or "robust" as I think that the style guides tell me it should.

Ron Pattinson said...

That link didn't come out right. Here's it over a couple of lines:

Alan said...

Ron, the Brewers' Association morphed out of a homebrewers organization and carried along many of the princciples with it.

Stan Hieronymus said...

Ron, way back in the 5th comment you wrote:

If the BJCP stuff only came up in a homebrew context I wouldn't mind.

If you review my comments they are all within the context of the hobby of homebrewing, which includes more than just competitions. Just as the BJCP is not only about guidelines.

Anonymous said...

Where does the term robust porter come from. I have never heard of it except in the BJCP guidelines.

Anonymous said...

Also haven´t heard of brown porter only brown stout.

Alan said...

Flavoured porters are a more sensible subclass. Raspberry, Vanilla, smoked ...that sort of thing.

Stan Hieronymus said...

Anoniem, Alan,

Sounds like you guys need to join the BJCP and offer your feedback.

Just an idea . . .

Ron Pattinson said...

Brown stout must be OK - Barclay Perkins used the term. Though they did also produce a Pa;e Stout at one time, so maybe they were just trying to avoid confusion.

I'm trying to remember if I've seen the term Brown Porter. Let me think about it.

Anonymous said...

BJCP guidelines should really not be taken seriously or out of context. They are not laws and not binding. Their only purpose is to impose a taxonomy for homebrew competitions so that apples to apples comparisons can be made. I homebrew and compete from time to time, and I never look at the guidelines until I have a beer I would like to enter. I then see what category it fits, rather than looking at the category and brewing from there. As far as why not just pick the best beer goes, they do. Everyone wins, and I get objective feedback on my beer, something hard to get from family and friends.

Alan said...

I agree. It should not be overblown either in its use or in criticism of it. I was not snarking Stan when I said we are talking about two hobbies. I just think we are.

Zythophile said...

As I'm sure I've said before, beer styles are Venn diagrams rather than rigid boxes. The trouble with boxes is that they can place restraints on innovation: golden ales, for example, would never have taken off in the UK if Camra had said: "You can't brew that, it's not a bitter because it's too pale."

Eventually, of course, they were given their own category, but to begin with, Summer Lightning won its prizes in the "Best Bitter" category.

As Alan said, Michael Jackson has been hugely influential, but his canonical works were of their time, so that, for example, there's no mention of Burton Ale (the style, not the Ind Coope cask beer) in the World Guide because it had died out a few years before MJ began writing on beer. If you read Andrew Campbell (arguably the best British beer writer before MJ), however, there's lots about Burton Ale because when he was writing, 1956, the style was still thriving.

Anonymous said...

Mike, have you never been to an agricultural show?

They judge everything! Cows, dogs, cats, knitting, embroidery, quiltwork, millinery, cakes, biscuits, preserves.... and homebrew.

The Australian International Beer Awards are actually run by the Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria (in conjunction with the University of Ballarat.)

Anonymous said...

There's no denying the BJCP Style Guidelines have a whole bunch of problems, but... I'm still not sure you’ve made the reasons for your objection to them completely explicit. Historical inaccuracy is obvious, but if (hypothetically) all that were corrected (you gonna volunteer? hehe) all you are left with is “fixing beer styles in some arbitrary moment in the past” which seems to me to be an unavoidable issue with any style guidelines.

As you've convincingly argued, complete, "accurate" style guidelines are effectively an impossibility, so why such an objection to the BCJP in particular? For instance, Jackson seems to cop a lot less stick even though a bunch of the BJCP styles came directly from him. (What's worse - starting bad styles or copying them? I dunno.)

Anoniem, I wouldn't be surprised if it was Charlie Papazian who started, or at least popularised, the robust/brown "split". And I suppose a lot of today’s US microbrewers started out as homebrewers in the heyday of The Complete Joy of Homebrewing. The styles weren't plucked (entirely) out of thin air, even if it seems like it from Europe. But Ron, I guess the real question for you is, given that you believe in the fluidity of styles in time, and given the examples you provided, do you believe robust porter exists as a style today?

And for the record I hate beer styles in a homebrew competition context. I am all for (mass) contraction, but in fairness style guidelines do make it a lot easier to judge.

