Contradictions and innovations make categorizing beer difficult

PINTS by Jason Foster


Humans have a penchant for categorization. We like to divide things into distinct groups so that we can understand how things are different. Organizing things makes our lives easier.

But categorization is not without challenges. What is the criteria for distinguishing two things? How do we deal with overlapping characteristics? Do we make the boundaries between categories rigid or loose?

The beer world is not immune from categorizations. In beer we call them “styles”. They are the basic divisions to help us understand how different beer are similar to and differ from one another. Some divisions are easy and therefore fundamental. Lagers and ales, for example, have a clear delineation due to the yeast strain (and fermentation process) used. They are the core of how we define beer — a beer is either one or the other. Or is it? There are a number of beer styles that resist the binary distinction: kolsch, altbier, steam beer — just to name a few — have features of both.

That is my point. Defining beer by style is challenging. First, what are our criteria? History? Country of origin? Colour? Ingredients? Flavour profile? All have arguments for and all matter in some fashion. We can’t ignore any of them.

Second, how do we create clear boundaries that minimize crossovers? Not easy. Third, how do we prevent creating a rigid set of descriptors that discourage (or can’t deal with) interpretations within a style? These are polar opposite issues.

I raise all of this because the Beer Judge Certification Program, which certifies me, recently released a massive revamp of their longstanding style guidelines, which are generally seen as the gold standard for defining beer styles. The 2015 version, which came out in the fall, looks almost nothing like their last version, released in 2008. The BJCP tests, certifies and regulates beer judges around the world and the guidelines are designed to aid in judging, so what they decide matters.

The changes were like an earthquake in the beer judge world. I don’t want to get too beer geek-y and so will refrain from overloading you with details. But I think there are a few points of interest to general beer fans in these changes.

The new guidelines define 34 categories (style families), with 104 official styles. The 2008 guide had 23 categories and 80 sub-styles. Obviously new styles were created that both reflect innovations in the industry and address overlooked historical styles. For example, there is a new category called Czech Lager to recognize its long history. We also see new categories like American Wild Ale which acknowledge trends in U.S. craft brewings. Lots of new styles, ranging from Kellerbier to Festbier to Australian Sparkling Ale to German Leichtbier, have been created.

Some long-existing styles got juggled around and now exist in new categories. The Stout category has been exploded and sorted into three different categories. The so-called hybrid styles have disappeared as a family and their denizens scattered. Wee Heavy has been separated from its siblings in the Scottish Ale category.

The details only matter to people like me. But I want to raise three key lessons that might be relevant to the general beer fan. First, the new guide has shifted to recognize the growing complexity of the beer world. More and more new beers are being created — and not all can be accommodated in the old system. There are simply more styles today than a few years ago. The range of IPAs has exploded, and breweries are experimenting with both barrel-aged and soured beer. We have seen great advances in gluten-free beer. All of these need to be recognized.

Second, the BJCP has struggled with their core criteria for determining category divisions. At times they split historical styles up to reflect flavour differences (e.g. IPAs, Stouts). At others they privilege history over flavour (e.g., Czech Lagers, Pale American Ale). At still others, their choice simply doesn’t make sense (inclusion of Wee Heavy in Strong British Ale). It shows it is hard to create categories and that the complexity of beer is beyond our easy categorization.

Third, the reason for the difficulty is that the creativity in the beer world is expanding almost exponentially. Every year, in addition to new styles being created, there are innovative techniques that create something unanticipated even within styles. Plus brewers are constantly cross-pollinating. It can be a huge headache for someone trying to create guidelines.

I have lots of critiques of the new BJCP guidelines (and have articulated them in other forums), but in this column I want to both recognize the difficulty of the task before the writers of the guidelines and, ultimately, the futility of trying to capture the diversity of beer in a booklet.

Beer defies easy categorization. So what is in a style? There’s no easy answer. Mostly we need to see it as a broad approximation, always in flux — and be willing to embrace unique interpretations and new innovations.