Wednesday 20 October 2010

More thoughts on beer styles

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).


  1. I think that rather than education, we should be forcing people to try beer at knifepoint. They'll end up liking it either way, but a flash of cold steel will better focus their mind on the task at hand.

  2. You can only educate those that want to be educated!

  3. I actually sometimes refer to myself as a Beer Educator. I think if you are writing on a non fiction subject education should at least be part of the goal, even if entertainment palys the bigger part.

    I think we should resist using colour as the main way to catergorize beer at all costs. I think its not only very old fashioned but also unhelpfull. There are already so many myths about colour denoting strength , nutrition and body using colour as the chief division just reinforces these mistaken ideas.

    In fact my only critism of your recent book would be that it uses colour to catergorise beers putting some very different beers next to each other suggesting to the reader there is some conection beyond thier hue.

    I have found myself going back to MJ's writing alot recently, he always coupled his take on styles (ofcourse it's Michael's take on style the formed the basis that the WBC style guide has been built on) with examples of the season, situation and food one might drink the beer in or with. This I think anchored the style into a real world context. This seems to me the way we should be heading.

  4. Kieran, the main problem with that approach is that it is based on people understanding those concepts as a starting point. Appearance is still the number one thing that determines whether someone will or won't try a beer that is new to them. It's human nature that we eat (and drink) with our eyes.

  5. Zak, gadzooks me thinks you’re being facetious
    Eddie — too ture
    Kieran — point taken on the colour but I felt it was the best way we could sub divide the book — if we did styles I would have been a hostage to fortune, while countries would have seen massive entries for some and none for the others, I actually think it worked though if I was doing it again I would put some in other categories etc. On the basis of MJ, he was a great writer full stop.
    Zak — re eating with eyes, James (a month from 12) won’t eat lasagne cause it looks messy and probably streaked through with colour, though he will devour Chicken korma, the colour is almost one tone.

  6. I am agree with that ZakAvery that rather than education, we have to forced the people to try beer at knifepoint.They'll end up liking it either way, but a flash of cold steel will better focus their mind on the task at hand.

  7. Im not sure I really follow your argument Zak. The starting concepts seem to me to be winter, spring, summer, autumn, celebration, socialisation, contemplation, and eating. I dont think those are particulary hard to grasp.

  8. There are so many myths about colour denoting strength ,nutrition and body using colour as the chief division just reinforces these mistaken critism of your recent book was that use some different colours to categorise beer.Beer style is also a different thing.

  9. I think the perfect beer style is the one in which the smoothness or viscosity of the beer is in the mouth, commonly described as mouthfeel and also the appearance of the beer, including the colour.