Grouping Beer Better: Towards Mega-Styles

Eno Sarris, January 28, 2015

Take a look at this leaderboard.

Anything seem strange? 

Those are some lofty scores for a list of beers you may not be familiar with. And what the heck is a pale lager anyway? Or an India Pale Lager? Or a session pale? 

Read the description for Hoponius Union from Jack's Abby themselves: 

Hoponius Union harmoniously combines lager yeast fermentation and West Coast IPA hops. Our India style Pale Lager is like a traditional IPA but with a twist - it’s fermented cold and aged for extended periods. A blend of classic American hops creates a huge tropical fruit and citrusy hop aroma. A dry finish accentuates the pleasant bitterness and hop profile. Hoponius Union uses locally sourced ingredients. 

Are we going to put this beer with the lagers and pilsners? 

This is, of course, an important question around here. Because we'd like Pilsners to fight Pilsners and not Imperial Stouts, we compare beers within style before comparing them to the general population. If a beer gets called gluten-free instead of an IPA, it just might contend for Rookie of the Year. If you call it an IPL instead of an APA, you get into the top 60. If you call your Pilsner an American Light Lager... you get the point. 

It's a point of weakness. 

What if we grouped beers more generally to avoid this problem? Pales. Darks. Lights. 

It's a thing that happens in baseball. Sometimes a splitfinger fastball is called a changeup, sometimes it's called a fastball, and sometimes it's called a splitter. Depending on where you put the often-lethal diving pitch, you'll mess with the general outcomes. One way to deal with that is to put pitches in three buckets -- fast, breaking, off-speed. 

Of course, there are more types of beers then there are pitches. So three probably isn't enough. 

And even within the 'pale ale,' it's possible that comparing the ligher versions and the stronger versions will just lead to a bunch of Double IPAs leading the boards. Well, that happens a bit anyway because DIPAs are the most popular beers. 

But check out the current replacement levels, and it looks like you can make a semi-math-based argument for spearating the ligher pales from the darker ones. 

Style Replacement Level
Triple IPA 3.96
Imperial / Double IPA 3.81
Imperial / Double Black IPA 3.80
IPA - American 3.71
IPL (India Pale Lager) 3.65
Black IPA / Cascadian Dark Ale 3.62
Belgian IPA 3.61
American IPA 3.55
Imperial Pale Ale 3.54
White IPA 3.46
American Pale Ale 3.45
Belgian Pale Ale 3.43
New Zealand Pale Ale 3.43
English IPA 3.38
American Pale Wheat Ale 3.34
English Pale Ale 3.33
Pale Lager 2.79

Replacement level is the worst score in the top 70% of volume -- the worst beer that's readily available by our best guess. There aren't a lot of Triple IPAs, and people love to give them four stars, it seems. In any case -- especially if you took English and Belgian beers out and put them in their own groups based on the basis of their National characteristics -- it looks like the stronger pale ales generally group towards the top of the list and the weaker ones group at the bottom. 

In other words, if you put DIPAs together with TIPAs and black DIPAs and just plain IPAs, you'd have a group with a replacement level around 3.7 (even with the two different American IPA styles averaged out). And if you put IPLs with APAs and Pale Wheats, you'd have a lighter pale ale grouping that might settle in around 3.4.

The Pale Lager would still look like an outlier, but then it's instructive to think of sample sizes. There are 670 pale lagers on our leaderboards. There are 3614 American IPAs. The IPA replacement level is therefore more robust, and our replacement level for the new category -- Light Pale Ales -- would be stronger because the sample size in the new Mega Style would be upped. 

If you wanted to include the international pales in their respective light/heavy categories, you wouldn't even be penalized that much in terms of general groupings. And, since ABV is well-correlated with scores, this separation of light and dark works fairly well in stouts and porters as well. 

In the end, it's just nonsensical that Sour Ales have a 3.76 replacement level and Gueuzes are up at 3.98. Throw them together and get a better bucket. 

So, just taking a first stab at it, here's a possible list of Mega Styles. Feedback would be much appreciated. 

  • Heavy Pale Ales (TIPA, DIPA, IPA, Belgian IPA, English IPA, American IPA)
  • Light Pale Ales (American PA, PA, IPL, Pale Lager, Pale Wheat, English PA, Belgian PA)
  • Pilsners and Lagers (Including Imperial Pilsners, Black Lagers, Biere Brut, Biere de Garde)
  • Heavy Dark Ales (Imperial Stout, American IS, Russian IS, Imperial Oatmeal Stout, Imperial Porter, Barleywine, Milk Stout, English BW, American Strong Ale, Imperial Double Red, Baltic Porter, Belgian Strong Dark Ale, English Strong Ale)
  • Light Dark Ales (Stout, American Stout, Oatmeal Stout, American Porter, Rye Beer, English Porter, American Brown Ale, Scottish Ale, English Brown Ale, Belgian Brown Ale, Irish Red Ale, American Amber, Cream Stout, Foreign/Export Stout)
  • Sours (Gueuze, Flanders Red Ale, Flanders Oud Bruin, Sour Ale, Lambic, Fruit Beer) 

Okay that's good enough for a first stab because there are already a ton of questions. 

  • Should Belgian IPAs be grouped with the Belgians or with the pale ales? 
  • Are we going to have light and dark Germans, English, and Belgian groupings? 
  • Do Goses go with sours or Belgians or Germans? Do Saisons go with Belgians or sours?
  • Where do Winter Warmers and Pumpkin Beers go?
  • What to do with Chili Beers, Ginger Beers, Root Beers, Wheat Wine, Cysers, Braggots, Perrys, and Faro Beers? "Weird Beers"?
  • How many mistakes did I make in the small chunk I tried to break off?

So anyway, step one is always throwing the idea out there. Step two is getting feedback. Then rinse and repeat. Please help think this one through!