The first brewer started this gradually developing trend thousands of years ago. On the heels of this historic first batch, brewers have produced other noteworthy feats: the introduction of hops as a flavor component and natural preservative, the move to lager beers, the elimination of smoke flavors from beers and its curious reappearance, the move to pale beers, all the way forward to the inventive and eclectic offerings of modern brewers.
Some styles were developments born out of necessity or accident, while others were created through scientific experimentation and tightly scripted development. It is well-known that necessity gave birth to the India pale ale style. British troops sailing to the far-away Indian sub-continent required a strongly hopped brew that would not spoil during the long traveling period. Conversely, chocolate and cocoa flavored beer is the creation of some confectionary addicted brewers.
As the available offerings grew from one to many, consumers began to grasp the broadest notions regarding beer styles - some beers are different from others. From porters to pale ales to stouts, drinkers embraced different styles of beer and popular representations of these styles often influenced their understandings of these yet undefined categories.
Eventually, critics and historians began to contemplate the differences in the products and set out to define them. This process is unfortunately unlike the mapping of the human genome or cartography of distant lands, far easier endeavors to be sure. Style development continues to evolve. For purposes of undertaking an achievable goal, this article focuses on American efforts to chart the sea of styles made available by brewers.
There exists a vast amount of writing about beer styles. Popular beer writers furthered the cause of style differentiation, sometimes playing a role in the resurrection of nearly discontinued styles. The works of Fred Eckhardt and Michael Jackson are stand-outs in the area of style development and definition.
While many incomplete lists of beer styles have been produced by various writers and brewers, the most widely accepted standards elucidating beer styles exists in the guide produced by the Association of Brewers (AOB). This guide is the work of an upstart group of AOB founders, foremost among them is President Charlie Papazian.
Since 1979, the AOB has distributed a list of beer style descriptions as a reference for brewers and beer judges. The AOB's list draws heavily upon historical research and the classic beers world-class brewers.
The development process is arduous and requires consideration of many factors. A style may also be omitted from the list if current commercial examples do not exist. The AOB produces a style guideline for the ancient graetzel style of beer, but it is omitted from the official guidelines as commercial versions do not exist. The tests of time and continued consumer acceptance influence the likelihood that a style will make the AOB's approved list.
The AOB's beer style guidelines attempt to bring order to an otherwise chaotic scheme of eclectic brewing methods and styles. The current list profiles some 55 distinct styles or sub-styles of beer. An individual style guideline will typically include a short description of the expected criteria for a properly styled beer: color, level of body, aroma and palate flavors, level of hop bitterness, quality of perceptible hop aroma, levels of esters or diacetyl, and acceptability of chill haze. The guideline will also include the acceptable numeric ranges of the following: original gravity (OG), final gravity (FG), alcohol level (ABW), level of bitterness (IBU), and color (SRM or EBC).
For example, the guideline for a proper Vienna lager reads: "Beers in this category are reddish brown or copper colored. They are medium in body. The beer is characterized by malty aroma and slight malt sweetness. The malt aroma and flavor may have a dominant toasted character. Hop bitterness is clean and crisp. Noble-type hop aromas and flavors should be low or mild. Fruity esters, diacetyl, and chill haze should not be perceived." The OG should be between 1.046 and 1.056 (11.5 to 14degrees Plato), the FG between 1.012 and 1.018 (3 to 4.5degrees Plato), the ABW at 3.8 to 4.3% (4.8 to 5.4%), with IBU's between 22 and 28, and an SRM of 8 to 12 (16 to 24 EBC).
The guidelines are intended to help three distinct groups with their beer related functions: brewers, consumers, and judges. The AOB guidelines intend to give brewers guidance and historical perspective for the creation of beer recipes. For consumers, the guidelines are there to explain the nuances of styles and to help keep the brewers' products in line with proper representations of selected styles.
In reality, however, the guidelines serve only one purpose - to provide objective criteria for the judging of beers. Putting aside the complex question of whether the essence of a subjective experience can truly be judged, the philosophy underlying the style guidelines is that beers denominated as a specific style can be compared and contrasted to that style's qualities. The AOB style guidelines attempt to differentiate between a wide range of products, including some beer styles that differ in such small ways as to be imperceptible to even the most seasoned style devotee.
This guidance is welcomed by judges and brewers alike. "I am fairly a maverick when it comes to brewing commercial styles," says Chuck Skypeck, co-owner and head brewer of Boscos Brewing Company in Tennessee. "But I really think that the Beer Judge Certification Program style guidelines and, for that matter, the- AOB - style guidelines are tremendously useful tools in terms of making a very subjective experience, which is beer drinking, into an objective exercise, which is evaluation."
In beer judging competitions throughout America, style guidelines serve as the benchmark against which all entered beers are judged. At the Professional Panel Blind Tasting at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF), a group of judges, consisting of professional brewers, well-known beer writers, and other industry professionals, taste beers blind, or without labels. The goal of a judged tasting is to identify the three beers that best represent the particular style, as defined by the guidelines. A gold medal beer is a "world-class beer that accurately exemplifies the specified style, displaying the proper balance of taste, aroma and appearance". A silver medal beer is "an excellent beer that may vary slightly from style parameters while maintaining close adherence to the style and displaying excellent taste, aroma and appearance". A bronze medal beer is "a fine example of the style that may vary slightly from style parameters and/or have minor deviations in taste, aroma, or appearance".
