Can you name all of the Brewers Association (BA) beer styles? If you’re a well-versed beer drinker, I bet that you could name most of them. For example, if you took a look at the list for 2013, you would find familiar beer styles such as pilsner, stout, porter, and everyone’s favorite, the India pale ale. But did you know that there are multiple sub-styles for each of these categories? For example, under pilsner there is German pilsner, Bohemian pilsner, and classic American pilsner. Each of these styles has their own guidelines for appearance, flavor, mouth-feel, ingredients, and acceptable range of original gravity, final gravity, ABV, IBU (bitterness), and SRM (color).
We are all facing a sensory overload after walking into our local beer store. And after staring at a wall of IPAs, how do you tell the English style IPAs from the American IPAs? Or more importantly, why do six random beers—which all claim to be IPAs—taste so different? Have we as drinkers been so inundated with craft beers of varying styles and flavor profiles that the lines have become so blurred that it is impossible to tell? Do most brewers create concoctions based on the guidelines set forth by the BA? Or, do they just make beers that they enjoy drinking? While style guidelines are used extensively in local, regional, and national beer competitions, the question is, does the common (or even the knowledgeable) consumer really care?
Who is the BA and why do they get to decide what is and what isn’t acceptable in a beer?
The BA is a non-profit organization which was founded in 1942. The primary duty of the BA is to act as a trade and lobbying organization for craft breweries all across the country. The BA is the largest membership organization for craft breweries. They are also the group which founded and organizes the annual Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colorado each October. They also publish a significant amount of research on the economic impact, regionally and nationally, of craft beer and fight to pass legislation in D.C. (such as lower excise taxes for microbreweries).
Every year, the BA publishes its updated style guidelines which are set forth by a committee within BA, along with the parameters for the competition at the GABF. These guidelines act as a rubric for the creation and evaluation of beers within a specific category.
While the BA sets style guidelines and holds the annual competition at the GABF, there is a separate organization which certifies the judges for competitions around the county. All judges have been certified by the Beer Judge Certification Program or BJCP. To become a judge, you must take an exam administered by the BJCP. This consists of a multiple choice segment, a written segment (where test takers must create on-the-spot recipes for beer styles given by the test administrator), and a tasting portion where test takers are presented with various beer samples and must determine beer style and detect any flaws and/or off flavors in the sample given. Because the BA is the official body which governs these competitions, they get to set all of the rules regarding who can judge each competition. Therefore, not all GABF judges are certified by the BJCP. Some are asked to be judges based on their status within the industry.
Each year, the BA hands out medals at the GABF for beers which are in theory, the best available examples of a given style. However, it can be argued after looking at the list of year’s winners and the style parameters for the categories in which some entries were awarded medals, that there are examples of beers which should have not placed within a particular category. This not only affects the brewery who won, but the other breweries that entered beers into that category for judging.
How do beer styles affect consumers of Craft Beer?
This affects you, the consumer, in so many ways. Some traditional brewers focus only on these style guidelines and refuse to innovate. This creates a glut of beers, enjoyed by some, but not by the modern day craft consumer. Also, some breweries are concerned solely with winning medals and awards in competition. This causes the creation of beers made for this purpose only and do not necessarily appeal to the craft beer drinker.
Does the average consumer of craft beer still want traditional beer styles? The answer is no. For example, there are so many beers (imports and domestics) which were formerly some of the most popular beers in the world that have dropped dramatically in sales. However, you don’t need to look far to find examples of craft beers bucking the style trend. Dale’s Pale Ale from Oskar Blues Brewing Company in Lyons, CO is a perfect example. Oskar Blues revolutionized craft beer in this country by being the first commercial brewery to offer their beer in cans. Which for a long time, and even still, is looked upon as a sub-premium vessel in which to package craft beer by the average consumer. However, their ever-popular Dale’s Pale Ale isn’t a true pale ale by the standards set forth by the BA. At 6.5% ABV and 65 IBUs, it doesn’t fall within the BA Style Guidelines for a pale ale at all. In fact, it falls closer to the guidelines for an IPA. Yet, it continues to win awards (GABF, New York Times, etc.) and is regarded as one of the best pale ales in America. Does this make it a bad beer? Absolutely not. But is Dale’s Pale Ale really a pale ale? Moreover, does it matter? Do people drink Dale’s Pale Ale because of the style? Or do they drink it because they like the beer and how the brand makes them feel?
