This post is in direct response to Andy Crouch’s article “The Futility of Beer Styles” in this month’s (October 2013) Beer Advocate magazine [Edit: Andy has made me aware that this was only part 1 of 3 and these concerns will be addressed in future parts. A fact not mentioned in the magazine]. If you haven’t read it yet then I won’t fault you for reading it before continuing this post. However, if you don’t get Beer Advocate magazine or don’t want to wait then the quick summary is that he advocates for discontinuing the use of beer styles.
Through the article he cites a list of reasons for the erosion of styles including “wild and sometimes ridiculous ingredients” and “hop levels in today’s IPA evoke yesterday’s DIPAs”. Those examples try to demonstrate that beers are changing faster than styles can keep up.
I strongly reject the argument that new ingredients, like Blank Slate’s use of mushrooms, somehow damages beer styles. It helps styles, and the brewing industry as a whole, evolve in new ways. Once enough brewers use similar ingredients a new category will be born. Just as the continued use of rye or wheat has resulted in them becoming styles.
Though I do agree with him to an extent that Dogfish Head and a few others have a tendency to go way overboard with crazy ingredients, most recently using moon dust in an oktoberfest… just like how the German’s have always done in Munich…
Increasing IBUs and hop usage again shows the evolution and development of new styles. The IPA style itself – which Crouch later says is only likely to survive as a style in advertising – is in fact, as far as the beer is concerned, little more than increased hop usage over that found in Pale ales. Does the fact that we’ve kept adding more hops to the point that we’ve surpassed Double IPAs means we should abandon all styles? That seems a silly notion to me.
What’s in a name?
Shortly after complaining about those “ridiculous ingredients” and “questionable brewing methods” Crouch discounts those notions by saying that the existence of styles cause brewers to “focus on attempting to brew the perfect example of a style” to win competitions like the Great American Beer Fest. Some brewers going so far that “brewers just simply adopted the style in their beer names, as with Brooklyn Brown [and] Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.”
I am quite content with breweries naming their beers to match a style. If I’m in the mood for a porter its easier to see Founders Breakfast Stout then to take out my phone and google Clown Shoes Vampire Slayer. His other point here about brewing to competitions is also a curious one. Competition wins have made many breweries by bringing that beer to the attention of a massive audience. Also, how else are we supposed to have drunken debates about the difference between a stout and a porter if there are no styles to go by or competition wins to use as examples?
Stuck in their ways
An argument against styles that I have but Crouch does not advance is the tendency for people to get locked into a style. I’ve had many people tell me they only like stouts and refuse to try IPAs, and almost everyone denies sours for quite a time, though eventually almost all have ventured beyond their initial borders and enjoyed their discoveries. If none of us had ever stopped drinking the mass produced American light lagers where would we be?
The flip side of that coin is that I’ve met a few folks who find a single beer and are afraid to venture beyond that 1 brew. However, when you can say “Oh, you like Dogfish Head 60 minute? That’s a great IPA another one to try is [insert your favorite IPA]” you can slowly expand someones horizons along lines they’re already familiar with.
What’s old is new again
Tastes and fads will always change over time and I think that’s mainly what his complaint it. Tastes have changed too fast to keep up with the style concepts we currently have. As bitters were all the rage in the 90s (or so I’m told) many new drinkers today have only had a few bitter while having a plethora of IPAs. Gose is an example of this in the other direction, it ceased to exist for almost 20 years and only now is making a comeback with offerings from a number of craft breweries.
Solutions and suggestions
The biggest problem I have with this article is the number of complaints is high while the number of solutions is quite low. In his defense this problem is not an easy one to solve nor is it exclusive to craft beer. Battles over genrefication have been going on in music for decades. What are the Beastie Boys? Hip-hop, rap, punk? Perhaps it would just be easier to say they kick ass.
My suggestion is for a more frequent recalibration of styles, dropping off styles that are no longer widely produced and adding in new ones. RateBeer and Beer Advocate seem to add styles whenever they feel like it while the Beer Judge Certification Program hasn’t done so since 2008. 2008 may not seem that long ago but consider that the mighty Pliny the Elder was ranked only #23 by RateBeer that year.
What are your thoughts? Should we abandon all styles or do something else entirely? Weigh in below!