Jeff Evans: Being style conscious

Watching the judges at work during this year’s International Beer Challenge focused my mind on just how much the beer world has changed since the competition was first staged 24 years ago.

The brewing industry has reinvented itself wholesale in the last two decades. Where once you’d have been hard pressed to find much more on an off-licence shelf than pilsner clones, bitters and stouts, with an occasional wheat beer or Trappist ale to add a continental flourish, today it’s hard to move without falling over saisons, sour beers, NEIPAs, goses, session IPAs and so much more.

Such increased variety presents a challenge for beer competitions. In most contests, “style” is paramount. If a beer doesn’t tick all the right boxes for the style’s strength parameters, shade of colour, fullness of body, appropriate malt and hop flavours and so on, then it gets marked down, possibly even disqualified, even if the beer itself is well made and enjoyable.

So, as the beer world becomes ever more diverse and colourful, competitions need to keep expanding and refining their judging guidelines to ensure judges are able to deal with whatever is placed in front of them.

The IBC, however, differs from nearly all other contests in that the declared style of a beer is not used as a judging criterion, so we don’t have the same issues. While acknowledging there’s certainly a place for competitions that reward adherence to style, we believe that drilling down into such detail is less useful to the consumer than simply acknowledging how good a beer is through a series of medal thresholds –gold, silver, bronze or no medal at all.

NEW DIRECTIONS

But leaving aside whether it is appropriate to judge beer by style, some people have questioned whether it is still relevant to even talk and write about styles, when brewers are constantly tearing up the rulebook and branching off in new directions. I think it is and that’s because styles are the building blocks of brewing, the benchmarks of the trade.

Any self-respecting brewer should learn to perfect the basic styles before allowing their imagination to take over and tweaking or forcing a style into something innovative and eye-catching.

But what about in the wider world? Are styles still useful to the retailer and consumer? Again, yes.

Even though the IBC doesn’t allow styles to deflect from rating the quality of a beer, styles remain the best tool when it comes to talking to the consumer about beer. People today broadly know what constitutes an IPA, a porter or a pilsner, for instance, and reference to styles such as these places any derivatives or extensions into some context.

The language of beer is thoroughly dependent on styles and we can thank the pioneering beer writer Michael Jackson for this. He coined the phrase “beer style” in the 1970s and then published a family tree of beer styles that is the template on which beer writing has been constructed and retailers have attracted and informed customers.

It says so much more than simply grouping beers together because they are blond or brown, weak or strong, British or foreign. The beer world has become increasingly complicated to explain to the consumer. Without styles to anchor the discussion, it would be even more confusing.

The IBC proves that adherence to style is not the only way, or possibly even the best way, to define a good beer, but an understanding of styles is certainly the hallmark of a good brewer and the first step of beer appreciation for the consumer.

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