While a beer's initial level of success is based upon its adherence to the style guidelines, the difference between medaling and going home empty-handed is entirely subjective. "You can judge in many cases the flaws first," says Boston Beer Company brewer Grant Wood. "You look for obvious mistakes in fermentation and sanitation and hopping. And then after you have eliminated all the beers with the flaws, then you look to the beers and their attributes. Does it have good hop character, good color and clarity that is indicative of that style? Are the flavor notes indicative of that style? Then, if they are there, how intense are they? Then it comes down to hairsplitting. Which one has the really better color or roasted character or hop aroma?"
The failure to bring home the gold medal is not necessarily a comment on a beer's drinkability. The case is often far from it, as judges debate what to do with excellent beers that may not quite match the rigid style protocols. "It really depends upon the panel you are sitting with," says Wood. "Some people might say, 'styles be damned! This is the best beer in the bunch and it is close enough in my opinion to stand with the rest of the bunch.' And then there are other panels that are sticklers, more rigid to the style. If it's in the kristal weizen category and it is not clear enough, it's a good weiss beer. But it's not a kristal weizen. So it really can depend upon the panel, the group of beers you judged that day, and if it really stands out. It's a group dynamic thing sometimes."
THE DEBATE CONTINUES
Unlike a challenge to an ecclesiastical proclamation, it is not heretical to contest attempts to comprehensively chronicle the wide-range of flavors found in beer. This is less a reflection on the admittedly difficult process of producing such a comprehensive work as it is a debate over the very nature of judging beer.
While many view style guidelines as fundamental to the administration of a successful evaluative event, brewers see them in a different light. For creative brewers, the logic of the style guidelines is counterintuitive - innovative brewers do not first check what everyone expects before creating new recipes. "They are sort of like the lines on the road," says Grant Wood. "Occasionally, you want to take them as indication of the direction you want to go, but you don't always want to take the road. They're nice guidelines, not that we've never checked guidelines before on alleged styles, but we use them as a marker for where these sort of beers lie. But we don't take them as the gospel."
Amid attempts to bring order to the wide world of beer, brewers go about their jobs of brewing new beers. Many brewers view the guidelines as a necessary evil.
After noting the value of the guidelines for evaluative purposes, Chuck Skypeck changes direction. "As a brewer, I don't feel that those guidelines bind me as to what I should produce in any way, shape or fashion. To a certain extent, people put too much credence in the guidelines and that limits the creativity. And if there is something about the American craft brewing industry that is important, it is creativity."
When it comes to entering beers in competitions, the process raises an age-old question: where do I fit in? According to two brewers, the answer depends on the purpose for which the beer is created. "The guidelines have not affected the styles we make," says Boston Beer's Wood. "We tend to make the beers we want to make and then hope they fit, especially if we are going to try and enter it in a competition. We try to find the place it fits the best, but most of the time we make the beer we want to make and hope it fits in some category."
The experience has been mixed for Bosco's Chuck Skypeck. "I will be very candid about this. We have always participated in the GABF . . . and we were unsuccessful for years in medaling, primarily because we brewed the beers we brewed and then we would try to back them into a particular style definition. And that usually didn't work."
Brewers have no misconceptions about how the judging process works, according to Skypeck. "I sit on the judging panel and I know that if you have two quality beers in front of you, the one that is going to ultimately get the award is the one that meets the style description because that's what the judges are instructed to do, and that's a good thing."
Confronted with reality, a brewer who wants to win a medal must either conform to the style guideline or engage in a deliberate process of shopping for the closest category. " I will look at style guidelines if there is something specific I am trying to do, or if you are going to enter it in a competition. That would be about 10 percent of the time," says Skypeck. "We have had more success the last couple of years in specifically brewing beers with a particular style guideline in mind. And we have medaled with those beers when we have said specifically, 'this is what we want to brew'."
Brewer Grant wood agrees that the categorization process is a difficult one to navigate.
"Our own Boston lager is a tough beer to categorize. It is a lager and we've had some success putting it in the Bohemian Pilsner category, but it's not exactly a Bohemian Pilsner. It's a little on the amber side for a Bohemian Pilsner as they tend to be slightly lighter. And it's got an awful lot of hop aroma, which is really sort of ale-like. So the lager itself has been in our experience a style guide buster. It's a tough beer to place in a category for competitions."
GUIDING the GUIDELINES
Created to help brewers keep their products in line with the characteristics of a particular style, style guidelines are now used to help brewers determine after the fact the style of beer they have produced. The process of judging beers and the nature of brewing requires brewers to either conform to the guidelines before the batch, or to later try and fit square pegged beers into round style holes. This has inevitably led to some awkward results, including several recent GABF gold medal winners whose names reflect a category distinct from their entered style.
It is difficult, however, to consider how the evaluative process might be changed for the better. Should beers be subjected to an additional round of subjective tastings in order to produce a Best-of-Show finisher? To allow this would be to invite the subjective tasting mayhem that the guidelines were originally intended to prevent. Yet, simply because a beer fails to perfectly match a particular set of style criteria should not preclude it from competitive analysis. The difficulty is in the nature of the beverage itself: beer's limited objective qualities are no match for the beauty of its capacity for subjective enjoyment. Beer is simply about more than math, numbers and theory.
So perhaps brewers will simply cast aside the bonds of styles and return to simpler days. Consider the story of Boscos Brewing Company and a beer with a simple name, as told by Chuck Skypeck. "We have a beer on tap now which we named "beer". Our description on the menu says "beer, mmm . . . tasty". I guess the way it turned out, it is somewhat like a craft brewed malt liquor. It wasn't necessarily intended to turn out that way, it was just this grouping of ingredients and this gravity and this hopping sounded interesting . . . so we truly backed into it that way. But what label do we put onto it? The label "beer" has actually been very popular, and a lot of it has been associated with the fact that it is just called "beer". I don't necessarily feel I have to put a style label on it. It's not that important."