Some beer styles are the result of geography, history or culture, others seem to have been dreamed up out of thin air. Bodies like the BJCP or Brewers Association often define them, and sometime they are just called beer. (In Belgium, for instance, there were no historic beer styles. They varied from town to town, family to family, based largely on local preference.)
Defining beer styles is useful, though, because it gives us a common frame of reference. If I tell you I have an IPA or a stout, you have a pretty good idea what I’m talking about without tasting it. It also makes comparing and contrasting beers much easier. Mike Dixon (Communications Director, BJCP) explains. “Let’s remove all beer styles and names and just give them numbers from one to infinity,” he says. “How would you ever decide what to drink? Often consumers may see a style they do not know, but it allows them to eventually understand the bitterness to be expected from an IPA or the roasty nature in a stout.”
The BJCP has defined and redefined beer styles based on historical and modern beers. It attempts to define what home brewers are currently doing, to create a level playing field. “Where the style guidelines really come into play is at competition,” Dixon says. “I don’t see the guidelines influencing brewers unless they are entering competition.”
Jamil Zainasheff (author of Brewing Classic Styles, style columnist of Brew Your Own magazine and “Chief Heretic” at Heretic Brewing) agrees. “I don’t think very many pro brewers let style determine what they brew,” he says. “They might start off with an idea of what they want based on a style, but then often take it in their own direction.”
Marketing usually affects people’s beer choices more than style itself. The old English IPA style is a good example. As more brewers had success with it, more brewers embraced it. Each wanted its IPA to stay out, so IPAs got bigger, bolder, hoppier. Soon there were Double or Imperial IPAs (DIPA or IIPA), Rye IPA, Belgian IPA, Black IPA, White IPAs and so on. The label “IPA” was a way to sell the beer to consumers; the only thing these beers have in common is that they’re hoppy.
“Most pro brewers rely on style descriptions to sell beer to their customers,” Zainasheff says. “Sometimes the beer labeled X style has no resemblance of that style, but drinkers assume that it is an example of the style. If you label anything IPA, then it sells better. Doesn’t matter what beer it is, it just sells more. Are all of these beers IPAs? No, but that is what affects purchasing trends.”
Consider the International Trappist Association (ITA), which voted to relabel its centuries-old beers as IPAs. “Though we are pious servants to the Lord first and foremost, we are also running a business here,” says Orval brewmaster Father Nelson. “So, in the end, we must give the customer what they want, and apparently what they really want is just to see those three letters printed on the bottle somewhere.”
The producers of Big Beer have responded to the craft beer swing in consumer tastes with faux craft beers. Coors produces Blue Moon and AB-InBev (makers of Budweiser) makes Shock Top. Dixon doesn’t think that approach will work. “Once people taste craft flavour they don’t want a macro lager as often as they did before,” he says. “Soon enough those people find other beers to try and we have new fans of craft beer adding to the craft market share.”
The next big thing might actually be a return to basics. “There are all sorts of crazy things being brewed,” Zainasheff says. “I think there might be some beers that stick around from it, but in general I think people are going to get a little tired of the extremely weird beer. I think there might be a bit of a refocus on some old standards. Wouldn’t you like to see a brewery offer a nice, ordinary pale ale? It is getting near impossible to find them anymore on the West Coast.” That swing may already be happening, as session beers (low to moderate strength beers, 3-5% ABV) rise in popularity, bucking the previous trend of high-octane IPAs.
Whatever happens, small craft brewers will brew what they like to drink, experimenting along the way, and beer drinkers with adventurous palates will keep trying their creations. The good ones will stick around as other brewers emulate them, including the macro brewers who are starting to feel that market dominance slip away, bit by bit.