Reflections on Beer Taxonomy

People are obsessed with taxonomy. Classifying things. Grouping things by how similar they are in certain properties, and to distinguish them. Everything. Flora and fauna, chemical compounds, diseases, fonts, whatever you can imagine. And of course beer.

So obviously, there are different kinds of beers, often distinguished by colour, alcohol strength, aroma, flavour, ingredients, and often connected to a certain locality.

So different people got together, and put much thought into classifying beer, and put these characteristics into beer style guidelines. The Beer Judge Certification Program Style Guideline is a very common one among homebrewers. Then there’s the Brewers Association Beer Style Guidelines, developed and annually updated as guideline for professional beer judging. CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, also has their own style guidelines, which are mostly focused on British beer, i.e. milds, bitters, golden ales, porters, stouts, and similar styles.

But when you look at these style guidelines, they contradict each other in lots of details. I criticized this earlier in my article about Vienna lager. Such contradiction is only natural and to be expected, because, well, humans are humans, and humans have opinions, sometimes very strong ones. The understanding of lots of beer styles is a rather informal one, so beers are grouped by similarity, and then from this similarity, a more general description is derived. And edge cases are often the problem here.

Some people go crazy about styles. Especially among homebrewers I’ve noticed that the BJCP guidelines are seen as the universal truth and gospel, even though claims about a lot of beer styles are completely unfounded and ahistorical. In the extreme cases this leads to people beers brewed after historic recipes as “not true to style“, because of minuscule details they or someone else might have just made up or misinterpreted.

Or another case that I stumbled upon, is this hilarious question on reddit recently about Hall&Woodhouse’s Poacher’s Choice. The important question is whether this beer is a strong ale or a winter warmer.  There wasn’t much response to this, but people argued it may be a strong ale, a strong pale ale, or a winter warmer, but probably not a winter warmer, because they usually are spiced. WAT? What is the difference between a strong ale and a strong pale ale in the first place, and what is a winter warmer? A case of people assuming something about a beer style, even though there is not the slightest bit of consensus in sight. Last time I checked, none of the style guidelines are really clear on that. Plus I don’t think there’s any useful definition of a winter warmer out there in the first place.

But that’s a general problem, especially with English beer styles: some beers are just too similar. Fuller’s, and that’s always my favourite example, makes three different beers from the same grist, but doing three runnings, and then blending them to get three different worts of different strength.

For whatever reason, may it be disillusionment, or just an attempt of distinguishing yourself from others, more and more brewers and beer producing companies went a post-modern way of describing beer styles, where all styles basically got deconstructed, and aspects of beer styles got reduced to simple terms and attributes, and everyone can just pick them up, put them together as they like.

Golden, Blonde, Pale, Amber, Dark, Black, Red, Brown, White, Belgian, English, Norwegian, American, India, Imperial, Double, Triple, Session, Strong, Farmhouse, Abbey, Wheat, Rye, Spelt, Old, Aged, Infused, Ale, Helles, Stout, Porter, Lager, Pilsner, Lambic, Hefeweizen, Gose, Saison.

This, of course, gets absurd really quickly, where breweries release beers that they “Imperial Porters”, using the “Imperial” to imply a stronger beer than a “normal” porter. You know what a stronger porter is called? A stout. Same with “Imperial Lager”. It’s Bockbier, really.

So, how should we deal with that? Shall the craft beer scene of the 2010’s be like the metal and rock scene 10, 15 years ago, where each band had to “invent” their very “own” music style?

I know no ultimate solution, but at least I have one idea for an approach: be more moderate in discussing styles. Less strict interpretations of arbitrary style guidelines, more reflection on existing beer styles and their history (!), all that balanced with less forced distinction. Because in the end, all that counts is that we enjoy good and creative beer, and not fight about absurd styles and names.

And now excuse me, I need to design a recipe for a Golden Imperial Session Stout Lager. 😉

P.S.: on a side note, it took me about two weeks to write this article, because WordPress seriously screwed me over and decided to simply not save a previous revision of that article, and so I had rewrite about half of the article. Another reminder why I’m sometimes not fond of IT in general and software in particular.

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