A Good Beer Blog


Have you read The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer - A Rant in Nine Acts by Alan and Max yet? It's out on Kindle as well as Lulu.

Maureen Ogle said this about the book: "... immensely readable, sometimes slightly surreal rumination on beer in general and craft beer in particular. Funny, witty, but most important: Smart. The beer geeks will likely get all cranky about it, but Alan and Max are the masters of cranky..."

Ron Pattinson said: "I'm in a rather odd situation. Because I appear in the book. A fictional version of me. It's a weird feeling."


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Ethan -

That Pete's chart is excellent! I wonder if there would be any copyright issues in my having it printed large?

Aside from thinking the name 'vinale' sounds dumb, there does seem to need to be a term for the emerging hybrid style of wine/beers out there- so pervasive that even Blue Moon has released one. Well, two. (Both objectively wretched, I have to add, but IMO of course.) Anyway, some consensus will occur on a term organically, I am sure.

Still, I know you won't be surprised to know I am far more sanguine than you re "styles." Consumers need a shorthand, and the truth is, unless you're nerding out on each and every beer you drink, being told something calls itself a "Porter" will always tell you more than being told it's a "beer."

Chris -

"Whopping failures" ... eh. They certainly leave something to be desired and they're falling prey to all sorts of marketing distortions and tactics, but I don't know that they completely fail in their role of describing beer in a succint, easily digestible way.

Alan -

I meant "whopping" as defined by the WJCP - Word Judge Certification Program. ;-)

But, yes, failing in their role as describing beer in a succinct easily digestible way is exactly what they do. They create a class that is described in relation to the class they create. The classification describes the class. Ethan's point is separate. A porter was a porter before any stylistic classification system. It was a thing in itself.

Chris -

Well right, but porter, without using a backwards application of "style," was still a type of beer; a type that people knew was different from mild or Burton Ale because the word "Porter" created at least some sort of expectation. And maybe applying today's logic backwards creates a problem with analyzing it properly, but still, people knew those words meant different things. And I guess that's why I think they're still useful. They're, as I think you once called them, a "helpful generality."

Alan -

WHAT!!! Citing me to me?? Man, I hates when people do that.

I am not really going on about styles, however, so much as wondering why we have no competing concepts. If style based classification is so great, it will take them on and prove it. There is something about good beer, however, that encourages homogenization and centralized authority structures.

Bailey -

I think there are competing structures but that people have learned from what happened with 'styles' and aren't trying to fix them in stone. New, or at least different, terminology is in use, but the terms overlap, and mean different things to different people. Any meaning that, e.g., 'session IPA' might have is slowly being firmed up through usage, rather than in the glossary of a book by a Michael Jackson figure.

For what it's worth, me and the other half no longer distinguish, in practical terms, between porter and stout when choosing a beer at the bar: some breweries make strong, goopy porters, others make thinner, weaker stouts, so the distinction isn't all that helpful. Style guidelines be damned. That this also ties into Martyn and Ron's persistent reminders that the Jacksonian distinction is false is a happy coincidence.

Steve Wright -

Great blog post (can i quote it? I'm currently researching the backgrtoun of the BJCP style guides and generally how these things came to be as they are now and how they're used in competitions.

If you want to flog through a masters thesis then this is about the only thing of almost-published academic research I've found in this area http://arizona.openrepository.com/arizona/bitstream/10150/193394/1/azu_etd_10454_sip1_m.pdf but it's interesting for some of the intersection of brewer's views on Styles as essentially part of branding - a bit like car categories and Ford having to make an SUV to compete with BMW's SUV etc. etc.

There are other formulations - the quadrants are lovely and simple while a network view such as http://i.imgur.com/FA5xs.jpg celebrates complexity.

Bailey's views are close to what I'm finding in looking at judges talk: that beer styles aren't as fixed as their descriptions suggest but are always reinvented and rediscovered every time they're used.

You mention of Plato's cave is interesting though i think it's Aristotle's approaches to categories that are perhaps more relvant to look at how styles are attempted to be defined on hs criteria http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Categories_%28Aristotle%29 but then break down and become more fluid and less clear cut in practice...

brewolero -

This might be nitpicky, but a really thorough taxonomy would be difficult to apply to a style guide because of a number of factors:
1) Like you footnoted, "there appears to be a new style created at the birth of each new US craft brewery." So, a really comprehensive taxonomy would have to include each of their beers as individual entries. Each beer a different species, so to speak.
2) That MA thesis Steve Wright linked to is really interesting, especially the discussion on p. 51ff on beer styles, especially the point that the BJCP and BA guidelines judge beer primarily on the sensory result rather than the brewing method. So output > input in terms of classification.
3) Because of the drastic variation in both inputs and sensory results it would be enormously difficult to delineate a true style (e.g. porter) within a taxonomy without describing each and every version of "porter" ad absurdum.

The other option to describe style would be to use a typology, which is essentially what both the BA and especially the BJCP guidelines attempt. But obviously that creates a huge mess of arguments as well.

Since beer is a cultural construct, and since culture is constantly changing and in flux, wouldn't the best bet here be to simply describe styles, rather than prescribe? And not only do it as a kind of set-in-stone thing, but as a constantly updated exercise? That way, Ron Pattinson could be satisfied to describe Bitter, Mild, Stout, etc. in 1893 and then in 1894 as well and chart out there growth and changes over time to the present.

Because beer is a cultural construct, is it really possible that one group is finally going to be able to assert full authority that "true porter = xyz made through abc"? Think of Black IPAs. They exist and describe a certain thing and perception because enough people have agreed to and used the description. IPA no longer simply means "classical India Pale Ale," it just means a bitter hoppy beer. The meaning of IPA has evolved.

I'm blanking right now, but isn't there a theory of semiotics that explains this? For example, the yellow ribbon tied around a tree in the US at first symbolized that a family had a member of the household serving in the armed forces. Over time, the meaning of the yellow ribbon has evolved, and now means something more in tune with "support our troops." So (and obviously this is paraphrasing) IPA at first denoted a well-hopped pale ale shipped to India, then a very bitter English-style malty ale, to just plain bitter and hoppy and frequently attached to another descriptor (i.e. Belgian, Black, Double, etc.).

Alan -

Man oh man. It like the attack of the smarty pants patrol! I think I have to learn a lot more about what you are each describing to know if I even have a contribution to make.

Alan -

Note, however, how Jordan's implicit point is that classification fails at a certain point with Belgian beers.

Ethan -

Footnote 19: "In order to protect the anonymity of the brewmasters I spoke with, I have replaced the names of their breweries with pseudonyms (which happen to be based on the names of various breeds of goat)."


Alan -

Well, I am not particularly clear on what IPA is given everything from a sort of porter to Belgian pale ale gets labelled with the three letters. I think style classification encourages this nonsense.