Ron Pattinson said...

Lachlan, is Robust Porter a style today? I guess so. It just doen't have any real history. Who am I to say something doesn't exist?

Alan said...

I am not sure it is a style anymore even if it was one once. If there are two sub-classes of porter, brown and robust, I should be able to roughly shuffle my experience with porter into those two boxes. But I can't if I am honest with my notes. I can divide them in my mind into plain, imperial and flavoured. Maybe the evolution of the general category has shifted too fast for the style Lords.

Ron Pattinson said...

Lachlan, yes, Michael Jackson has to take some blame, too. But the title of this piece was specifically about the BJCP.

On the point of you-need-style-guidlines-to-judge beers argument, I'll make a personal observation. I judged two competitions of professional beers this summer. The categories were extremely loose. Didn't hinder me in the least from working out which beers were good and which crap. I really don't get that argument. The vast majority of professional beer competitions over the last 100-odd years have been conducted without strict style definitions.

I can only see one point in having so many categories: more medals to hand out.

Anonymous said...

Damn, I should’ve suggested a topic about how wrong Jackson was! Bagging the recently deceased is always a popular one.

Obviously what I’m getting at is why the title was about the BJCP in the first place. You seem to have a particular obsession with them, when I would argue that there are plenty of style guidelines out there that you could argue with. Ratebeer, Beer Advocate and the World Beer Cup all have some interesting categories. I’m sure there are plenty of others too.But you can’t choose who you love, I guess.

I agree completely with what you say about judging and style guidelines though. When I said they make it “easier to judge” I meant that literally, possibly to the detriment of quality judging/ranking. You don’t have to work nearly as hard to pick a winner when you can instantly discount the vast majority of entries on some minor stylistic issue which may have no direct impact on (or may even enhance) your enjoyment of the beer.

Ron Pattinson said...

lachlan, I had no choice about the title. THe BJCP in particular - well, I could go on about the Ratebeer, BeerAdvocate or whatever guidlines. But the BJCP are the ones I've most often seem quoted as "authoratative".

Having seen some judging comments, it does seem that the rules are used as a way of eliminating beers for technical reasons. I find that a very cowardly and unproductive way to judge beer. I want to judge beers in a positive way - looking for their merits rather than their faults.

This whole process of a list with titles written by others can be a bit scary. Of my own volition, I would not have written a post called "Things I like about the BJCP style guidelines".

I want to push myself as a writer. The idea of writing to order appealed. But the response I've got to the list items so far show how much the themes were dear to my readers' hearts.

I can't predict what you'll like. Most of what I think is dead clever and perceptive gets ignored.

I hope I have a busful of readers. The outing's already planned - North York Moors and Scarborough.

Matthew D Dunn said...

Hey, there's this incredibly erudite (ahem, ahem) chapter on beer styles in the new Beer and Philosophy book that deals with some of the questions raised in these comments.

Alan said...

I think Ron got hung up on that chapter with the neato information about the law of beer in Manitoba.

The Beer Nut said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Beer Nut said...

It was one of the better ones, Alan (though not as good as the one by Ron's best mate Mr Oliver, IMHO)

I liked your piece Matt, but I don't think it brought any new or startling revelations, at least to those of us who go through the debate in places like this a couple of times each year.

Matthew D Dunn said...

Beer nut:

Glad you liked the chapter, but clearly not everyone here is as familiar with the arguments as you are, though Lachlan makes a similar point to my own when he mentions fixing beer styles at some arbitrary point in history.

The point of the chapter was that there's no such thing as styles so arguing about what they are is kind of pointless. If you don't want to judge to style, that's cool. But if you do, you need to formulate some descriptions and judge to them. There is nothing bad about BJCP style guidelines. They do not fail to capture the real structure of beer styles in the world any more than other style descriptions, namely because this structure doesn't exist.

If you disagree with the BJCP, you disagree about something other than the structure of the world. This is because it is false to say that the BJCP "invented" the Scottish ale style or that they failed to include Czech Pils. Every list of beer styles "invents" every single style.

If, for whatever reason, people don't like BJCP, then make a new organization that sanctions competitions to style and create your own style descriptions, but you can't say that BJCP "gets it wrong" because there is nothing to "get right."