Brewer's Association Revamps (Increasingly Useless?) Style Guidelines

Eno Sarris, April 20, 2016

The Brewer's Association does heroes' work in compiling a yearly update to their Beer Style Guidelines document. As the beer world innovates and melds styles together, they've had to add styles -- this year there are eight new styles, bringing the number to 152 in the 44-page packet. I don't envy them the work. 

Ostensibly, this is most useful for naming conventions and beer competitions -- the question being, what should I name this beer and where can I submit it for medal consideration. 

That sounds useful. Is it? 

For one, you really can name your beer anything. One industry sourced complained to me recently that their wheat IPA sold badly until they took the word wheat out -- "you'd think the wheat people and the IPA people would find it interesting, but in reality, neither side wants to go too far out of their lane" -- and another laughed about taking the word session off their pale ale for good results. Do what you feel will get the best results.

And another? The fast-moving world of beer is blurring the lines to the point that this exercise is one of increasing futility. 

For example. This year, they re-worked the definition of Brett Beer. It's long, and you're permitted to skip to the end. But why not try to figure it out. Because it's not easy. 

Brett Beer Brett Beers are any range of color and may take on the color of added fruits or other ingredients. Chill haze and yeast-induced haze are allowable at low to medium levels at any temperature. Moderate to intense yet balanced fruity-ester aromas are evident. In darker versions, roasted malt, caramel-like and chocolate-like aromas are subtly present. Diacetyl and DMS aromas should not be perceived. Hop aroma is evident over a full range from low to high. In darker versions, roasted malt, caramel-like and chocolate-like flavors are subtly present. Fruited versions will exhibit fruit flavors in harmonious balance with other characters. Hop flavor is evident over a full range from low to high. Hop bitterness is evident over a full range from low to high. The evolution of natural acidity develops balanced complexity. Low to high levels of Brettanomyces character should be present, expressed as horsey, goaty, leathery, phenolic, fruity and/or acidic characters, and in balance with other characters. Brettanomyces character may or may not be dominant. Cultured yeast strains may be used in the fermentation. Because some Brettanomyces strains of yeast may not contribute evident and common Brettanomyces character, beers fermented with such yeasts and which do not exhibit such characters would be more appropriately categorized elsewhere, perhaps in a classic beer style. Beers in this style should not use bacteria or exhibit bacteria-derived characters. Moderate to intense yet balanced fruity-ester flavors are evident. Diacetyl and DMS flavors should not be perceived. Wood vessels may be used during the fermentation and aging process, but wood-derived flavors such as vanillin must not be present. Residual flavors that come from liquids previously aged in a barrel such as bourbon or sherry should not be present. Body is evident over a full range from low to high. For purposes of competition entries exhibiting wood-derived characters or characters of liquids previously aged in wood would more appropriately be characterized in other Wood-Aged Beer categories. Wood- and barrel-aged sour ales should not be entered here and are classified elsewhere. A statement provided by the brewer listing a classic or other style of base beer, fruit or any other ingredients if present is essential for accurate assessment at competitions. Original Gravity (°Plato) Varies with style • Apparent Extract/Final Gravity (°Plato) Varies with style • Alcohol by Weight (Volume) Varies with style • Bitterness (IBU) Varies with style • Color SRM (EBC) Varies with style

Did you get that? The beer has Brettanomyces in it and is not a sour or barrel-aged, is pretty much all I get. It could be dark, or light, or horsey, or fruity. Did they put that line about Diacetyl in every beer description?

And check out that line at the end.  There are no scientific benchmarks for this beer. If your beer has Brett in it, and is an IPA, you pretty much have five or six places you can put it, since the Mixed-Culture Brett Beer might be fine for your beer, too. 

So the competition market starts to mimic the actual market in this case -- name it what you like. Ballast Point Sculpin has won two gold medals at the World Beer Cup. Both times it won as an "International Pale Ale." Oktoberfests have won American Style Amber awards. You can choose about five different places to put your non-barrel-aged porter or stout. Brewers already know that the best way to game the competition system is to find a low-entry style and shoehorn a beer into it, and now you can now put your Brett beer in a bunch of places. 

Could it be a reaction to the craft scene exploding? More beers means more beer styles, and therefore more chances for people to win awards? More seats at the table? More lines tapped at the competitions, more tickets sold, more attendees drinking more different kinds of beers? 


But it makes 'judging to style' closer to a farce with each year, doesn't it? How many years of tradition can you call up on to judge that non-barrel-aged mixed-style possibly fruity possibly funky Brett Beer? And how meaningful is it  to judge to that style if that beer style is one of many that the brewery could have selected for their beer?  

Chronicling the history of styles is important, but perhaps more in a historical sense than a real, current one.

Right now, there are a bunch of beers sitting in between styles, being enjoyed by you even while they don't fit into one shoebox well. Those in-betweeners might even win awards, in a style you don't recognize, and you'll shrug. When a friend asks what it is, you'll use a few adjectives and say it's good -- style names aren't that useful among friends, sharing a beer.