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How Craft Brewers Are Redefining Everything We Thought We Knew About Beer Styles

05/03/2019

Beer enthusiasts aren’t complaining about the proliferation of new styles and categories since the quality of craft beers continues to improve.

https://www.beeradvocate.com/The surge in popularity for the craft brewing movement has also resulted in an explosion in the styles and types of beers that are now available. In some cases, entirely new categories are being created, and in other cases, older categories are being reinvented and reinvigorated.

The constant experimentation with new beer styles, though, has complicated the work of those making beer style guidelines. It’s often the case that two rival brewers might have entirely different ideas about what a particular beer style should taste or smell like. At the same time, even traditional beer styles are being re-thought and re-examined by major beer tastemakers.

The proliferation of beer styles

The easiest place to see the proliferation of beer styles, of course, is on the websites and beer blogs where reviewers are leaving their comments and reviews. Just a few decades ago, there were only a handful of different beer styles. Now, however, RateBeer.com has 77 different styles of beer, CraftBeer.com has 79 different styles of beer, and BeerAdvocate.com has 105 different styles of beer. And that isn’t even the high end of the spectrum, because the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) now counts 118 different styles of beer, and the Brewers Association now lists 152 different styles of beer.

The proliferation of beer styles, as might be expected, has raised questions about whether there might be too many different types of beer styles. In other words, have we reached a period of beer style redundancy?

The case of IPA beers

It can be confusing to keep up with the changing of beer styles, and the easiest place to see this dynamic in action is within the American IPA category. Right now, the iconic American IPA is generally considered to be Anchor Liberty Ale, which has been brewed since the mid-1970s. This American IPA is one of the flagship beers of Anchor Brewing Company in California, and has all the classic attributes of American IPA beers: a balanced malt-to-hops ratio; a filling mouthfeel; and the use of American-grown hops. On its website, Anchor Brewing describes Liberty Ale as having a “hop bouquet” and a “balanced character.”

If you were judging the “American IPA” beer category in just about any major competition a generation ago, this was the type of beer that once dominated the field. Today, however, there are many beers that may be “American IPA” in name, but bear little or no stylistic resemblance to traditional American IPA beers. These beers usually have massive hop content, to the point where the grassy, floral hops overwhelm all other flavors and aromas. Moreover, they might have an entirely different type of mouthfeel that could range from juicy to sticky. In short, the ingredients, brewing methods and influences are all remarkably different, but it would still be an American IPA.

This has caused consternation in judging circles, of course. How can you compare two very different types of beers, both of them considered to be the same style and type? This so-called “style confusion” might help to explain why there has been an explosion in the number of beer categories and styles. As brewers continue to innovate and experiment, that has forced the hand of those coming up with new beer styles to keep pace.

The case of fruit beer

Another category where it is possible to see this so-called “style confusion” is within the fruit beer category. This is again a case where one broad category – “Fruit Beer” – is no longer meaningful without the inclusion of some other type of narrower sub-category. Exotic ingredients like fruits are becoming more and more common, and the race is now on to find the appropriate place for specific types of fruit beers, such as fruit IPAs and fruit ales.

If style guidelines are not sufficiently broad, these fruit beers eventually get shoehorned into a category where they really don’t belong, such as “Fruit Lambic.” That has created even more confusion, both for beer drinkers and beer judges. If the “fruit beer style” is now far too broad, then a category like “Fruit Lambic” might be entirely too narrow.

And the whole “fruit beer” dilemma doesn’t even begin to address the issue of Field Beers that incorporate vegetables or herbs as part of the ingredients list. While fruit beers are at least covered by one style of beer that already exists, it’s often close to impossible to find the right match for a Field Beer.

Style momentum on the upswing

What’s interesting to note, of course, is that the momentum around creating new styles and categories shows no signs of stopping any time soon. For example, back in 2015, the Brewers Association listed just 145 styles of beers, and now the number is up to 152. The same is true for just about any other organization trying to come up with the right number of style categories for beer.

In some cases, older styles of beer are being re-thought and re-imagined, forcing beer drinkers and beer judges to (literally) forget everything they thought they knew about beers. In some cases, this is the result of adding entirely new ingredients; in other cases, it is the result of new brewing processes. Even the introduction of “organic beer” has caused new thinking and uncertainty. Should an organic IPA be treated as an IPA, as an organic beer, or as an organic IPA?

A new way to think about beer styles

Clearly, trying to keep up with new beer styles is important, but it has also led many beer enthusiasts to adopt a new framework for thinking about beers. Just a decade ago, there might have been a hypothetical role model within each and every category that a craft brewer might aspire to. Now, the styles and categories are changing so quickly that the emphasis has shifted to other criteria. One of the more interesting of these criteria is “execution of the recipe.” In other words, how well did the brewer follow through on what he (or she) was trying to brew?

Using this framework, it would be possible to reward beer makers for creating the very best beers possible, instead of trying to execute a possibly outdated vision of what a hypothetical beer within a certain category should taste like. One thing is for certain, though: beer enthusiasts certainly aren’t complaining about a proliferation of new styles and categories, as long as the quality of craft beers continues to improve.