Tuesday, September 01, 2009

my Beer Style conundrum

  1. A riddle whose answer is or involves a pun
  2. A question or problem having only a conjectural answer
  3. An intricate and difficult problem
(copyright Merriam-Webster)

I stand here before you, my fellow beer geeks and casual dabblers in the wonderfully wide world of beer with just that: a conundrum. Even better, a conundrum brought on by the wonderfully diverse and expanding wide world of beer that I am thankfully free to enjoy every day of my life. Choice is beautiful, and we are at a mind-boggling plateau of beer choices in the world.

What is fueling the evolving scene of real beer exploration? Many things can be credited: modern technologies least of which is the internet, publications, the world market, distributors, entrepreneurialism, freedom, imagination, adventure…to name a few. So, what is there to guide those who are expanding upon our great ocean of beery wonder?

Most notable is the Beer Style.

Beer Styles were once a loosely accepted guide book of standards that really took off in the mid 70s when Michael Jackson blessed the world with his knowledge and open acceptance of all things beer. Travelling the world writing and tasting, he inspired generations of beer drinkers, brewers, and fellow writers while helping develop a clearly defined set of beer styles by which beer is categorized today.

Keeping a close eye on this set system of beer styles is the Beer Judge Certification Program, BJCP, which recognizes, regulates, trains, certifies, and oversees pretty much all beer judging events here in the USofA. Their guidelines tend to be fair yet strict, flexible yet uncompromising; a delicate balance that at times is quite at odds with itself. To date, with America now enjoying over 1500 independent craft breweries, the BJCP overseas the judging of 23 main beer styles, not counting self-contained sub-styles and the creation of brand new styles.

At this very moment, the future of craft beer in America and all over the world is looking very bright indeed. Imagination is the limit which, in actuality, means that there is no limit at all. If we can think of it, brew it, and it tastes good, what more is there to ask for? Nothing, really. For all its storied history of stylistic designs, beer is still ultimately about what tastes good. There can be nothing too outrageous, courageous, and dangerous about a beer if the end product is a desirable one.

Granted, desirable and tastes good is a bit on the subjective side, but that is where the BJCP style guidelines really come in handy. Following their guidelines of what defines a faulty beer in terms of contamination, under-carbonation, over-carbonation, oxidization, etc, is critical when considering what constitutes a drinkable beer in clearly defined terms. I feel this is where the BJCP is most beneficial to drinkers, brewers, and Beer herself.

But what about styles, you say?

Overall, beer styles do more good than bad for the longevity, understandability, and educational purposes of beer. While we have judges and a recognized system of beer now, previously beer was simply thought to sometimes taste and look similar. The difference between now and then is that style guidelines weren’t a critical focus of the brewer and the beer. Since then, officially defined beer styles have helped to organize, categorize, and encourage the exploration of beer by homebrewers and professional brewers alike. Offering a solid foundation upon which to build, that is exactly what craft beer enthusiasts have done over the last 4 decades. Brewing real beer with real ingredients, no chemically altered and detrimental adjuncts allowed, brewers are creating beers never seen nor tasted before. Even better, they are saving some beers from very real extinction. Quality, respect, pride, and adventure are at the heart of craft beer.

Inspiring creative freedom, Beer Styles continue to serve their purpose in our diverse world of craft beer. Or do they? Have beer styles come so far that they are actually restricting the creative freedom of brewing beer, any and all kinds of beer? Remember, beer is a quality beverage brewed with quality ingredients that tastes good. The rest is up to the imaginations and limits of the brewer and brewery. Has the explosive growth, limitless exploration, and unquenchable thirsts of beer enthusiasts and brewers alike overtaken the current effectiveness of the BJCP and Beer Styles in general?

I propose this:
Has craft brewing outgrown the modern structure of Beer Styles on such an international scale that the very Beer Styles which encouraged and celebrated creativity now hinder it?

This is the very conundrum I bring to you, my fellow beer geeks, professionals, and casual imbibers. When Garret Oliver is brewing a bacon beer infused with smoked bacon fat and Sam Calagione is brewing an Americanized traditional Sah’Tea using spices, chai, and hot stones, where does one begin to worry about how to fit a certain “style” and where does one begin to toss worry aside and brew what he and she thinks will taste good and be enjoyed by others?

I have tasted excellent beers that are classic examples of their style and excellent beers that didn’t fit any particular style, but damned if it wasn’t one of the tastiest, intriguing, interesting, and engaging “styled” beers I had supped.

In judging this beer, do I judge it strictly by its style guidelines? If it’s too far out in left field, would it be better judged in a different style? What if there isn’t a style in which it fits 100% and yet I have before me an amazing product of brewing inspiration? How am I supposed to “judge” it and “categorize” it?

I can’t, and maybe I don’t even want to. Maybe I shouldn’t.

And yet, I cannot shake nor wholly ignore the relevant significance recognized beer styles have played in the revival of craft beer enjoyment in the last 4 decades and throughout the history of Beer herself. Styles are relevant, but how they are relevant to our amazing wide world of beer today, and verily I say tomorrow, is where my Beer Style conundrum occurs.

Styles are now facing the crippling dilemma of being both currently relevant and currently antiquated in our modern world of beer. For one of the first times that I can recall, beer has outpaced our ability to categorize, analyze, and stylize which I cannot help but feel is exactly what beer needs right now, what humanity needs right now. Change, diversity, and the freedom of choice are driving the craft beer movement all across the world which encourages exploration, experimentation, and even more importantly, failure. From a failed brew can come an even more fabulous brew born from the age-old necessity of trial and error.

There is a quiet rumbling in the beer world about the relevancy of beer styles and, most importantly, their outdatedness. Overall I see a majority favor for a major rehaul and not an outright elimination which I agree is the current proper route. For as much as we desire ultimate creative freedom and that same freedom under which to enjoy it, we are also terrified of it. Why else would we choose to box ourselves in with numbers, categories, styles, stereotypes, fads, suburbia, so on and so forth.

Then what do Beer Styles represent?

They represent standards and guidelines meant to guide, direct, inspire, and then let go all at the same time. The BJCP and Beer Styles are just like mom and dad when they helped you ride a bicycle for the first time. Holding onto your seat, they offered support and advice as you pedaled, nervously at first, gripping the handlebars with white knuckles. But then, as confidence grows with this newfound freedom, a weightless sense of elation starts to spread through your body and, before you know it, you are flying freely down the street with a grin as big as the sun. It’s only minutes later, as you round innumerable corners and zip down various pathways do you realize you are on your own. You are free. Mom and dad are long gone in the distance past and what lies before you is now of your own choosing. Some bumps and scrapes are sure to follow, but should that happen, you have your own two feet to get back up on.

Craft beer is that kid on the bike rushing free along roads of their own choosing, each venture carving memories and experiences upon an eager heart bursting with curiosity and adventure. Beer Styles and the BJCP are the parents, standing stoic and proud, seeing their child off into the horizon of promise, knowing they guided them well and will always be there for support when needed.

Cheesy? Maybe, but maybe not. Think about it, and maybe you too will muse most unexpectedly upon your own Beer Style conundrum the next time you are supping on an intriguing brew of epically tasty proportions.

(an original written work by Kristyn Lier. plagiarism is not tolerated)

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