Here’s what I hate: walking into a bar, and seeing this beer list: Bud, Bud Light; Coors, Coors Light; Miller Genuine Draft, Miller Lite; Heineken, Stella Artois, Guinness. Ask the bar tender what they have, and you’ll hear, “Pretty much everything.”
My issue here is not with quality. It’s with lack of diversity. Every one of those beers, except for one, is basically the same style of beer. While there are small technical differences in that lineup, it still does a great disservice to the wonderful diversity of beer that is available today. So what do you need to know in order to make your way through an ever-more complex and interesting world of beer?
There is no one way beer is supposed to taste
There are companies that spend vast amounts of money trying to get you to believe that there is a single thing that beer is, or is supposed to be, and, conveniently enough, it’s what they are selling. This is malarkey. It’s probably best to think of beer as a type of beverage, rather than a single thing, because how beers look and tastes varies widely from region to region, based largely on such factors as what ingredients are available, how they make their malts, and what yeasts are used. According to the Brewers Association’s 2011 Beer Style Guidelines, there are no fewer than 110 formally recognized styles of beer (plus 31 more “hybrid” styles) world-wide, and every single one of them, including the ones you don’t like or haven’t heard of, are valid examples of what beer is.
Beer styles are descriptive, not prescriptive
First, a bit of vocabulary: “descriptive” means describing something as it already exists, while “prescriptive” means laying out guidelines for how something should be. There is no such thing as a beer style that no one makes; if it is a recognized style, then breweries are making it.
So how does a style come into being? Basically, brewers start making a beer that doesn’t fit well into a previously established category. If enough breweries start making similar beers, they can be grouped as a new style. This happens fairly often. In fact, we are in the middle of a period of tremendous diversification in beer, thanks in part to the popularization of Belgian styles and techniques such as barrel aging…it’s a great time to be drinking beer.
There can be great variation within a single style
Just as “beer” is not a single thing, a style is also not a single thing, but rather a range. An India Pale Ale can be more or less hoppy, or more or less malty; a Belgian Dark Strong can be darker or more amber in color, or more or less alcoholic; an Oatmeal Stout can have more or less sweetness, more or less roasted flavor (not to mention more or less hops, or varying degrees of dark color or alcohol). So it is difficult to say, finally, that “I don’t like IPAs,” because just that one style contains a great range of beers, which means a great range of flavors.
Distinctions between styles aren’t always clear
As with any arbitrary system of classification, where one beer style ends and another begins can be a bit fuzzy, and subject to the whims of marketing. So while ordinary bitter, special bitter, and extra special bitter are all clearly different things, there are some ordinary bitters that are very similar to some special bitters. American pale ales, American-style India pale ales, and American red or amber ales can also be confusingly similar to each other. Double, or Imperial, IPAs and American-style barley wines overlap as well. While there are “typical” examples of every style out there, very often the most interesting beers steer well clear of “typical”.
Many great beers don’t conform to, or identify themselves with, a style
American breweries tend to brew a relatively large number of different beers, and categorize them by styles. That way, you can be brand-loyal and still get a decent stout, IPA, pilsner, and hefeweisen. But take one of the great beers of the world, Rochefort 10. It is identified only as that. No funny name, no animal on the label, no style to tell you what’s inside—just the name of the brewery and a number (it’s the standard bearer for Belgian dark strong ales). Chimay’s beer are known as “Red,” “White,” (or “Cinq Cents”, French for “500″) and “Blue,” (“Grand Reserve”) from the colors of their labels. Brooklyn Brewery makes a superb beer called “Local 1,” and the brewer refuses to discuss what style it is. Brewery Dupont makes a beer charmingly and enigmatically named “With Our Best Wishes.” These beers, world class all of them, were not made to fit into a portfolio of beers that match a variety of tastes; they are made by brewers who were thinking of making great, unique beers. So while these beers might take a bit more knowledge to understand, they are also among the best beers out there.
Beer styles are good because they help adventurous drinkers know what to expect. Beer styles are bad because they help non-adventurous drinkers stick to the same thing. Beer styles are good because they show the diversity available in the beer world. Beer styles are bad because, once one becomes a hot trend (such as double IPAs, Russian Imperial Stouts, and Belgian-style white beers), breweries flood the market with often-mediocre knock-offs. Beer styles are good because they represent both tradition and innovation. Beer styles are bad because some breweries try to brew too many different styles, becoming jacks of all trades and masters of none.
In the end, it is not about what the beer calls itself. It is about whether you find it delicious. Out there among all the styles, there is great beer for everyone.
Leave a comment below, stating what style you tend to drink the most and why. Want to expand your palette a bit? Ask your bartender for something similar to what you usually drink, but different enough to make it educational.