Don't Cramp My Style

What’s the deal with beer styles? Beer Judge Certification Program, Brewer’s Association, and other sources have specific guidelines on beer styles. Why do we care? Can’t we just make good beer and forget what’s “supposed to be” in a certain beer? Of course we can. That’s how styles began! They are, after all, guidelines, not commandments.

Many styles came about spontaneously and regionally out of creativity: what ingredients were available, what would ferment, and what water was available (Saisons, for instance). Some styles were shaped by technology, taxation, and culture (low ABV English-styles, German Reinheitsgebot beer). Beer styles divide beer into shared qualities: color, aroma, taste/flavor, mouthfeel/texture, perceived bitterness, alcohol content, etc. So, specific style guidelines aren’t necessarily there to cramp your, ahem, style. They are a common ground on which to start. If the people want something specific, we can brew it.

For instance, when I say that I want an American stout you know there’ll be certain attributes I’m looking for in that beer. The beer will be very dark brown to jet black with a cream-tan head. It will have moderate to strong aromas of roast (chocolate and/or coffee) and maybe a light fruitiness from hops/esters. It’ll taste of roasted malt notes of dark or bittersweet chocolate, roast to slightly burnt coffee, and maybe a little caramel and hint of fruity hop. If I didn’t know what to call that beer, I’d have to describe all those attributes to someone before ordering a beer, which isn’t really ideal. Style is shorthand, a way of getting on the same page.

Of course, there will be differences between beers under the same style name, and that’s the fun. A cheeseburger is called a cheeseburger and has elements people expect, but that doesn’t mean we can’t add our own flair to it. Or change it all together…

Styles can have immense variety. Just look at the IPA. There are countless varieties: Juicy or Hazy IPA, White IPA, Red IPA, Black IPA, English IPA, Session IPA, and more. Back in the 90s, Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada brewed—what was considered at the time—a CRAZY bitter beer. This beer was Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Wow, how times have changed. The West Coast “bitter-bombs” developed and pushed people past their comfort levels. Thank goodness. For when we are comfortable, change is almost impossible. Change brings about delicious new possibilities. Styles are there to rebel against! Let’s tweak and distort, add weird grains, develop yeast strains that make you go, “What was that?!”

A definitive style added to official guidelines does not a beer make, but it does help. Next time you order a Juicy or Hazy IPA, we’ll both know exactly what the hell that means. Yum.  

Periodic Table of Beer Styles