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Beer styles: the first of only two posts I will ever write on the subject

Really interesting night last night at the magnificent Old Brewery in Greenwich, where the Guild of Beer Writers held a seminar on beer styles.

There was some entertaining and thought-provoking stuff which I’m not going to summarise here, partly because I can’t really be arsed and partly because the cream of British beer blogging talent was there, and I’m sure lots of other people will be providing a full and frank account – they were certainly making more notes than me.

Why can’t I be arsed? Because talking about beer styles makes my brain itch.  This is why I’ve stopped trying to get on judging panels for international beer competitions – I’d much rather judge a beer on whether I like it or not than whether it is brewed ‘to style’.  When I wrote Hops & Glory I poked a bit of fun at the US Brewers Association because they believed there were 70 different beer styles. That was three years ago.  They now think there are 133 different beer styles.  If someone invited me to judge at the Great American Beer festival – which they never will – I would honestly have to decline.

I have two things to say about beer styles, and two only.  It used to be one, but the second one emerged last night after talking to Meantime’s Peter Haydon about the aforementioned 133 beer styles.

In this post, I’m talking about the first point:

1. Style is not fixed – it evolves
Take India Pale Ale (as a random example plucked from the air).  No one knows what the true style is because it evolved from something else, and no one actually called it India Pale Ale until at least 50 years after it was first recognised as a pale ale brewed for consumption in India.

Historians of IPA claim that Hodgsons was the first IPA, and then go on to explain how Burton brewers like Allsopp improved upon it.  OK, so right there you have two quite different beers – London IPA, which was described as ‘muddy’ and bitter, and Burton IPA, which thanks to the water achieved a condition that made it bright and sparkling.

May IPA brewers today tell the story of how the beer changed on its journey to India, and in the same breath claim their beer is an ‘authentic’ IPA, despite the fact it has not been on that journey, and therefore not undergone that change.  If I were a pedant I would argue there has only been one genuine, authentic IPA produced in the last sixty years, and the dregs of it are in a keg behind the bar at the Deputy British High Commission in Calcutta.

Today many English brewers believe authentic IPA should only contain English hops, and that US IPA is some kind of inauthentic, brash cousin.  But brewing records from places like Bass and Hook Norton show American hops, which sometimes gave the beer ‘an aroma of blackcurrant leaf’, were in widespread use in the 1870s because there weren’t enough British hops to meet demand.

And at the same time, we had a change in taxation that incentivised brewers to cut the alcoholic strength in their beer.  By the mid-twentieth century there were hundreds of IPAs in the UK, and pretty much all of them would have been 3.4-3.5% session beers.  That twisted genius Ron Pattinson has shown that even in IPA’s heyday, there were some lower strength beers going out to India under this name.  The most popular IPA rant these days is that Greene King IPA is not a ‘real’ IPA.  OK it’s not authentic if you take the 1830s as your point of reference.  But if you could talk to any British brewer in the 1940s, he would have said Greene King was typical of the IPA style.  It’s no less valid – it’s the same beer at a different point in brewing history.

The problem (it’s not really a problem unless you’re trying to define beer style) is that we’re now so interested in all the facets and possibilities of beer that something which had been quite happy to evolve over time now finds itself being pulled out of its timeline at various points, and offered up in the present. It’s like those old episodes of Doctor Who where you’d get three or four different doctors all meeting up. Every beer I’ve described above is a genuine, authentic, traditional British IPA – they should ideally all fit in the British style IPA category in the Brewers Association style guide.  But we’ve got:

  • London style 18th century IPA
  • Burton style 19th century IPA
  • American hopped traditional British IPA
  • Fully matured, warm conditioned and agitated IPA
  • Nineteenth century low strength IPA
  • Twentieth century session beer strength IPA

Six beer styles where there used to be one.  And if you were being responsible, you’d cross-reference things like the warm conditioning with the other ones to create even more.

But who would that help, apart for giving a stiffy to some guy in the Brewers Association?

They’re all genuine IPAs.  They all taste quite different.  Most of them are more similar to each other than they are to other beer styles.

I hope this demonstrates why beer style may be useful to a point, but if you pursue with the relentless classification and sub-groupings, it only leads to insanity or absolute indifference.