Also, there are constraints that beer styles place on retailers of craft beer. Bars, beer stores, and wholesalers are putting restrictions on your access to craft beer. Beer bars are now allocating taps based on beer style. For example, if a bar has twelve tap lines, a certain number of those lines are allocated based on style, and not necessarily which beers sell the fastest. While this may give the consumer more styles of beer to choose from when ordering at the bar, it limits the amount of popular IPAs, pale ales, or barrel aged beers are available, since certain lines are allocated to pilsners, etc.
Beer stores are guilty of this as well. Instead of grouping all beers from a certain brewery together, they are now being arranged throughout the store according to beer style. This makes it easy to miss being introduced to a porter or IPA from a small brewery because their beer is buried under the mountains of cases of popular beers. (Most of that space is pre-set and paid for by the wholesaler by the way, limiting space for small/independent breweries.)
Finally, wholesalers play a large role in what beers the consumer can find in stores. I have been in the room with many distributors debating bringing well-known beers into the tri-state markets. The discussion always turns to their portfolio. The debate becomes, “Well, they have an IPA which is their flagship, but we have three or four IPAs in our catalogue already.” This creates an issue—just because a beer is classified as an IPA does not mean that all of them are created equal. This means that you, the consumer, are denied access to some great beers.
How do the style guidelines affect how brewers create beers?
The answer is quite complicated. They do and they don’t at the same time. Some create beers and enter them into competitive categories at events like the GABF where there are very few applicants (some with fewer than 30 entries, as opposed to the close to 300 entries for IPA). Now, there are beer styles which have been around for centuries and deserve their moment in the sun, but I doubt that anyone can name twenty-five Vienna Lagers as easily as they can name twenty-five IPAs.
However, many breweries mostly disregard the style guidelines altogether when creating a beer. The goal of any brewery is to create beers that people like to drink. And with the ever-changing palate of the consumer, this task is becoming more and more difficult. Therefore, brewers have to reach deeper into their bag of tricks to come up with more innovative techniques to brew beers which consumers enjoy.
The most prevalent example of this in brewing is a beer called Summer Shandy by the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company of Chippewa Falls, WI. If you search the 2013 BA Style Guidelines, you find no style guideline for a shandy anywhere. For the record, a shandy is made by blending lemonade and light beer (pilsner or wheat beer) together. It is mostly enjoyed in the summer, but its presence on shelves can now be found year-round. While Summer Shandy is met with ire among the staunchest beer purists, its impact is undeniable. According to the Milwaukee Business Journal, The Shandy Line from the Leinenkugel Brewing Company represented almost 10% of the total growth in case volume throughout the entire craft industry. This line beat out Sam Adams Boston Lager, Sierra Nevada Torpedo, Lagunitas IPA, and Blue Moon. The evolution of beer styles like the shandy is a prime example of the disregard for the traditional way of making beer, and embracing innovation to create beers that people want to drink.
What is the future of the BA Style Guidelines?
The question is, do we really need all of these style guidelines when brewers are largely disregarding them? The answer is just as complicated as the question. There will always be a place for style guidelines, just like there will always be rules and laws. These guidelines will help brewers around the world attempt to standardize the classification of classic and nuevo beer styles. These will allow BA members to still hold open competitions on the local, national, and international level. However, the necessity of length and breadth of the beer styles set forth by the BA is outdated. While brewing is and has always been a medium where art and science meet, the modern brewer is less focused on science, and more focused on the art of brewing. While adherence to sound brewing practices is paramount, the idea of creating a beer solely on paper based on style parameters is gone for good. Creativity and innovation are now the drivers in beer making.
The BA should take a hard look at the number of different beer styles and sub-styles they include in their annual guidelines. Perhaps, the sub-styles should be consolidated into one large category that would govern a particular type of beer? While this might blur the lines between certain European beer styles which differentiate themselves through these sub styles, it would create more leeway and flexibility for brewers to create beers which are not only accepted by consumers, but would be eligible for awards at major competitions.
Beers will continue to be grouped into styles. It is the easiest way to categorize the explosion of liquid which is flooding our market. However, it will ultimately be up to the consumer to decide if a beer is really a pale ale just because it says so on the label, or if it is really an IPA.