When I was young, I had no idea that beer came in styles. There were different brands of beer, of course — my dad usually drank Olympia or Schlitz, my grandfather's fridge usually held Hamms or Grain Belt and the supermarket even had plain white cans of generic beer — but these were all just different interpretations of the same thing. Nowadays, almost everybody knows there are different varieties of beer. Few outside brewing circles, however, know that there are "official" beer styles.
Most people group beers into categories for their own personal utility. A high school buddy of mine divides beer into two categories. He calls American-style Pilsners "beers" while virtually all other brews — from Sam Adams to Guinness — are labeled "dark beers." His classification system exists because he doesn't like "dark beers." Other people group beers according to which are the cheapest, which get them drunkest the fastest or which won't scare girls away from their parties.
Most non-brewing beer drinkers can probably name several beer styles. Knowing descriptors like "pale ale," "porter" and "stout" helps them decide what to order at the brewpub or grab from the cooler in the beer aisle. However, the average beer drinkers style vocabulary probably includes designations — such as "Mexican beer" or "Asian rice beer" — that homebrewers don't view as legitimate beer styles.
While an average person's list of beer styles may not correspond much to a homebrewer's ideas, leave it to the government to really screw things up. Governments categorize beers, usually ranked by strength, in order to levy taxes on them. The reasonability of the beer laws seem to vary according to a region's beer culture. In Germany, the law stipulates that doppelbocks must be over 18 °Plato. Thus, if I travel to Munich and buy a Salvator Doppelbock, I know from the word "doppelbock" that I'm getting a strong lager. In Texas, words such as "ale" and "stout" are designations of alcoholic strength, not indicators of beer styles. Thus, when I buy Salvator Double Bock in Austin, I am assured by the labeling that it is an "ale." Yee ha!
As homebrewers, we have an "official" set of style guidelines, the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) style guidelines. The BJCP style guidelines seek to define the characteristics of beer styles that are accepted in homebrew competitions. The guidelines describe 69 kinds of beer grouped into 24 categories, with 2 categories for mead and cider. Each beer is described in terms of aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel and other characteristics. A set of statistics, including OG, FG, IBU, SRM and ABV is also given. You can find these guidelines at www.bjcp.org. The guidelines are an impressive compilation, but it's still fair to ask — do they do us homebrewers any good?
The BJCP guidelines were compiled for use in homebrewing contests. And in this capacity, they work well. The guidelines ensure that both the judge and brewer are on the same page when it comes to the attributes of a certain style. You can read the guidelines and see what is expected of, say, a Munich dunkel at competition. Likewise, at the contest, the beer judge will assess the beer against these guidelines rather than against his own definition of dunkel.
Homebrewers can, and do, quibble about the parameters of various styles and whether judges stick closely enough to them. But, most homebrewers recognize the need for style guidelines at homebrew contests.
The benefits of the guidelines extend beyond competitions, however. Most of the beer styles listed in the BJCP guidelines are historically successful combinations of ingredients and brewing techniques. German doppelbocks are listed because this style has been tried, refined and people enjoy it. The information in the guidelines can help you formulate recipes. If you just tasted your first doppelbock and wanted to know how to brew one, the style guidelines provide some information that would be useful in recipe formulation. You'd probably want to do some more research to catch all the nuances of a style, but the BJCP guidelines are a good starting point.
The BJCP beer style guidelines also encourage brewers to seek out and sample new beer styles. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has used the guidelines as a checklist in his beer-sampling endeavors. When a homebrewer learns of a new beer style, he (or she) may also become aware of new ingredients or brewing techniques. Becoming acquainted with smoked beers, lambics and eisbocks has surely helped many homebrewers comprehend how big the world of beer and brewing really is.
The problem with the style guidelines come when people use them in a way they were never intended to be used. For example, some homebrewers seem convinced that beers enshrined in the BJCP guidelines are the only beers worth brewing. For some brewers, even the BJCP guidelines are not stringent enough. Some brewers feel adjuncts, which are allowed in many BJCP styles, should — in the moral sense — be avoided. Likewise, others feel homebrewers "should" abide by the Reinheitsgebot. Now, some brewers may avoid adjuncts or only brew Reinheitsgebot-compliant beers because they only like all-malt beers. That's fine. The problem comes when they confuse "I prefer brewing" with "everyone should be limited to brewing." For the life of me, I don't understand this attitude. I guess some people need to seek forms of authority to knuckle under.
