There’s a well-written blog post going around, written by one Michael O’Connor of Portland, Oregon, another in a string proclaiming the “death of beer styles“. It’s an interesting read, makes a lot of good points, gets a couple of minor things wrong that aren’t worth dwelling on (cough, Reinheitsgebot, cough), and is generally good food for discussion. There’s definitely a few points I want to discuss about this. The author describes a trend towards brewers letting their creative juices flow, something we’re seeing a lot more these days in the US in particular, but elsewhere as well.
I guess my first point is that the whole “beer comes in styles thing” was always wrong. It’s kind of funny that people ever really thought that. I’ve been logging the beers I’ve tried since 1993 and it didn’t take too long to notice that my vague “Specialty” category was always one of the most popular. Presently, in my lifetime totals, Specialty sits as #5 behind Pale Lager, IPA, Bitter and Pilsner, and ahead of everything else. Bear in mind that doesn’t include the catch-all categories like American Strong, Sour/Wild, Saison/Farmhouse or even the minor experimentation that occurs within the context of an otherwise clearly delineated style. With all of those included, Specialty might be #1 above Pale Lager, but it would be the most popular craft beer style. Craft beer has always embraced colouring outside of the lines. So the world of beer was never bound by beer styles, which to me makes proclamations of their demise a little bit overblown.
The trend the author describes is real, mind you. Brewers who once thought that you had to brew within the confines of established styles have probably changed their minds about that – all but the most conservative breweries are embracing innovation, and doing so for all the right reasons, such as love of beer and a desire to meet the needs of consumers. If at some point there was the perception that the world of beer was comprised of neat and tidy little compartments known as “styles”, everybody know realizes that this is not the case. Brewing is a big, wide open world and you only brew in those little boxes when you want to.
Right now, there are definitely a lot of brewers who aren’t all that interested in brewing within those boxes, and there’s a lot of consumers who don’t want to drink in those boxes, either. That’s obviously good, but it’s also a foolish to discard the traditional styles altogether. I’ve seen this discussion framed as a binary choice far too many times and that just makes no sense. Here’s the thing. At the end of the day, you need a viable product, something that consumers are going to keep coming back to. The author cites things like s’mores beer, but while it’s nice to try stuff like that, I haven’t seen too many clown beers sell profitable volumes. Maybe Southern Tier Crème Brulee.
Thankfully, experimentation goes well beyond clown beer, and includes some really incredible stuff. But a lot of it is just muddled, messy product. When Brewer’s Association Director Paul Gatza addressed the audience during the opening of the Craft Brewer’s Conference in April, he made some pretty blunt comments to the effect that a lot of new breweries aren’t making very good beer. I’m surprised those comments didn’t get more play. I can only imagine there were 9000 brewers sitting in that room, looking around thinking “I know he’s not talking about me.” But like Gatza, I was there in the mid-90s when the last big explosion occurred in the craft beer market occurred and yeah, he probably was talking about a lot of people in that room. People get into brewing, have a lot of ambition, but don’t necessary have a lot of technical ability.
The reason that beer styles are useful for brewers isn’t to pigeonhole them and constrain their creativity. It’s actually the opposite; brewers working within those confines actually learn how to brew. The old saw about the challenge in making a really good Kölsch is true – it’s not easy to make light, delicate beer. It’s also not easy to nail a style, except for the most forgiving ones. All artists have frameworks within which they can hone their skills during genre work. Some excel at genre work, while others take their talents to the highest level by transcending genre. I guess that’s a lot of what Gatza was talking about – and if he didn’t mean that then I certainly do. There’s a lot of people full of creative energy, making random non-style beers that suck. So there’s that – if you can’t make a halfway drinkable hefeweizen, what hope do you have to make a killer sour brett beer? Yeah, you could do it. But I’m starting to see a lot of failures, and brewers jumping into the deep end before they are ready. Truly great artists are masters of their craft – they learn the fundamentals to perfection so that when they experiment they nail it.
