craftbeer.com, the online wing of the Brewers Association, just published an article entitled: “Craft Beer Styles: Why They Matter & When They Don’t.” Part of the author’s argument for beer styles is a complaint that some menus read like fashion magazine ads with the made-up citation, “Enjoy eating greatness? Then this super complex, one of a kind delicacy will indulge your deepest gustatory cravings.” This hyperbolic notion lasts for about half of the article before the author gets into the history and evolution of beer, which is the real reason there are beer styles (apart from the human obsession with categorization). Additionally, there is an ongoing debate about “what is craft beer?” and I would argue that saying “craft beer styles” is pretentious (Is lite American lager not a beer style because Coors Light is not craft beer?).
Beer styles, as we know them, evolved originally because of water, and brewers’ repeated attempts to create beer best suited to their water. Mineral content has a grand effect on the flavor of beer, and brewers have, over the centuries, adapted their brewing methods to the limits of their local water source. Entire books have been written on the subject. Styles have also developed through popular (and political) demand. If the Germans and Bohemians hadn’t enjoyed the paler lagers more than the variable-colored dark beers that existed before modern malting and yeast cultivation, Anheuser-Busch would be peddling a very different product with their Clydesdales.
Here we run into a (somewhat nonsensical) chicken-egg/Schroedinger’s Cat debate: Would there still be styles if Michael Jackson hadn’t gone about categorizing them in the 1970s? Would the Brewers Association and Beer Judge Certification Program have written their fairly strict definitions by which beers are to be judged, awarded medals and kudos? Style guidelines are basically a palate-training program with military instincts (disclosure: I’m a ranked BJCP judge, and enjoy judging beer and questioning authority.) . Beers that don’t fit neatly into a category may never receive the acclaim they deserve. One local example was brewed by Eugene’s Claim 52; Trevor’s War Steiner Weisse was a mishmash of styles and techniques: a high percentage wheat wort fermented with Kolsch yeast at Belgian temperatures (upwards of 75F, well over the yeast’s preferred range). Magically, the beer was excellent, with unusual fruit esters, smooth body, and a dually thirst quenching and inducing finish.
There’s a place you can go where the idea of style is turned on its head, where water (though obviously a factor) isn’t as important as yeast, and style isn’t as important as a brewery’s house flavor. That place is Belgium. Of course, there are classic styles like Dubbel and Tripel, and other brews from the monastic traditions that tend to conform to specific flavor profiles, but there are many, many more that do not. Even among the Trappist breweries there are beers that eschew moniker; Orval is a notable example, as are the Rochefort beers (6, 8, and 10 are available in the U.S.), which are much less estery than the average Belgian ale. A homebrewer friend who regularly makes Belgian-esque ales doesn’t often apply categories to his beers; he refers to them by brew number: “Oh, that’s #473, it’s pale, bottle conditioned with honey… try it!”
The whole idea of “style” kinda falls apart when beer is brewed with indigenous ingredients, spontaneously fermented, or otherwise given over to nature, so to speak. De Garde Brewing in Tillamook uses wild yeast and bacteria harvested from the air, much like Belgian Lambic breweries. Agrarian Ales uses river sage, a native artemesia, in some of its herbal beers. Propolis in Port Townsend, WA, uses wildcrafted herbs in all of its beers, which change month-to-month. Local flavors are slowly making a comeback– after several centuries of legislated hop use, Old World brewing practices are making a small return to the collective brewing unconscious.
The canon of beer styles is an important learning tool and cultural artifact, and cannot be dismissed. At the same time, pigeonholing beer can be detrimental. Try to embrace the “?” beers, the Category 23 beers; those are often the hardest to create, the riskiest innovations, and the most challenging to the norm.