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Death to Beer Styles…

A revolution is quietly growing in the beer world. Led by a group of nihilistic radicals, this movement seeks to overthrow the way brewers categorize their beers. Eschewing the restrictions of traditionalism, these free-form brewers want to change the way people think about tasting beer.

The radicals focus their scorn on the beer styles most brewers use as guideposts. Beer styles have developed from time immemorial, many born out of necessity and even accident. As brewers gained greater understanding over the brewing process, including the importance of temperature controls and sanitation, their natural senses of curiosity resulted in the appearance of new flavors. With the help of historians and authors, these flavors eventually hardened into distinguishable types.

The most widely accepted source defining beer styles is the Brewers Association’s Style Guidelines. Since 1979, the trade association’s historic and descriptive style list has attempted to bring order to an otherwise chaotic scheme of eclectic brewing methods and styles. The current list details around 70 distinct styles of beer, with each suggesting the proper color, body type, malt flavors, and hop aromas or bitterness levels.

While some may view the guide’s technical mumbo jumbo as a science nerd’s attempt to suck the fun out of beer, this mild criticism pales in comparison to the radicals’ disdain. In challenging conventional brewing wisdom, a small group of brewers across the country refuse to brew their beers in adherence to any traditional set of parameters. These brewers insist that style guidelines place oppressive, arbitrary, and even damaging restraints on the boundless creativity of craft brewers.

At Sixpoint Craft Ales in Brooklyn, New York, brewer Shane Welch is a pioneer in free-form brewing. Where many brewers first contemplate the style of beer they want to brew and then begin forming a recipe, an approach he calls ‘working backwards,? Welch visualizes each step to a final product. The Sixpoint brewer rejects working within the confines of classic style guidelines, instead choosing to focus on how he wants the beer to taste, look, and smell, down to the smallest detail, and only then does he generate a recipe. While the resulting beers cover a wide-range of flavors, the approach may painfully confound those who prefer order of categorization in their pints.

Throughout our existence, Americans have enjoyed blazing their own trail, sometimes trampling tradition in the process. Craft brewers are no different, tortuously bending and twisting time-honored and venerable beer styles into hardly recognizable new shapes. American craft brewers have taken the classic imperial stout, barleywines, and IPA styles and given them mohawks, baggy pants, and a soul patch. While for many this willingness to untether themselves from the shackles of history is part of the craft beer movement’s charm, there has always remained an underlying, if underplayed, respect for tradition. Some American brewers, however, appear ready to forego the tradition inherent in beer styles altogether.

For many beer lovers, it’s hard to wrap their minds around the concept of free-form brewing. Where they could once judge a beer against some basic objective criteria, however broad, the free-form approach appears to lose all sense of order and flirts with chaos. Without the benefit of styles in the tasting of free-form beers, consumers are left to simply ponder whether they personally like the beer. For free-form brewers, this existential point is the essence of tasting, unencumbered by paper rules influenced by European standards of beauty and achievement.

While the nihilists quietly conspire around the fringes of the brewing industry, many traditional brewers steadfastly promote the importance of brewing within the existing style framework. When drinkers understand even the basic nuances of beer styles, they are better equipped to choose the right beer when they order. But without styles or beer ESP, how does someone decide between Sixpoint’s SMP, Apollo, Express, or Encore? Without a descriptive beer menu or detailed six-pack container, consumers are essentially required to spin the wheel when selecting free-form brands.

Beer styles also provide a necessary check on the beer industry, allowing the consumer to judge the quality of a particular beer against others they’ve had in the style. The lack of any objective criteria provides poor quality beer with the ultimate means of deflecting criticism. An unknowing consumer who finds a sour or unusual off-flavor in their free-form can never be sure the brewer didn’t intend the beer to taste that way.

Standing in a barroom, looking up at the draft list, I remain torn over the value of free-form brewing. While pushing the envelope of beer is a defining characteristic of American craft brewing, so is respect for tradition. This constant push and pull has resulted in amazing displays of brewing artistry. While styles will likely continue to evolve and adapt to an ever-changing American palate, the free-form brewing revolutionaries may one day lead the way.

Article appeared in October 2007 issue of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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