It’s not hurting the industry today, this experimentation. Not in the slightest, in fact the industry is thriving on it. But today, you have a generation of young people coming up who have known about craft beer their entire lives. And others are discovering it. Craft beer is trending, big time, and while I think that it is sustainable for a while, consumers tend to become savvy quickly. Dodgy brewers, no matter what they are making, can survive just fine when the consumer doesn’t know any better. When the consumer figures out what they want in a beer, the dodgy brewers are doomed, because it takes a lot longer for brewers to improve their skills than it does for consumers to improve their palates. Knowing how to brew well isn’t important today, but it will be down the road. Experimentation today only helps you in the long run if you can master the basic, simple brewing techniques that you learn from the major beer styles. By brewing a product that can be strictly scrutinized against hundreds of direct competitors, a brewer learns a lot of things that cannot be learned by freewheeling and never really having to stand up against anybody else. Contrary to O’Connor’s argument, there really aren’t a lot of good Kolsches in America right now, nor helles nor dunkelweizen, nor bitter or mild. As Gatza said, brewers need to “get a little more science behind the art that’s going on.”
The other interesting thing about O’Connor’s article is that his argument is based around the GABF style guidelines. There are grievances to be had with any set of style guidelines, but the GABF, BJCP and other competition guidelines are a pretty easy target. They have to pigeonhole all beer into categories that can be judged. That’s a very different mandate from what we do at Ratebeer, which is based along the principle of reflecting what is going on out there. So when you have a vague category like “American Strong Ale”, it should hopefully make sense that there is no such style, and that on RB there are both narrowly-defined styles and broad catch-all categories. These simply help give a sense of perspective to what the consumer is drinking. It’s important when looking at whether beer styles are dead or not to understand what they are and what the point is.
The big one is that a style is just a shorthand. It’s terminology that helps consumers understand what they are drinking – a common language between brewers, writers and consumers. Robert Mondavi set the wine world alight when he started referring to wines in terms of grapes instead of regions. In doing this, he entirely changed the vernacular of wine in a way that made wine easier to understand for consumers not raised in wine regions with wine culture. This is pretty much what is happening in beer today. The first style descriptions were cribbed together from the old world, and that provided a common framing of the world of beer for early brewers and consumers. You could always brew something else – Liberty Ale was “something else” at one point – but if enough people liked it and other people started brewing it you would eventually need a name for it. You can’t just say “I brewed a Liberty Ale”, you needed a non-proprietary way of saying it. In just a couple of decades, around 20 styles or categories have emerged as recognized on Ratebeer – other sources will have many more than that based on how they view the nature of beer styles. That’s a lot of experimentations that have become firmly established archetypes.
The current wave of innovation sweeping craft beer is going to result in a lot of new styles that we will still be drinking in 20 years. There are a lot of fruited sours (aka Berliners), there are a lot of pale brett beers, and things like White IPA might yet survive the test of time. That’s the tip of the iceberg. How a beer style develops is just like that, though – a bunch of brewers make it, it appeals to consumers, more brewers make it, and over time the market decides if it is something that will be interpreted strictly or not. Even in the old world, there are loose styles (English bitter, Franconian lager) and there are narrow ones. My guess is that in the new world styles will almost always be loose, but I could be wrong about that. IPA is a lot more narrowly-defined today than it was twenty years ago, because the market has certain expectations about what IPA is. If it deviates, it is something else – Session IPA, Imperial IPA, Black IPA, Red, Green Purple whatever IPA.
I think to some extent that the argument about the “death of beer styles” is something of a false understanding of the concept. Beer styles aren’t handed down by the Beer Gods, the all-knowing ones who classify the vast expanse of beer into tiny little boxes. Those boxes are a very small part of what is possible with malt and hops. Beer styles simple arise as the desires of the brewers and the needs of the market come together using a common language. It’s an organic process. It doesn’t happen overnight. And it doesn’t happen because the GABF, BJCP or anybody else said so. Specialty beer has been around a long time, and it’s always been popular. In 2014, it’s trending in a big way, for good and for bad. But at the end of the day, today’s innovations are either going to disappear for lack of commercial viability, be replaced by tomorrow’s innovations or become beer styles of their own, defined by the market’s understanding of key words. That won’t change – it hasn’t changed in music, or art, or movies, or books, or food or any other art form. It won’t happen with beer, either, not if you’re taking the long view. Enjoy innovation for what it is – a source of masterpieces, a source of disasters and a way forward to find the beers that people want to drink in the 21st century.