I’ve been swayed by some of the really interesting points in response to yesterday’s post – but also reaffirmed in my conviction not to stay in these murky waters any longer than I have to. There is no right answer. It’s fascinating that on one side, you have people arguing that an obsession with beer style liberates craft brewers and inspires them to be more creative. And on the other you have equally qualified, equally talented people arguing that it stifles creativity. I have absolutely no interest in weighing in on that one any further.
But the very debate there brings me on to my second observation on beer styles – the argument changes entirely depending on whether you focus on the brewer, or the drinker. So…
2. The drinker doesn’t need 133 beer styles. Or 70. Or even 30.
Most people who cook have only seven recipes in their repertoire. Even if they have shelves full of Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson, when it comes to planning what the family meal is going to be that night, research shows they revert to a list of no more than seven or eight choices. If they learn a new favourite dish, they forget one of the regulars they used to rely on.
Hold onto that thought – I promise it’s relevant.
On Monday night, in a very engaging defence of rigorous beer style definitions, Meantime’s Alastair Hook repeatedly made the comparison between wine and beer. Wine, he argued, has triumphed over the last twenty years by focusing on style and educating the consumer in that style spectrum. Beer is lagging behind, and needs to do the same. I think he is absolutely, 100 per cent right in this. I couldn’t agree more.
Allow me a little thought experiment. I drink a lot of wine as well as beer. I love it. I’ve done a ten week wine tasting course. I’m now going to name as many wine styles as I can think of off the top of my head. Ready? Here goes:
Chardonnay. Sauvignon Blanc. Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot. Shiraz. Pinot Grigio. Um…
I do know some more, but those ones came easily.
Let me think a bit harder:
Bordeaux. Burgundy. Claret. (Are those styles? Isn’t Claret the same as Burgundy?). Cabernet Franc (I only know that one because of the course). Sauternes. Viogner. Rose (!?) Chablis? (No, that’s a Chardonnay). There’s an Italian red I like, begins with P… no, it’s nearly there but… and what’s the really famous Italian Red? Hannibal Lecter – Chianti!
No. I’ve been sitting here for thirty seconds and that’s as many as I can get. I’m having to work harder and harder to get each new one. Of course I know more styles – I probably have at least twenty in my cellar. Under hypnosis I might get to thirty or forty. But as a knowledgeable consumer of wine, that’s the limit of my short term, top level, easily accessible memory.
How many did I get spontaneously? Six.
How many recipes can we store in our heads at an accessible level? Seven or eight.
You can see where I’m going. Wine is indeed a useful comparison if we want consumers to engage with craft beer. But it shows you how simple you have to make style.
Let’s take Chardonnay as an example. As I mentioned, Chablis is a Chardonnay. So is Blossom Hill Chardonnay. There couldn’t be two more different wines, but from a consumer point of view, they’re both Chardonnay.
Maybe behind the scenes, the wine guys behave in a similar fashion to craft beer geeks. Maybe Chardonnay breaks down into New World Oaked, New World Unoaked, Old World Unoaked, Old World Oaked Premier Cru, New World Single Estate, and so on. But if it does, then as a heavy wine drinker and passionate adorer of good Chardonnay, I have no awareness of it.
From a brewer’s perspective, if you’re going to have 133 beer styles, why not knock yourselves out and have 500? If the system inspires one guy to produce one amazing beer that he otherwise would never have come up with, then it’s worthwhile.
But please, don’t foist it on me, or anyone else who doesn’t want it. And don’t foist it on beers that are obviously more one style than they are anything else but ‘not to style’ according to a definition that’s meaningless beyond the circle of enthusiasts who created it. (The comment about Fuller’s ESB not being ‘to style’ makes me want to reach for a shotgun – of course it’s a fucking ESB.)
Learn from wine. Of course there are more than ten wine styles. But I would hazard that most wine drinkers wouldn’t be familiar with more than that number. Keep it simple. Keep it relevant. Think about it from the point of view of the time-pressed, information overloaded consumer. This is one of those occasions when I realise the marketing guys have something to contribute. Sometimes, the reason they simplify stuff and reduce it down is because they understand that most people give a fraction of a second to each purchasing decision they make, and things have to be simple in order to register.
Beer styles help inspire some people to better brews. I’m very happy about that. But that’s ultimately meaningless if it doesn’t help – or in some cases even prevents – turning more people onto great craft beer.