Beer Styles: What Are They, Why Do We Need Them, Where Are They Going?

For an official list of beer styles and links to descriptions of these styles, please click on the BJCP logo-PGA

Written by Tom Becham for professorgoodales.net

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I am NOT a “Style Snob”. By that, I mean that I’m not the sort of person who turns his nose up at a beer because it doesn’t entirely fit the style the brewer calls it. For instance, I still somewhat like Shiner Bock, even though it most definitely is either an American Dark Lager or Dunkel by style and NOT a Bock. It’s still a decent beer. It’s just a really lousy Bock.

Which brings me to what beer styles are in the first place. A beer style is the general description of how a beer should look, smell and taste. It provides guidelines for brewers in determining what they wish to brew, and how successful their attempts have been. It provides the beer drinker with an idea of what qualities he will find in a beer before he ever buys it.

Why are they necessary? Approximately 80% of the beer produced worldwide may be virtually identical in style (Pale Lager, in case you’re wondering), but that’s a relatively recent development in the history of beer, only becoming the prevailing condition since the end of World War II. There are more ways to make beer from the basic ingredients than there are to make wine. ALL of these styles are made by craft brewers in one place or another, as they like to flex their creative brewing muscles, and cater to all sorts of beer drinkers. Therein lies the ultimate utility of beer styles. If a beer drinker tries his first Brown Ale and likes it, he can then reasonably expect to like most other Brown Ales.

That being said, beer styles are continually growing, changing and morphing. Depending on which source you go with, there are anywhere from 60 to 90 – or even more – styles of beer. (Obviously, I can’t go over all of them in this piece, and I have no intention to do so.) Things are complicated even more by the fact that the lines between beer styles can be fairly fuzzy and indistinct at times. Truly, unless a drinker has a highly developed palate, he will not be able to tell the difference between a standard Pale Lager and a Dortmunder Export. Of course the great similarity of some styles can also serve as a touchstone for further experimentation. The drinker who likes a Stout is very likely to also appreciate the similar Porter style.

As well, even the brewers who tend to be “stylebreakers” will reference their own beers with descriptions and similes using beer style names. For instance, California brewer Bear Republic makes several beers that really don’t fit any defined style. Yet when describing their Red Rocket Ale they call it a “hoppy version of a Scottish Ale”. Similarly, their Hop Rod Rye, is a “dark rye-based take on an IPA”. Without those reference points, it would be much more difficult to describe their brews, stylebreakers though they are.

Another confusing factor can be Belgian beers. While a good portion of them do fit certain styles, Belgian brewing is so idiosyncratic that many of their styles are simply catch-alls for beers so unique they don’t belong anywhere else.

As I’ve previously mentioned, beer styles have been fluid through time. Many styles were natural developments of previously existing styles, whether accidental (Eisbock coming from Doppelbock) or planned (Barleywine developing from Pale and Old Ales). Likewise, science and technology have either made some beer styles possible, or broadened their reach. Light colored barley malts which made the Pilsner style possible and popular were only practical after the invention of controlled artificial heating elements. Conversely, Lager yeasts (and therefore all Lager styles of beer) were only able to come down out of the German mountain communities into the larger world after the invention of refrigeration technology.

So beer styles have both the definition required to make them useful, and the flexibility needed to encourage experimentation. That would seem to bode well for today’s craft brewing, which has resurrected nearly-dead beer styles like Imperial Stout and Flanders Red Ale, and launched some entirely new ones like Double/Imperial India Pale Ale.

However, all is not necessarily hunky-dory in Beerstyletown. The wave of experimentation in the past decade or so has left the situation rather murky and confused in some respects. Given the propensities of American craft brewers, many styles have been subdivided; Pale Ale, Brown Ale, Barleywine and IPA have by some standards now been separated into English and American varieties. The distinction tends to be that the American varieties are a bit higher in alcohol content and much more aggressively hopped. In one case, at least, this has led to a noticeable admission of regret from a brewer. Avery Brewing of Colorado has admitted that its popular Hog Heaven Barleywine would fit far better into the Double/Imperial IPA category, except the category didn’t exist when they first made the beer. That begs the question why they can’t just rename the beer now. After all, those who drink it wouldn’t STOP drinking it. Beer geeks are smarter than that.

The confusion gets even worse when it comes to new styles of beers, and the pirating of style names for those new

The "X" moniker became so popular, worldwide, there's even an XXXX Brewery in Australia-PGA
styles. A particular pet peeve of mine are the “Double” and “Imperial” monikers. Granted, Belgian Abbey Dubbels, Doppelbocks and Imperial Stouts all have their place in the beer styles guides. There are historical reasons for those style names, even if they have been bastardized for other uses now.

The term “Double” (or “Dubbel” or “Doppel”, depending on your native language) dates back to the age when literacy was far less common than it is now. “X”es were marked on barrels of beer to denote their strength. A single “X” was the weakest beer (Yes, there IS “Singel” in Belgian beer even now, but it will most likely be called “Belgian Pale Ale”), “XX” was a bit stronger (not double the strength, necessarily), and “XXX” or even “XXXX” being strongest yet. And in the cases of Abbey Dubbels and Doppelbocks, the terms actually denote specific recognizable styles in and of themselves.

Catherine the Great
Imperial Stout is another style with a story. During the reign of Catherine the Great in Russia, British brewers were supplying Stouts to the Russian court. At the request of Catherine, one of the brewers started to make a Stout that was much higher in alcohol and hop bitterness to conform with Russian tastes. That style became known as Russian Imperial Stout, which has since shortened to Imperial Stout.

Currently, “Double” or “Imperial” are labels that many brewers cavalierly attach to any beer which is stronger and/or hoppier than the standards of the style. Personally, I would prefer to see both labels confined to their historical styles, and the term (just for example) “Strong Brown Ale” used instead of “Double Brown” or “Imperial Brown”. But if we have to go with either of the two currently in vogue, then Imperial is the least objectionable, as it tends to be more descriptive of the product and therefore makes a bit more sense.

There’s also a bit of a debate right now about dark beers with a high hop content, and what they should be called. The problem is, some of these style names make no sense at all (Black IPA? Really? How can a beer be BOTH black and pale?), others are not at all descriptive (American Dark Ale tells me nothing), and still others are just hilariously presumptuous (Cascadian Dark Ale? Sorry, Northwesterners, but there’s some evidence that this style may not have been invented in your neck of the woods but in the San Diego area). My humble proposal – as if anyone actually cares what I think – is to call this style either India Brown Ale, India Black Ale, or India Dark Ale.

My reasons for this are manifold:

1) Using the India moniker prepares the drinker for a beer with a hoppy flavor profile. (Sure, it won’t taste EXACTLY like a standard IPA, but then anyone with knowledge of beer realizes that the dark malts will react differently to the hop presence and produce different flavors. Typically, an anise/black licorice finish is present.)
2) India in the style name also has some historicity that is applicable within context.
3) The name is not self-contradictory and makes some sense.
4) At least a couple small brewers are using this name.

In the end, perhaps craft brewing needs some arbitrating body to decide on style names, and not let beer festivals do it themselves. We could end up with a situation similar to the different kennel organizations which recognize different standards for dog breeds. Maybe it should even be a function of the Brewer’s Association. That way, we can keep beer styles fluid yet definitive, and have some agreement about what they actually are. Until they change again.

Tom Becham lives in California, he’s a homebrewer and reviews beer, brewpubs, breweries and beer events for professorgoodales.net.