The Craft Beer Industry’s Obsession with Styles
By: Erik Myers
When Kevin Davey, the brewer at Wayfinder Brewing Company in Portland, OR spoke on record about what his new style of “Cold IPA” meant from a process and ingredients standpoint, the craft beer industry erupted with contention. Soon, like Brut IPA before it, it was the buzz of online brewer forums. Some brewers were eager to make their own version, some ranted in angry indignation about a new sullying of a classic style, already much maligned.
If you’re unfamiliar with the “style”, I’ll catch you up now. A Cold IPA is made with lager yeast and fermented at around 65F – much like a Steam Beer. It is dry-hopped during active fermentation to take advantage of yeast’s ability to biotransform hop oils. One could almost consider it a cross between an Italian Pilsner and a Hazy IPA. Almost.
Somewhere on the Internet, the debate still rages. If it’s made with lager yeast, how can you possibly call it an IPA? After all A stands for “Ale.” And if you’re fermenting with lager yeast at a warm temperature, doesn’t that stylistically make it a California Common? If you’re hopping during active fermentation, it’ll certainly pick up some haze. Does that make it New England Style? We may never know.
It’s not an unfamiliar debate. A decade or more ago, beer industry veterans will remember a similar debate around Black IPA. How could you possibly call it an IPA? After all the P stands for “Pale.” We’ve had Brown IPAs, Red IPAs, Belgian IPAs, Brut IPAs, Session IPAs, Hazy IPAs, Juicy IPAs, and even IPLs. “India” is one of the most over-used meaningless words found in beer styles, yet the industry is happy to pedantically argue about every word that happens to land anywhere near it.
The industry is both obsessed with style classifications and their definitions and crippled by its hyper-focus on them. At the largest beer competitions in the world – The Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup – beers are judged as “best” by how closely they adhere to style guidelines written and maintained by the all-holy gatekeepers of beer, the Brewers Association. The US-based organization essentially functions as the worldwide arbiter of what makes a beer “authentic”.
Here’s the problem. Brewing “to style” is not a measure of quality, and customers would rarely recognize it if it were.
The arcane and specific definition of beer styles emerged at around the same time as the country’s first craft breweries with the 1985 founding of the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) by Pat Baker of the Home and Beer Trade Association along with support from the author of The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, and veritable Godfather of Craft Beer, Charlie Papazian. From its originators, it seems quite clear that the purpose of defining beer styles was to further interest in homebrewing.
Using styles as an educational tool created a common language for homebrewers to learn how beer differed around the world. It created a framework for writing about historic origins and context. It gave homebrewers a language for their dreams of recreating that beer they had when they were traveling right in their own kitchen. It gave them the ability to share recipes with other homebrewing enthusiasts in a shorthand that they could all recognize, to save the countless hours that would otherwise be needed to explain over and again the nuanced differences between an American Brown Ale and a Robust Porter.
The vast majority of the craft breweries in this country were built by homebrewers which amplifies these definitions on a commercial level and gives them an outsized importance, particularly to the people within the industry itself.
According to the Trade and Tax Bureau (TTB), there are 5 classifications allowed on a label: beer, ale, lager, porter, and stout. Well-style-versed brewers scoff at this list for the same reason that they roll their eyes at Cold IPA. Porter and stout are both ales, and both ales and lagers are beers. It’s not so much a list of styles as it is a Venn diagram.
By contrast, the 2020 GABF Style Guidelines listed 91 different styles, with 127 subcategories. The style guideline document itself I s 61 pages long and is updated every year. Somehow, though, brewers still think that when they put the words “Czech Pilsener” on the can, that their customers can accurately determine that, of course this isn’t a “German Pilsener” and obviously it’s not an “American Pilsener” or an “International Pilsener.”
Styles are great tools. They’re good communicators. In a short description, they can communicate to the drinker exactly what they should be able to expect inside the package, assuming, that is, that they know what the words in that description are referring to.
Unfortunately, craft beer consumers don’t have this level of education. Their knowledge of beer styles has been imparted to them through one reality television show hosted by the irreverent Scottish founders of Brew Dog and another focused on the weird antics of the country’s “extreme” brewery, Dogfish Head. They’ve learned styles from airport menus and that one brewery tour they went on a few years back when they got a Groupon, and they’re pretty sure they learned something at that beer festival that they went to on their birthday when they tried to have one of every single beer there and passed out in the parking lot.
The fact is that styles are industry jargon. They are not marketing materials, or a meaningful form of communication to customers. They don’t really describe what’s inside a glass, so much as they describe what’s inside a recipe. Every brewer in the country has a story about a customer walking into their bar, looking blankly at the list of beers and asking, “Do you have any ales or lagers?” That’s because the meaningful differences between an ale vs. a lager can be summed up by describing what a beer tastes like, rather than referencing the species of the fungus that digested the barley sugar.
Sure, because of the growing popularity of the industry, some of those terms have made it into modern beer-drinking vernacular, but only on a limited basis. In fact, the reason IPA has worked so well as a moniker for craft beer is that it is short, easy to remember, and is attached to a bold flavor profile. Consider, though, that the term IPA has been on a centuries long journey. What currently constitutes an IPA today would be completely unrecognizable to the people who originally made them. Consider, too, that many customers do not know that IPA is an acronym. Nor do they associate it with a particular color or the species of yeast, and they would be hard pressed to tell you why the word “India” is involved at all. It probably involves boats.
Calling Davey’s iteration of a style a “Cold IPA” is fine, even though it’s not really cold, nor an ale, nor Indian, because it’s created a term in which industry members can communicate the techniques he’s using in order to iterate upon the idea at another brewery. Like the homebrewers that created this classification system, he’s using familiar points of the naming system to communicate to others how they should take a stab at their own version of this creation – and that, ultimately, is the soul of what the craft brewing industry is about – and what will insure it moves on into the future: experimentation, innovation, and creativity, and then, iteration. Style guidelines are merely the framework with which that is communicated, and nothing more. They are not a holy book of information and to most of the rest of the world, the words used within them are largely meaningless.
Style guidelines are excellent tools for internal communication. They’re great for recipe development. They’re even okay when used to classify beer for competition. But that’s where they stop being useful. When you’re selling beer in packaging or across a bar, it’s important to meet people where they are. Communicate with your customers in their vernacular, not your jargon.