If our goal as homebrewers is to brew the best beer possible, there are several reasons why it makes perfect sense to ignore existing style guidelines. Many beer styles are clear compromises between flavor and economic necessity (from either ingredient cost or taxation). Tax laws in many countries are such that beers are brewed at lower gravities than consumers would otherwise gravitate to. Likewise, in countries where specific beer styles must meet some minimum criterion, those beers cluster right above that minimum.
In homebrewing, we have no tax considerations when choosing our grain bill and we can brew using an ingredient list that would bankrupt any commercial brewer. Many homebrewers use these freedoms to brew "Imperial" (high gravity) versions of traditional styles or to hop the bejesus out of their beer. As far as I'm concerned, good for them.
In addition, although beer is relatively simple — with most styles being made from only four ingredients — not every possible combination of malt, sweetness, melanoidins, roast, hop bitterness, hop flavor, hop aroma and yeast characteristics has been tried. Originally, many malt/hop combinations arose of necessity. English pale ales typically use English hops because the original pale ale brewers were located in England and English hops were the available ingredients. Today, almost any decent homebrew shop will have ingredients from the US, England, Germany and Belgium. There are almost certainly some awesome flavor combinations in this mix of ingredients that have yet to be discovered. Brewers have pioneered new beer styles for centuries — does anyone really think we're all through now?
Misapplication of style guidelines also has potentially negative consequences to our hobby. If we allow the beer style guidelines steer how we think about and discuss homebrews, we may inadvertently be driving new brewers from the hobby. Imagine meeting a young homebrewer who pours you a beer of his own making. It's reddish and clear with almost no head and he calls it a hefeweizen. What's your reaction going to be?
Most homebrewers, I'm sure, would taste his beer and attempt to give him some constructive criticism — praising anything that turns out to be praiseworthy, but including the fact that a hefe should be pale, cloudy and have a big head. However, I'm sure we all know homebrewers who would trip all over themselves to start explaining what's wrong with his beer before even taking a sip of it. One thing we could ask ourselves is — is either of these approaches the right thing to do? Just because guidelines exist for judging beer according to style, does that mean every beer must be judged in this manner? In the good old days, we were encouraged by Charlie Papazian to "Relax, don't worry, and enjoy a homebrew." These days, the message many new homebrewers get is, "Don't relax yet, your beer doesn't meet our stringent numerical guidelines."
By focusing on the beer only as it relates to the hefeweizen style, we close our minds to the possibility that it might be great beer, either in a different style or as it's own unique style. Beer can be great, even if it mislabeled by homebrewing standards. When I moved to Texas, I became acquainted with Shiner Bock. I like it. Most homebrewers don't. When asked why, I have never heard any homebrewer remark on the flavor, aroma or even appearance of the beer. It's always the same thing — "It's not a real bock." When this happens, I usually ask what they'd think of it if it was labeled Shiner German-American Dunkel or something. The response is usually, "Oh yeah, then it would OK." My (usually unspoken) response to this is, "does a beer really change from bad to good just because the label has changed?" (And speaking of real German bocks, should I spit out my Texas-labeled Salvator in disgust because it's not a good example of an ale? Clearly not.) Shouldn't the first thing we worry about be the flavor of the beer and the last thing be the beer's label? I mean really, are you a homebrewer because you like the flavor of good beer or because of the interesting clerical diversions of pigeonholing beers in their official categories?
Finally, by letting the beer style guidelines steer how we think about homebrewing, we may lose the ability (or desire) to formulate a truly unique beer, a beer whose only merits are that it tastes great. Notice that there's no acceptable BJCP category for a completely unique beer. Even in the experimental category, you are required to specify the base beer style of your experimental beer! For my 100th batch of beer, I'm considering making a high-gravity ale with a considerable amount of adjunct to boost the alcohol content, but not the body. I want to add a small amount of very dark grain to get a nice brownish (not red) color and I want it to have a nice, noble hop finish. If this beer turns out well, there is no possible category I could enter it in because it's not within a beer style.
If I could make one suggestion to the BJCP committee, it would be to have an "open" category in the guidelines for beers like the one above — and for the zillions of beers made by homebrewers who focus on flavor, not styles. Would this category collect a hodgepodge of beers? Sure. Would the judging be influenced by the personal preferences of the judges? Sure, but the same thing applies at any best of show panel.
None of this should be taken as a slam on the BJCP. My only point is that any set of style guidelines should exist to serve our brewing, not the other way around.