Judging Beer Part 1: Style Guidelines
In the craft beer era, everyone's a critic (see note*). From Untappd to Yelp, we all get to throw our voices out there to be heard by drinkers we are trying to help and brewers we try to amplify (or punish). However, most of us are merely on the trail towards knowing what we are talking about and that gives our opinions about as much weight as the salt they are written with. This is a series about how to properly judge a beer. Some readers may remember my stance on ranking beer, that is, I don’t do it. This is different. Judging beers is about teasing out flavors, deducing recipes and processes, identifying flaws, and not about deciding if we like a beer or not. It’s a huge topic so we’re gonna break it down into as many posts as necessary.
Part 1: Style Guidelines
A post about beer styles might as well be a post about all of beer for all its specificity. Books could be written (and many, many have) about how each style came to be, how they changed over time, the usefulness and uselessness of styles in defining beer, and all the impacts the vague concept of styles has had on the universe of beer, so we are gonna center this conversation around one central fun-fact: how we use style guidelines to frame how we judge beer. Posts about specific styles will probably come later, but you have to start somewhere.
The style guidelines are what breaks beer down into specific categories. Ale or lager (or neither… or both) to start. IPA, Stout, Porter, Pale, Pilsner, Bitter, Blonde, Barleywine, and on and on into 157 (by my count) different styles depending on which of the two sets of guidelines you use. You probably have a passable knowledge of the basics of the styles since almost every beer you buy will tell you what it is right on the menu, but we can go deeper.
There are two different sets of guidelines: The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) Style Guidelines used primarily for homebrew competitions and Brewers Association (BA) Style Guidelines used in commercial competitions. The BA is updated annually and the BJCP is updated whenever they feel like it; the previous version released in 2008 was finally updated in 2015. Since those two organizations host beer competitions, they get to use whichever guidelines they like, but other than that, both are fundamentally the same in that they provide a framework for the beer styles we all know and love to work within or rebel against.
The point of styles is not to constrain brewers into brewing only existing types of beer, far from it. Obviously, if brewers had to remain within the guidelines we wouldn’t have fun new styles like the Hazy IPA which was just added to the BA guidelines this year in 2018. However, when it comes to competition, the guidelines provide categories for beers to be judged against each other since you can’t rank an orange in an apple competition. Depending on who you ask, the guidelines have no use outside of competition; you shouldn’t be trying to shoehorn every beer into a category like that; let every brewer brew how they like and create whatever the people want to drink! In practice, they are extremely useful for transferring huge amounts of information about a beer in just a word or two and set up the expectation for a beer. You can more or less know what you will get when you order a certain style.
History of a Style
Styles are constantly evolving. Throughout history, new styles were created as new technology was invented. Old styles are deleted from the public eye as tastes changed. Some styles are invented or created by branding while some spring forth from the drinking trends of the day. Existing styles veer away from their origins over time as a myriad of forces acts upon them. Regional beers become so popular they need to be named so they can be referred to outside their region. Stout was a name relegated to extremely dark beers after grain roasters grew sophisticated enough to blacken barley without burning it, though previously the name Stout merely applied to a stout offshoot of porter. Porters, so named for the porters that liked them best, were brewed and drank in some form or another in England for decades before anyone decided to name them. And nobody said, “oh, we need a beer to ship to India with our British troops, let’s invent the India Pale Ale.” These styles sprung from the popular drinks of the day, and, given how much IPAs have changed in the last decade, today probably taste nothing like their historical counterparts. The style “Black IPA” managed to beat out its regional counterpart of a similar flavor “Cascadian Dark Ale” and make it into the 2015 BJCP style guidelines even though it had been in the BA Guidelines as India Black Ale since 2010. Steam Beer is a beer style that was trademarked in 1981. In competitions, it goes by the name California Common Beer and even though the category includes beers that mainly taste like the prototypical Anchor Steam Beer, neither Anchor’s version nor any beer claiming to be like it taste anything like the actual California Common beer brewed as early as 1860. Point is, it’s complex. Germany is a big fan of getting beers named after it. Gose from Goslar and Kolshe from Koln two examples where a regional beer grew popular enough to take on the name of its region.
Quantifying a Style
Since no one who was drinking 1750s porters is still around to fill out our tasting panels, we’ll have to take all the history and put some numbers on it in order to make it possible to judge. After you quantify a style, you can mostly recreate that beer and prove empirically that a beer is grouped with others of its category. You have probably heard of ABV and IBU, but I bet there are some you don’t know about. For each of these, a style has a range that it will usually fall into.
ABV - Alcohol By Volume. The BA guidelines also give alcohol by weight which is always lower than the ABV since alcohol weighs less than water. Fun fact, during the temperance times surrounding prohibition, printing the lower ABW value on bottles was more common since it implied there was less alcohol and therefore less evil.
IBU - International Bitterness Units. Using how many hops are added to beer and how long they are boiled as variables, a formula pops out this number which more or less relates to how bitter the beer is. While you can technically add as many hops as you want and therefore increase the IBUs to whatever you want, chemistry and your tongue start to break around 100 IBUs so anyone going higher than that is doing it for basically no reason. This number doesn't do anything to convey the complex aromas and flavors imparted by hops, so it really is just an introductory beer nerd stat with limited practical applications.
OG and FG - Original Gravity and Final Gravity. These are fun numbers. Gravity is a measure of the density of the liquid. Since dissolving sugar into wort makes it denser, the higher the pre-fermentation, or original, gravity the more sugar there is. That means when the yeast come to do their thing, more alcohol gets created. Final gravity is the density of the beer after it has been fermented. Both these numbers combined can be used to calculate (fairly closely) the ABV and estimate the residual sugars.
SRM - Standard Reference Method. A measure of the color of a beer. The higher the SRM the darker the beer. Since for the most part the color of beer comes from the roastiness of the grains, SRM does a pretty good job of describing the color of a beer even though it is just a single dimension of color. An SRM of 2 is a nearly clear American pilsner, 40 is a completely black imperial stout, and 20 is a nice brown.
Ok, Now What?
What does all this really mean to you? What’s nice is that you can use what you have just learned to enhance your drinking experience or can completely abandon it and continue on the way you always have and be just as happy. Next time you are drinking a beer, consider how it fits in with the style it claims to be. Is there the assumed amount of alcohol? Is it hoppy enough? Does it have the flavors you were expecting? The style guidelines will never be able to tell you if you like a beer, but they will inform you the next time you try to write an Untappd review. When you are being an armchair beer critic, you can look up the guidelines and give meaningful information to future drinkers. You may find, as many of us have, that while commercial beers may miss the mark of what you like, you will rarely get something you didn’t ask for. Real brewers know what they are doing. Tasting beer and giving names to flavors is something that no one is born knowing how to do. Use the guidelines to find and identify flavors that you like. Drink a beer, read the style, and discover the vocab that is associated with the parts of it you like.
*Note to the self-awareness police: take this as my signed confession. I am also a critic shouting from Rooftop Brewery like everyone else on the internet. The difference here is that I have a blog and that you are currently reading it, sooo... like, share, subscribe. Thanks, you’re a doll.
Information in this highly scientific post came from several extremely scholarly sources
These are the style guidelines I referenced and may one day have memorized!
These are a couple of the books I am referencing as well - notably more scholarly. Also Amazon Affiliate Links. Not that I mean to sell you these, but a bibliography that earns money? More people would write research papers.