I’ll tell you my other thing a bit later unless you tell me to shut up about beer styles.



The Beer Nut

Is the other thing about the difference between porter and stout? 😛

Great post, though Ron isn't always a twisted genius. He often starts out as a tiddly genuis and it goes from there.


I'm not sure that Ron is "twisted". There again…

He does have the ability to upset people because he commits the cardinal sin of backing up his assertions with evidence from primary sources. The bastard! That's the sort of behaviour that gets historians a bad name. Oh, and he admits when he's wrong too.

I particularly enjoy the made up beer styles. You know Robust porter/brown porter etc. There is someone out there sat in a back room thinking these things up.

Des de Moor

Good post, Pete. Actually this year there were only (!) 79 recognised style categories at the GABF judging, but even so it does seem a bit daft. Style and genre are indispensable but contentious concepts in the appreciation of a wide range of subjects other than beer — film criticism, for example, is always rumbling with genre controversies. The actual situation is dynamic and complex, and the landmarks shift in relation to new innovations, so trying to fix them in stone inevitably leads to problems.

In the case of GABF I think some of it is driven by a desire to attempt to judge "objectively" in a world where individual taste and subjective appreciation are generally foremost. So they need benchmark styles. But those darn brewers will keep innovating — and particularly in the US the innovations are coming thick and fast. The only way they can keep up, and avoid having to mark down self-evidently excellent beers because the brewer has pushed the syle envelope, is by constantly multiplying style categories.

Shame I couldn't make it last night but I didn't want to spread a sore throat around the cream of British beer writing!

Laurent Mousson

That's indeed one of the important points. I understand the idea of beer categories for competitions, to try and make sure you get to judge beers that can be compared together.
But trying to force that square peg into the round hole of beer reality is never going to work. because something influenced to that level by human elements is never going to fit in a systematic classification (the most laughable example being the infamous "Periodical table of beer" poster)

In the tastings and courses I give now and again down here, I nowadays tend to insist more on beer denominations rather than styles.
Because, after all, what your average beer consumer needs is to have a vague idea of what the beer is likely to look and taste like when he or she reads "IPA" or "Stout" on the label. And to be aware that those terms, which often come together in "families" cover diverse, evolving realities.


couple of thoughts: you can go to far the otehr way though@ the other day I noticed Nigel Slater making a casserole and suggesting that you add a "Dark beer" to the dish. I half imagined he meant "dark" as in "dark comedy".

Also think it's still worth highlighting the variety of beer styles as in the same edition (?) of the Observer Jay Rayner reviewed a new brew pub and blithely announced he didn't like beer ie. all 79 (and rising) different kinds of it.

Mark (Halite)

Totally agree with the post. As a homebrewer beer styles are useful to a point, but definitely the strictness that Beers comps give to being 'in style parameters' is counterproductive and probably stifles innovation in homebrewing circles (particularly in the US). At a guess there is probably only 5 or 6 types of beer, wouldn't it be refreshing if that was the case with the likes of the GABF?

Joe Stange

Personally I'd like to see more hedonistic judging instead of so-called 'objective' tasting… Beer is supposed to be fun, after all. Style guidelines suck all the joy from it.

A much larger problem is that many of my US compatriots first learned about craft beer THROUGH the style guidelines, either through homebrewing or sampling the wares at local, unimaginative brewpubs. They learn these styles and how they are supposed to be and think that they represent beer history. Worse still, many are never quite able to remove the style guidelines as a narrow, distorted, fetishized lens through which to view the wide world of beer.

Ben Ronck

Lots of great posts here. I understand how zelaous homebrewers could leave a sour taste in the mouths of Euopeans such as yourself and Ronald Pattinson. Something to consider, you "grew up" in a world with many types of beer, even if there were a lot fewer choices than there are today. Those of us from the US effectivley grew up with only one, BMC post-prohibition lager.

Whether through hombrewing or the craft beer revoloution most beer geeks picked up one day and dropped into a "Sea of Choices" that they had to rationalize in some way. I will fully admit Americans have no sense of history, so Style Guidelines are a substitute. Des De Moor hits it right on the head when brining up film style conflict. Its the same thing.

