Tuesday, 17 March 2009

All five British beer styles

I must be prescient. How else can I account for my last post, mocking the Brewers Association 140+ "beer styles"? I wrote it a week ago. Because of a weekend break in England, I had five posts stacked up and scheduled to be published in my absence.

What did I notice on my return? That others had been writing about the insane proliferations of made-up beer styles. Good to know I'm not the only one wondering where it will all stop. Alan at A Good Beer Blog got me pointed in the right direction with his "Being a Hound Without any Sense of Style" post.

Jack Curtin touched upon the topic in a chat with Fritz Maytag.

Over at Yours for Good Fermentables Tom Cizauskas wrote a paragraph with which I wholeheartedly concur:

"Styles, now, at least in the US, seem to be determined by formalistic minutiae, and, once in place, fiercely defended by the killer phrase "not to style"."
A post called "What is the purpose of beer styles?" on Beervana answered the question in its title thus:

"The purpose of having them at all is to bring coherence to a vast diversity of beers--not to merely create a name for every single variation."
I spend a lot of time looking brewing logs, old adverts and the like. The information I collect from them is packed into spreadsheets. It's given me a lot of material to analyse. The more I look, the fewer styles I find. I'm left with just a handful.

Removing variations based on differing strengths or the addition of a special ingredient, this is all that remains:

Pale Ale
Brown Ale
Mild Ale
Strong Ale

You could add Lager to that, but I was talking in terms of indigenous styles.

Or maybe I should stop swimming against the tide and start campaigning for the recognition of some new styles of my own. Where to start? AK, perhaps. Followed by AKA, XK, XLK, Luncheon Ale, Family Ale, Intermediate Ale. Why on earth hasn't the Brewers Association picked up on these yet?


Spencer said...

When my wife was in grad school in Biology, she introduced me to the two schools of thought in biological classification: "splitters" and "lumpers". "Splitters" want to create very finely gradated divisions, based on subtle differences between organisms. "Lumpers" want to group similar organisms together. Or, as wikipedia puts it,
Taxonomists are often referred to as "lumpers" or "splitters" by their colleagues, depending on their personal approach to recognizing differences or commonalities between organisms.

The Brewers Association and BJCP seem to be populated with "splitters". There are commercial reasons for the BA to do this, of course: more categories means they can award more gold medals, which encourages more breweries to pay more money to enter their beers at the GABF.

I remember trying to understand the essential difference between stout and porter, back when I was learning the BJCP styles (yes, I am a BJCP judge, but not a "style-nazi"). I have come to understand that, as far as just drinking beer to enjoy it, there's no significant difference. (And this blog has helped me along that road to understanding.) When I'm judging in a competition, I view the styles as somewhat arbitrary "buckets", and try to judge within the "bucket", whether I agree with it or not.

Another, particularly American, trait that leads to style splitting is our cultural horror of subjectiveness in competition and judging. Narrow styles (appear to) reduce the subjective element and to make judging "purely" objective. It's not true, of course, but we like to delude ourselves that it is.

Ron Pattinson said...

Spencer, I've definitely moved to lumper camp in recent years.

The problem with the BA/BJCP approach is that the splitting can continue indefinitely. Where will it all end? With thousans of minutely different styles? That would confuse the hell out of the majority and only benefit a tiny minority.

Funnily enough, when it comes to lager, I think the BA/BJCP have too few styles.

The way he wrote about the publication of the new guidelines, Charlie Papazian seems to think all the new styles are a reason to rejoice. Very sad.

Kristen England said...

I think marketing plays a larger role in this than you guys are giving credit (at least in the GABF). More styles = more winners. More winners, or chance of winning, = more participants = more money. Its a proven fact that ANY award a brewery wins, no matter how small, is a massive selling point.

I think the problem, and confusion therein, results from lumping and splitting at the same time. As it was put the tiniest 'styles' are broken out into categories and then a spectrum of 3 or 4 Czech beer styles are lumped into the Boho pils categories.

A modicum of self-restrain and thought should go into the styles argument on both sides.

If things are claimed historically accurate they had better be. If not, and people just want to invent new styles, who is it really hurting.

Matt said...

I know you're talking about English beer styles but it seems that most of the Belgian Abbey/Trappist beers could also fit into this scheme: Westmalle Tripel is a strong pale ale; St Bernadus Abt 12 would be an old ale here (I assume that's what you mean by Strong Ale).

Germany of course is a different story with its various bottom-fermented styles like Pils and Helles, hybrids like Alt and Kolsch and top-fermented wheat beers.

Tim said...

Can someone explain to me the difference between an APA and an American IPA besides maybe one or two points of gravity?

Ron Pattinson said...

Kristen, the Brewers Association clearly has a commercial interest in a greater number of styles.

Having dozens of made-up styles just confuses your average punter and contributes nothing to a better classification or understanding of beer.

Ron Pattinson said...

Matt, I steer well clear of attempting top classify Belgian beers. I know too little about them.

By Strong Ale I mean beers called both Old Ale and Barley Wine. I've been unable to discern any clear differentiation between the two.

Kristen England said...

Well your lovely Brit gov is doing their best to make only one style of beer called 'units'. Don't bother taxing beer different than alco-pops or bathtub gin, just charge by the amount of alcohol in them. Or even better, just charge extra for the strong beers...thats even betters. Buncha wankers...

Ron Pattinson said...

Kristen, to be fair it was a medical officer recommending that crap and Gordon Brown said he was against it.

What's really crazy is that CAMRA is in favour:


Barm said...

Don't forget Dinner Ale and Invalid Stout. If you ever locate an advert or label for Breakfast Ale, I can die happy.

Anonymous said...

The work being done by some of the current generation of beer writers and historians is starting to reshape how I for one look upon the subject.

Michael Jackson (whose unseen hand, or at least influence, I perceive in many of the classifications discussed here) will always be remembered for his fine writing and his early (often creative, literary-style) attempts at classification. He would if here today take pride I think in the advances in knowledge gained since his untimely departure from this world.

Michael always had an interest in Ireland and its traditions and tonight I will raise one to his memory.


Anonymous said...

Well it is refreshing to know that I do not stand alone in my long standing and lately intensifying disdain for the ever expanding list of beer "styles" that organizations like the BA and BJCP advocate and promote. They may have been designed to help clarify the range of beers made in the world, but it seems more and more that they have had the exact opposite effect. In any case, I totally agree that the whole "beer style" thing has certainly gotten out of hand to the point of being downright silly.
And to think...all those years that I thought "wine snobs" were bad....

Ron Pattinson said...

Professor, the more ridiculous "styles" are created, the more resistance from drinkers will increase.

Who can remember what all the BA styles are? I bet not even Charlie Papazian.

Anonymous said...

It's a pity one can't point to a clear dividing line between old ales and barley wines, because it would be very useful to distinguish between sour/tart types of strong ale (eg Gale's POA) and sweeter types (eg Bass No 1) - but brewers were utterly inconsistent in their naming practices ... tsk, no consideration for those who came after them and tried to make sense of the nomenclature ...