Growing up, the world was small, and so was the brewing world. Very few Belgians knew what a West Coast IPA was, very few Americans knew what a Belgian Quad was, and no one knew what a gose was. We all knew what was local to us, and for the most part, what was fairly generic. Sure, you’ve always had worldwide powerhouses such as Bud, Stella, Miller, Guinness and the like. But everyone also had their local or regional specialty beers – often, they were simple styles.
Today, we have guidelines and charts that tell us what beers belong in what style categories. We have new iterations of the IPA popping up on a daily basis – Belgian IPAs, Cascadian IPAs, even Vermont has recently pushed for a state-specific “Vermont IPA” style. The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) has their own set of guidelines that are used throughout the world for judging, with nearly 80 named styles.
These guidelines all cover certain aspects of the beer – aroma, appearance, flavor, mouth feel, even specific statistics including Original Gravity and Alcohol by Volume.
Reasons to Care about Style
As with any argument, there are valid points on both sides. There are legitimate reasons to concern yourself with the style of beer you are aiming for.
- Setting Goals – If you have tasted a beer that particularly impressed you, and are looking to replicate or improve on it, you’ll need an idea of the style in order to have a jumping-off point. If you’re trying to replicate a dunkelweizen, you’ll want to look at numbers and ingredients used in dunkels, not in stouts. This at least sets up the goal to aim for
- Competition Planning – If you intend to enter your homebrew into any sort of competition, you will need to know which category to place your beer in. Even if you want to enter it through the Specialty category, you’ll still need to cite what the underlying style is meant to be. This category is often used to help grow minor beer styles and promote international styles that don’t have a wide following in home brewing.
- Branching Out – For the neophyte home brewer or drinker, style guidelines are a great checklist to keep track of what styles they have enjoyed and would like to try more of or brew, or which ones they did not enjoy and want to lean away from. This can help to also find a common thread between styles they may or may not enjoy.
Reasons to Not Worry about Style
Of course, there are plenty of reasons not to concern yourself as much with the style of beer you’re trying to brew.
- Tunnel Vision – Paying too much attention to a specific style may cause you to not consider a minor modification that could make your beer better, but maybe take it out of the style range. Tunnel vision can result in your beer not fulfilling its potential because you’re worried it may stray out of its style.
- Frustration – Worrying too much about trying to brew to a style may end up with you getting frustrated when the final outcome of the batch isn’t exactly what you were aiming for. This can be particularly difficult for beginning brewers who want to brew a clone or a particular style and end up with something that isn’t what they had hoped for. They may get frustrated about the beer not being within the style guidelines they were aimed for, overlooking the fact that the beer is still likely a good brew. This frustration can also lead brewers to toss a recipe instead of looking at what could just be a minor tweak for correction.
- Limiting Experimentation – While there are only four major ingredients in beer, we haven’t exhausted what they can create yet. With the globalization of trade and the interchange of ingredients and ideas across borders, we have come up with so many new ideas over just the last decade or so. We have yet to hit bottom, but if you stop experimenting to try to stay within a style, you’ll never have the chance. Experimenting is the key to developing as a brewer, and if you stick to brewing only existing styles, you won’t develop.
- Styles are Always Changing – Style guidelines are always changing – just because your beer isn’t a recognized style right now, doesn’t mean it won’t be at some point in the future. For instance, Cascadian IPAs, also known as Black IPAs, are not a recognized style at the moment. Neither are Rye IPAs, Kellerbiers, or many historic styles that are seeing a comeback. All of these fall under the “Specialty” category. That being said, the BJCP revises its style guidelines every few years, and is overdue for a revision, which may see the inclusion of some or all of these styles.
- Confusing “Follows Style” with “Good” – In the end, the main reason to not worry so much about the style of your homebrew is that fitting your beer within a style does not necessarily mean you’ve created a good beer. There are plenty of terrible beers that fit perfectly within a style, while there are plenty of good beers that do not fit neatly within a certain style.
So don’t worry if the original gravity of your attempt at a Northern English Brown Ale is a bit high, or if your hefeweizen has a slightly reddish. Worry about making a satisfying beer that you are proud of making, and even when it’s not quite what you were aiming for, it’s still a quality brew.