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The BJCP World Turns Upside Down

bjcp logoIn July the Beer Judge Certification Program, the leading amateur beer education and style defining organization, released the draft of its 2014 Style Guidelines (you can find a link to the PDF here). The changes are huge. Massive. Dis-orienting. So,  though I might offer up a few of my thoughts and initial reactions to the draft.

As most of you know, I am a BJCP Certified judge and have in my beer writing taken the BJCP Guidelines as my rough road map to understanding beer styles. I have always been careful to see the style guide for what it is – a framework for understanding the differences and similarities between beer anchored in historical and regional traditions and NOT a set of firm rules. Still, its approach has profoundly shaped how I understand beer.

Which means my (and other judges’) world is about to be turned upside down. Previous editions of the guidelines have been anchored around perception commonalities – flavour, colour, etc. The primary divide, a reasonable one, was lager vs. ale (and the quirky hybrid styles) and categories were constructed around beer from similar profiles – pale lager, bock, porter, etc. The new edition comes at the project from a completely different frame of mind. The new guideline is divided, mostly, around geography with some vestigial sensory and ingredient components. The ale/lager distinction is fuzzified, with ales and lagers co-existing in the same category. Some categories, such as Pilsner, are eliminated entirely while others (Stout, Porter, Bock) are scattered among other classifications. Meanwhile many categories arise anew, including International Lager, Czech Lager and American Wild Ale, and a plethora of new styles appear.

There are far too many changes, and their ramifications too far-reaching, for one single post. So, instead, I will offer some initial observations, recognizing there will be many omissions. Feel free to chime in with your own thoughts. I will go at this in two sections – first an assessment of the overall effect and then some specific nits that I wish to pick.

Before I start, I want to openly acknowledge that much of my reaction is simply being forced to re-think what has become second nature. Humans are often reluctant to change, and this one is a biggie. So filter my comments with that in mind.

beer glass lineOverall Impressions

Virtually all of my comments relate to the categorization logic and style selection. There is a reason for that. I have long felt the BJCP does a good job of describing style characteristics and I am not particularly hung up on the commercial examples they list. And when it comes to styles with which I am less familiar, who am I to question their descriptions? Do I really know better than the authors what a Sahti or a German Leichtbier taste like? Plus it is my nature to look at the logic behind the system as much as the words themselves. So be it.

The old (existing) philosophy had an elegant coherence to it. Like was matched with like. The worlds of ale and lager were distinct. There was an instinctive sense that (most) of the styles naturally fit together. The downside, of course, was that it created a bit of rigidity in interpretations and new developments were not easily absorbed into the system. White IPA is a perfect example – where does it go? The Specialty category had become a grab-bag of miscellany.

The new framing solves the weaknesses of the former versions but at the expense of that elegant coherence. The new categories do not make intuitive sense. American Wheat Beer is clustered with American Light Lager. Baltic Porter is matched with Doppelbock and Eisbock (and categorized as a lager). Saison and Biere de Garde are in separate categories. Why? The forced nature of some of the categories are demonstrated by how many adjectives have to be used – “Amber Malty European Lager”. Surely there must be an easier way to group similar styles?

The new edition increases the number of defined styles to 104 (plus 13 mead and 11 cider). On that front, I am quite comfortable. I think the authors have done a great job of addressing the bulk of the major omissions from previous versions. Most of the newly added styles are longstanding beer that simply fell through the cracks – Kellerbier. Australian Sparkling Ale, Trappist Single and Wheatwine just to name a few. The number of styles remains manageable and is a better reflection of the world of beer today.

I also think they hit a stand-up triple in their handling of the various specialty, historical, spiced, gluten-free and sour beer. The old category 23 (Specialty) had become nonsensical. There is now a much higher degree of demarcation and identification which creates more room for brewers and easier assessment for judges.

However, I simply can’t get past the geographic anchoring. It feels clunky to me. I have three main concerns. First, I find it creates artificial divisions between beer of relative similarity. For example, Czech Premium Lager (what Czech Pilsner is now called) and German Pils have more in common, both stylistically and historically, with each other than their new category mates (in the case of German, Kolsch, Exportbier – the new Dortmunder Export – and Leichtbier – a newly recognized style). There are lots of those examples.

Second, I think it overvalues some regions’ brewing traditions and under-values others. Czech beer is given its own category and four styles, while Baltic and Nordic brewing traditions are passed over. Or how about Japan? I realize the Czechs have a long and storied beer history, but so do many other places. Also, I recognize not everyone can be included, but this is the danger in creating regional vs. perception separators. I am well aware Czech interpretations are unique, but are they sufficiently different to rate their own category? A Czech Dark Lager is different than a Munich Dunkel, but they are more closely related to each other than they are to Czech Premium Lager or Czech Light Lager – which takes me back to point one.

Third, it has allowed for a creeping Americanism. Previous versions acknowledged that U.S. brewers made certain beer differently – IPAs, Stouts, etc. But those differences were included within the broader category, recognizing Americans have merely tweaked a longstanding style, not created their own new thing (in most cases). The new approach, in my opinion, elevates the American experience to one of special status. The one that bugs me the most is how they handle IPA. In the draft, IPA is essentially defined as American – only American interpretations are included in the category. British IPA is relegated to Pale English Beer alongside English Golden Ale (another wise style addition) and Australian Sparkling Ale. That feels wrong to me. The British invented the style, for goodness sake. What was wrong with acknowledging two traditions in one category? Similar issues arise with Stout, Wild Ale (the Americans are hardly the only ones using wild fermentation) and what was Pale Lager.

