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The Challenges of Style-izing

beer101logoOver the past few weeks I have quietly been studying and reflecting on the new 2015 BJCP Guidelines, which by all accounts is something of a sea change in the beer judging world. Longstanding groupings of styles and even the basic logic of the category divisions has been blown up, along with the addition of dozens of new styles.

In the coming days (or couple weeks) I will offer a (much belated) post offering my take on the new guidelines – the good, the bad and the ugly as it were. But I found that before picking stylistic nits, I needed to anchor my thinking around styles, categories and guidelines. I turned my thoughts on the matter into my latest Beer 101 column which went live last week. You can read the piece here.

The first thing we need to get our heads around is what is the purpose of categorizing beer styles? Obviously there is a need for defined categories when engaging in judging and evaluation. We need a standard upon which to calibrate our observations. It is both natural and logical to group various beer that share common characteristics. We want to judge apples to apples, as it were.

But that is where the trouble starts. Upon what criteria do we divide those apples? By ingredients, colour, flavour, fermentation method, region, history, alcohol strength? In short, yes. By necessity we cluster beer around a matrix of qualities that draws upon all of those dimensions. Beer is complex.

Our problems only begin there, however. To be effective a category/style must be coherent enough to include the similar and exclude the dissimilar, and neatly ensure every beer has a place. Yet it must remain flexible enough to permit interpretation within the style. It is a challenging balancing act.

The BJCP has the Herculean task of trying to accomplish all of this – and via volunteer labour only. As I say I will leave my specific critiques of the new Guidelines for another day, but for now I want to, first, acknowledge how exceptionally difficult the task is and, second, that it is impossible to create the perfect categorization.

In broad terms, the new Guidelines are a partial success. They are effective at opening beer styles to the growing complexity of beer. They create new categories reflecting beer that did not exist before (e.g., American Wild Ale) and build in some flexibility at times to reflect the non-stop evolution of some styles (e.g., Specialty IPA as a solution for the constant IPA tweaking). The new guidelines are impressively exhaustive and make amends for overlooked styles in the past (e.g., British Golden Ale).

Yet I find the meta-logic of the new guidelines unsettling. I fear the authors adopted too many competing criteria for categorization. The new guidelines include categories defined by region, by colour and flavour, by ingredients, by process and by trendy naming practices (hello Black IPA!!). That isn’t a problem in and of itself. I find, however, that they apply the criteria inconsistently and, at times, in a contradictory fashion. I cite two examples to demonstrate my point. They create a category called Czech Lager build exclusively on region and history. Yet they blow apart the old Scottish Ale category by tossing Wee Heavy into a different family. To my mind the continuum of Scottish ales, from Light to Wee Heavy is more coherent than the range of Czech lagers (from light to dark in colour), and Scottish Ales are more distinct as a family than Czech lagers, most of which are similar to German versions.

All of this points to the inordinate challenge of trying to build inclusive, exhaustive, clearly delineated yet flexible categories for a creature as complex, diverse and constantly evolving as beer. The (understandable) imperfection of the 2015 Guidelines should offer all of us an opportunity to reflect on the purpose and goal of categorization. We need, on a regular basis, to re-ask ourselves why we create the categories we do and, importantly, how those decisions might distort our perceptions of what constitutes a “style”.

Just some food for thought. Watch for my more detailed commentary on the Guidelines coming soon.


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