I am a lazy blogger. I love nothing better than taking the work of another and filling space with it. Or is that redundant? Isn't that all that blogging really is? But enough about me. Jeff made an excellent point today that needs further airing:
I've been thinking of why "style" fails, and I think it's because it captures only one dimension in what should be a more complex taxonomy. Forthwith, I'd like to offer a new structure, with examples. When thinking about what makes a category of beer worth carving out from the herd, it's useful to consider not only style, but brewing method and regional tradition. Take saison and biere de garde, often lumped together as "farmhouse ales." Speaking as a matter of regional tradition, this makes all kinds of sense--they come from a single source. But in terms of style, it's absurd; biere de gardes have evolved into something closer to lagers, while saisons have clung to their rusticity.
I am not sure I agree with the last illustration and would throw down 3 Monts alone as trump. With a florish I would lay that trump upon the table. But the point is an excellent one. Style of beer is a tortured form of categorization. It is not that we have too many (though we do) or that the structure bears no conceptual resemblance to its origin (a point of mine kindly referenced by Jeff) not to mention it has been hijacked by all sorts of marketeers in all parts of the brewing industry. What is wrong is that it is such a mess of incomparables. It is as it someone, when asked what makes three cars different, says one is fast, one is from France and one is red. Let's be honest. It is a system of analysis devised by people who like to drink. And it shows. A mix of tales that no one quite recalls correctly, homer bragging and a level of schism fetish that would make a Scots Presbyterian jealous. It is a means to many ends. Jeff proposes, in its place, a consideration of what makes groupings of beer distinctive but then he makes the most extraordinary statement:
If you only care about the way a beer tastes, fine. If you care about what the beer is, you have to think a little more deeply.
I find this a most extraordinary statement. Did I mention that? It reminds me of a duality in interpreting law. It is either positive or natural. Coarsely, the first means it is what it says it is and there is no higher, moral code against which it is measured. The second takes into account a higher order but finds one way or another that most law's origins can still be found there. Sorta. Maybe. But anyway, the idea that there is a dual order of things beery seems... like a worse idea than styles. Let me put it this way. Beer is only interesting as beer in that it is a tasty consumable fluid that mildly intoxicates. There is no "is" other than that. Beer may be from somewhere, may be made in some long standing or innovative technique, may be called this or that, may come in a red can or in bottle with a blue sticker on it. It may be all that underlying natural order stuff but what it "is" is its flavour, its effect through the act of consumption, even what it smells like when you stick your nose deep into a wide glass and breath in deeply. All that and that alone "is" what it is. Everything else are interesting or irritating tangents which may while away the hours - but even only does so best when one is, you know, actually having a beer.
Is that what causes style-itis? Is it the misidentification of beer with things only related to beer? Is that how we got here?