When folks discover good beer, for many it goes from beeing a drink to being a mark of distinction, or point of snobbery or just plain an obsession. I think thats where you get style geeks and hipster beer snobs. I assume tickers might be in there too, but as an american I dont know to much about those people. Eventually, hopefully beer just becomes a drink again. A wonderful, multidimenional gastronomical delight, to be sure, but a drink and not something else.

Barley McHops

The recent proliferation of the so-called "Black IPA" (or "Cascadian Dark Ale") speaks to the general confusion regarding beer styles today. How can a beer be simultaneously "Black" and "Pale"?

Here's a rational approach to categorizing beer styles that I think has some merit. It's not perfect by any means, but I like to think it's at least slightly more logical than the current system.

Great post as always!

Steve Pereira (SilkTork)

I thought Alastair's comment on the night about provenance was an interesting googly at the sticky wicket of beer styles. There is this notion that beer styles are a (what is that BJCP word? ) hybrid of provenance and description. Somehow the notion of provenance (which people interested in beer – be they marketers, writers or drinkers – are attracted to), with all that history, local tradition and romance, has got conflated with descriptions of beer. So a description such as "pale lager", gets merged with the history and tradition of beer brewing in Pilsen as a beer style called "Pilsener", while the same beer when merged with the history and tradition of beer brewing in Dortmund gets defined as a beer style called "Dortmunder", and when merged with Munich's brewing history gets called, yes, "Helles" (hang on – shouldn't that be MĂźnchen or something?). Anyway, so it goes on. And that's fine. We can say, yes, when a beer that is pale and lager-like gets brewed in Pilsen, there is a history and tradition there that is associated with that beer, and we recognise and acknowledge that history and tradition and call it pale lager from Pilsen or Pilsner. Fine and dandy. No problems. But what happens when a brewery in France or Britain or America decides to make a pale lager and call it Pilsner? The brewery is wishing to capture some of the romance and history – the provenance – that doesn't belong to them. I see no problem with them describing a beer for what it is – pale and lager-like. But I do have a problem with them taking (stealing? forging?) a provenance that is not theirs and they have not earned. Sure it's a marketing exercise that has been exploited since goods were first made, but it's not a marketing exercise that should be enshrined in guidelines telling people how to do it! The American Brewing Association and the BJCP and other places that provide instructions on how to forge Rolex watches (sorry, Bass beer) should be investigated by the Interpol Fraud Squad (IFS – is that a beer style?). Let's have a little less cloning, forging, copying or stealing of other brewers traditions and history, and a little more standing up and being proud of our own local traditions. Let's have some of that "London Lager" or "Kentish Ale" or "Yorkshire Bitter" – lets be proud of ourselves for beer's sake.

Gary Gillman

India Pale Ale, from the time at least when it achieved renown in India, was pale or light amber, well-attenuated (up to 80-90%), and decidedly bitter. 19th century books clearly state this and that the domestic versions were the same as the export save with less hops. I consider Greene King's and Charles Wells' versions (as exported to North America, they are 5% ABV or more from memory) excellent examples of the style. The variants you mentioned in hop type and strength are probably no different than what was available in Britain by 1870 because every brewer's beer had a different taste to a degree (as now), but the core nature of the style was, and is, still recognizable. Black IPA is a misnomer in my view and really represents something different to IPA. It is more a stout-type beer with a marked North American hopping.

The above definition of IPA holds in my view after 150 years, and is enough to set it apart from mild ale (where the hop does not overlord) and porter and stout (where roasty quality is the key to the taste).

From there, you can extrapolate endlessly and I have no problem with it since it facilitates judging and competitions. Beer culture in North America in its modern form came from that background and also from Michael Jackson's taxonomy in his early works. It's a fusion of those two influences and has always worked well here.

We must remember too that many ardent brewers and beer fans need a frame of reference that does not rely on history for its essential insights; not everyone is interested in the history angle.

At the end of the day, if I like it I like it and I'll be the first to say that I'd rather brewers make something that tastes right – whatever its classification – than worrying too much about any specific set of guidelines.


Pete Brown

btw – and this is the biggest problem with online communication – my description of Ron Pattinson as a twisted genius was meant as nothing other than the warmest praise.


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