What Makes a Style?

In front of me I have a list of the winning commercial beers from the 14th Great American Beer Festival. There are 26 categories, which is to say that there are theoretically 26 different beer styles represented. Now, admittedly, the GABF does some real nitpicking in order to encourage entries (American Lager, American Light Lager, American Premium Lager, American Specialty Lager, and American Malt Liquor), but the proliferation of “beer styles” is widespread.

The American Homebrewers Association, which sanctions competitions all over the country and runs its own national competition every year, has a similar number of styles but with 60-odd sub-categories, a number that has risen dramatically over the last few years. In large homebrew competitions, breaking out categories helps organizers keep some categories (such as pale ales) down to manageable sizes, but every year there are proposals for more and more specific categories. And every year there are arguments, some of them very spirited, some of them remarkably stupid, about exactly how each of those categories is to be defined.

For a category to exist, it has to be defined in terms of original gravity, color, alcohol content, carbonation level, bitterness level, color, fermentation characteristics, and more. And to be realistic there has to be a range for each of these, because each category receives its justification on the basis of commercial beers. Hopefully, these are commercial beers that are readily available so that judges from all over the continent can use them as reference points.

There are hundreds of homebrew judges who have qualified for the job through the Beer Judge Certification Program, and I bet you couldn’t find two of them who could agree on more than one or two category guidelines.

Fred Eckhardt has an excellent book, The Essentials of Beer Style (long overdue for an update). Michael Jackson has written a variety of books guiding beer drinkers in an exploration of beer styles (perhaps the best of which is the Beer Companion). The Association of Brewers has dedicated an entire series to analyzing “classic beer styles.”

Clearly, “beer styles” exist. The questions remain: Why? and Who cares?

A Beer is a Beer

Most beer drinkers are just that: beer drinkers. Or Bud drinkers. Or Hamm’s drinkers. These days people are becoming a little better educated — at least enough to know that when they drink beer they are supposed to like microbrewed beers, because these are “better.” A good many drinkers, however, have no notion of why the beer is supposed to be better. They probably know that what they’re drinking is an “ale” or a “wheat beer” or (gak!) a “berry weizen” but would be hard pressed to explain the distinction between an ale and a lager — leaving aside entirely the fact that the ale they’re drinking may not have much ale character, and that the best-selling microbrewed beers tend to be those beers closest to the industrial beers they used to drink.

It Didn’t Start as a Style

Virtually every beer style originated for very mundane reasons, chiefly technical in nature. In this age of high-tech food processing, we take access to food for granted and tend to forget that through most of its history, beer was inherently regional. Without modern refinements in packaging, filtration, refrigeration, and pasteurization, beer didn’t travel well (with a few exceptions that were designed to travel). Beers were most commonly produced in the same town, or even the same neighborhood where the consumer lived. People got their beer from their local source, and that source defined what they thought of as beer.

The beers themselves were defined by traditional methods and by traditional ingredients, usually local ingredients. Beers tended to appear, after all, in regions where barley grew well, just as wines predominated in regions suited to growing grapes (which were, coincidentally, regions where beers spoiled easily).

The most local of ingredients, and quite possibly also the most significant, is water. The nature of the water controls the nature of the beer every time. Whether it’s the soft water of Plzen, the carbonate-rich water of Munich, the hard waters of Dortmund and Burton-on-Trent, or the deep-bore well water of London, each of the great beer styles emerged originally as a product of the brewer’s water supply.

Which was a knock in the eye to another big factor in the development of beer styles: imitation. Commercial brewers, alas, are profit driven. Even the most dedicated preservationist of “lost” beers knows that unless the beer sells, you don’t get to brew it any more. Brewers noted the success of other beers and made their own versions in the hope of getting a chunk of the market. Beers emerge essentially by individual effort, but they become “styles” as a beer is brewed by more and more brewers.

In England porters were once the rage, until new malting technology (and Burton’s water) allowed the introduction of lighter, hoppier “pale ales.” Wheat beers, once the toast of Germany, gave way (like many other beers) to pale lagers and almost disappeared completely. The rich bocks of Munich were created to imitate the renowned beers of Einbeck. And pilsners, well, pilsners (in whatever twisted form) swept all other beers before them in the greatest rush to imitation of all.

Initially, however, imitation had its impediments. London’s water not only wouldn’t allow the brewing of pale beers but caused truly unpleasant flavors when combined with the high hopping rates that found such favor in the pale ales. Likewise, Munich’s water ruled out pilsners, and Dortmund’s ruled out the malty wonders of Munich’s dunkels.

But a few “beer styles” have sorted themselves out: porters in Ireland and London, pale ales in Burton, hoppy gems in Plzen, rich, malty treasures in Munich — and whatever imitations other brewers could produce.

As technology and brewing science improved, more sincere flattery became possible, and those beers that proved the most popular were most widely imitated. It became more common for a brewery to produce a “range” of beers. A German brewer could produce a helles, a dunkel, a pils, and perhaps a seasonal bock. A British brewery might offer a bitter (or three), a mild, and a porter.