My final big picture thought is how the new organization will affect judging. I think it makes things harder, not easier. With the old categorization for the most part like was being judged with like. All the stouts were together. Hoppy was judged with hoppy; malty with malty. Now it is a grab bag of flavours, colours and tendencies. I will be expected to compare a Kolsch with a German Pilsner, or a Blonde Ale to an American Pale Ale. I do agree with the creation of “Strong” categories, as an extra strong style  could confuse matters during a flight. Pulling Double IPAs out from the rest of IPAs, for example, makes sense.

Sure, I and other judges will get used to it. It is our job to sense quality across flavour profiles. But there was nothing seriously broken with the previous approach of judging like with like.

I am well aware how hard it is to revamp a style guideline, and I want to commend the authors for their Herculean effort. So, don’t take my comments as a desire to dump on the process. I am just offering some thoughts on what I think the proposal means.

Now on to some nit-picky stuff.

Random Thoughts (in no particular order)

  • full beer glassesVienna Lager is completely mis-categorized. It does not belong in the Amber Bitter European Lager category. When the descriptor says “hop flavour low to none”, you have to wonder. I know it has some bitter balance, but I consider it still a malt-accented beer.
  • Why is Rauchbier, the original smoked beer, placed with Marzen and Bock rather than with Smoked Beer?
  • While I understand the attempt to make certain styles flexible, such as Specialty IPA, Kellerbier and Historical Beer, I find the use of substyle descriptors (White IPA, Red IPA, etc.) without giving them a number awkward. I get it, but it just seems lacking finesse. If they think a style has longevity and legitimacy, it should be given its own number, even if it is 21B.1 or something.
  • There had to be a way to retain the ale/lager distinction. It is the most fundamental of categorizations in the beer world. I count four categories that mix ales and lagers. It shouldn’t be that hard to fix them so that we can still keep that nice, clean divide due to yeast strains.
  • Dividing Stout up into three different places makes little sense to me. Irish Stouts have more in common with English Stouts than they do Irish Red Ales (there is that geography problem again).
  • I am glad they renamed the Scottish Ales. That shilling system was never useful, nor accurate. I can also live with other historical corrections, such as eliminating Czech Pilsner (since Pilsner Urquell has traditionally been the only one called pilsner). Avoiding the Oktoberfest/Marzen debate through the use of Festbier was a deft touch.
  • I like the distinction between Clone Beer and Experimental Beer. I like that brewers can be given space to try to nail a specific beer, rather than just styles. However, it seems like judging that category might be very challenging.
  • Why is geography king until Wee Heavy, which is awkwardly plunked in with Old Ale and English Barleywine?
  • I simply have to mention again that I give full thumbs up for the new styles recognized. They are all logical and deserved.

Well, I think I should stop there before I start critiquing the font and the spelling of the word “color” (see, it is that Americanizing again – most of the English-speaking world spells it “colour”!).

On the whole a large task well performed. Even if I have concerns about the broad framing they have opted for, ultimately I suspect the new guidelines, once we all have some practice, will prove just as workable as the previous incarnations. Of course, now I think I have some studying to do…

6 comments to The BJCP World Turns Upside Down

  • Dave

    It pains me to see that yet again, the BJCP is ignoring classic Canadian examples (Sleeman’s Cream Ale doesn’t count) of styles in their examples listings. Do they really think that Americans are the only ones to use the guidelines and that we have no competent judges here to give them some suggestions?

    Quite honestly, the further the Brewers Association and the BJCP get into their Americanization of everything, the less interested I am in keeping my status current. On top of the fact that the addition of new categories will lead to some competitions taking longer than 5 days with multiple sessions per day to judge.

    J, any chance you can get away for judging October 1st – 5th for the Winnipeg comp?

  • Mark

    I need to spend some time digesting this one and judging a couple comps under this format. However, at this point I feel like they took things a little too far. Hate to admit it, but as a National Ranked judge, I am feeling pretty lost right now, and not exactly enthused to get up to speed.

  • Kurtis

    Got to say overall I’m a fan of the planned changes. I think the groupings are more similar for judging similarities than just putting all the stouts together, etc. There looks like a couple odd things, the Vienna is mis-categorized but other than that I like it.

    Also Baltic Porter is often brewed as a lager and says so in the 2008 guidelines.

  • Ernie

    Dislike many of the changes in the earlier categories where there is too much focus on region vs. final project…as you mentioned, let me compare similar beers against each other instead of light styles vs. dark styles, ales vs. lagers, etc. just because the style originated from the same country. (That said, given how most commercial breweries brew their American Wheat Ale, I think it is perfectly reasonable to pair them against lagers)

    As an “out there” homebrewer, many of the later categories reflect what I’ve already been doing for some time, and so it’s nice to see them being recognized. (I remember entering a white IPA many years ago, and the judges comment was “why would you combine these two styles?”…it won gold a month later when I renamed it a “Belgian IPA”). Ultimately, instead of entering 7 beers in category 23 and competing against myself, there are actually categories where they properly fit and don’t have to compete against one another. However, my oak-aged fruit and spiced beer looks like it will still be an outlier. 🙂

    I also like that smoked beers have been separated from wood-aged beers, as they can be very different, and have experienced first-hand overhearing a judge that didn’t even try and hide his bias in proclaiming that he loved smoked beers and hated wood-aged beers…and judged accordingly. Now hopefully he will just avoid judging the latter category since he has such a profound dislike for it. But I suppose my planned oak-aged smoked beer will still fit in the specialty category 🙂

    • beerguy

      You are hilarious, Ernie! You are clearly Alberta’s mad scientist brewer and clearly the new guidelines will double or triple your medal haul.

  • Really thoughtful perspective on the pros and cons of the planned changes, but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

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