After the British Guild of Beer Writers’ seminar on beer styles the other night, there have been been some great follow-up debates about the nature of styles, here, here and here. However, what I find fascinating on a personal level is that these debates are encouraging further thoughts on beer styles going off in all directions with one particular thought nagging away at me: what are beer writing and beer writers for? Obviously communication about beer is paramount, enthusiasm, expertise and excitement — but there’s a further e-word that seems to be cropping up: education.
So we communicators of beer need to educate the consumer (not the drinker, the bar fly, boozing pal but consumer by the way) about beer styles, make it easy for them to understand what it is they are drinking. Fine, I do tastings, write with the hope of exciting the reader into trying this beer, visiting this pub or using up their carbon units by going to this country, but I’m not sure that I am an educator, or want to be one. For me beer writing is also a journey of exploration and I’m lucky to be paid for it: I’m fascinated by beer and the people that brew and drink it, excited by the role it has in other countries, and yes I hope that people drink the beers I love otherwise they won’t get brewed. However, education is not my job. That surely is the job of the Beer Academy, Cask Marque, various publicans and brewers, PR departments, CAMRA etc etc.
So does this desire to educate make us an arm of the industry, which is fine if that’s where you want to be, but surely there has to be a certain sense of independence (which is hard given that we rely on breweries to send us beer, organise visits and events, it’s all balance). This navel-gazing is on a par with that fearsome train of thought that has been buffeting its way through beer writing since the 1970s — that campaigning is a major part of beer writing. Again if that’s your bag then great (in the same way as some sports writers tackle corruption, drugs and cheating, others celebrate the sport), but I wonder why I felt when starting to write about beer in the late 1990s that I had to metaphorically raise a clenched fist whenever I wrote a story.
So getting back to beer styles, if the brewers want to come up with a 1000 styles to sell their beer to the drinker (not the consumer) then fine but after that it’s up to beer writers to try and make sense of things. For instance, I’m beginning to wonder if we should categorise beer by colour and then branch out and I also like the idea of someone saying here’s a Black IPA, I’m interested in trying it, who cares if it’s a non-style if it tastes good (it’s also post-modernist in the same way as Oasis channelled the Beatles to make for a very good tribute band).