And then, naturally, the marketing guys got into the act. If one beer was a bitter, what was the second one? “Oh, that’s our best bitter.” Or “our special bitter.” And if the lads up the street have a Special Bitter, you can bet that we’re going to need an Extra Special Bitter — never thinking or caring that in a few generations, American homebrew judges would virtually come to blows defining these terms, one from the other.

Styles by Decree

Governments, which are particularly good at defining other people’s needs, likewise got into the act. In some cases it’s the government being helpful and consumer oriented — German laws defining a bock, for example. But most often it’s a case of the government out to protect us from ourselves, making sure we don’t get more alcohol in our beer than we can handle. Or more commonly, so that the beer can better generate revenue for the government.

Government regulations can simply define beers out of existence. At one time, beer was virtually unavailable in Iceland, although young people had access to hard liquor. In England as in other countries, beers are taxed according to original gravity, and the profiles of English beers have changed accordingly. There are still areas of the US where any beer style that involves alcohol content over 3.2 percent is forbidden, which effectively eliminates a lot of beers.

Paradoxically, though, commercial brewers can have more freedom than homebrewers (outside Utah, anyway). As Fred Eckhardt notes: “If a beer is called ‘porter’ we agree, but the fact remains that some ‘porters’ (i.e. Anchor Porter) would be better judged as stout.” Commercial brewers can do that. If they call it porter and it sells, eventually someone will define “porter” so that their beer is included. Homebrewers, however, are held to stricter standards because their beers are defined by commercial beers.

At a small homebrew competition years ago, I sat across from another judge who was adamant that we had to withhold honors from the only decent beer on the table because “a stout shouldn’t have such a hoppy finish.” Never mind that if BridgePort had brewed the beer, he would have praised their originality. The homebrewed stout could only be judged as it related to Guinness’ stout. An extreme? Well, yes and no. I’ve run across plenty of similar instances over the years. At times it seems that the more careful competition organizers are to precisely define their style guidelines, the pickier the judges get.

Beer styles are defined by objective standards such as color, strength, type of ferment, and malt/hop balance, and by subjective criteria such as intent.

Color is measured in two basic scales: Standard Research Measure (SRM, also called Lovibond) and the European Brewing Congress (EBC). Much as Americans have avoided metric systems, they’ve stuck with the former scale. The rest of the world uses the EBC method, and there is no reliable conversion between them. Just to confuse things further, Fred Eckhardt proposed his own system (from one to 10), which is a little more intuitive but used primarily by Eckhardt. Without lab equipment to analyze beer color, it’s usually sufficient to be more vague. Pilsners are “straw-colored” or “golden,” pale ales are “coppery,” brown ales are, well, “brown.” Vague as they are, the terms are well suited to describing the range within a beer style.

References to alcohol strength can be more specific, either because the brewer has provided the actual alcohol content (by weight in the US and by volume in the rest of the world) or the beer’s original gravity. US law now allows brewers to list the alcohol content on the label. Elsewhere in the world, this has always been more common. Occasionally, the information is given in a form that confuses the drinker (such as the wandering American reading 12° Plato on a pilsner bottle and believing the beer has 12 percent alcohol), or is in some wacky local scale like (surprise!) the Belgians. The British use the specific gravity scale familiar to homebrewers, and I was heartened to note that it was a range of about three degrees — made me feel better about my own inability to hit the same original gravity exactly every time.

The type of ferment (top-fermented, bottom-fermented, or spontaneous) is usually easy to determine by the finished beer’s flavor. The influence of a quick ale fermentation is very different from the long, slow mellowing of a good lagering, and the bizarre mingling in a lambic is different from either.

Distinctive Character

Some beers are rich and sweet, others dry and sharp. The balance of malt and hops is critical to a well-defined style. While the perception of balance is subjective, the bitterness can be measured (in bittering units) in the lab. Perception is the key, however, because a heavy, rich beer can have a very high level of bitterness and not be perceived as such, while a lighter, drier beer can seem very bitter with a lower hopping rate.

Besides bitterness, of course, hops provide their distinctive flavor and aroma to beer — where appropriate. Some beer styles are virtually defined by an abundance of hop in the mouth and nose. Others would be strange if they had anything but a subtle hop character.

Without ESP, the brewer’s intent is hard to measure (especially for long-dead brewers), but we can find clues. If a beer is called “porter,” we can assume that it was the brewer’s intent to produce a porter. Likewise, a pils, a bock, or a weizenbier. And we can judge the brewer’s success by how closely the beer fits the known profile while expressing the same individuality and, most important, yumminess.

At times, of course, we are stymied, like when marketing consultants flood us with “red” beers, “amber ales,” and “lambics” that have never seen the microflora of Belgium. Personally, I like to pretend these beers don’t really exist or that they aren’t really beers at all. With luck, they disappear in short order.

Examining beer styles opens a wonderful world of possibilities, of new flavors and new approaches to brewing — as long as we don’t allow ossification to set in and definitions to become so rigid that creativity is stifled. Just keep that Spiced Raspberry Dunkel Pils away from me, please!

Issue: February 1996