11 Mar 2013

Monday Musings


The recent release of the latest Style Guidines by the Brewers Association reminded me of something that had been bouncing around my mind since the beginning of the year, after reading this this surpisingly good article in the Argentinean magazine Brando.

It speaks about a new trend in the local market, the big brewers are betting more on variety with beers to a more or lesser extent drift away from the paradigm of farty pale lager. Unlike other similar pieces, the author refrains from writing just a list with tasting notes lifted from marketing materials and does some decent journalist work. He looked for the opinion of representatives of local micro breweries, who, by the most part, don't see these new beers as a threat, but as an opportunity, since they will show to a wider audience that "beer" is not only the above mentioned paradigm (notice the contrast between that and the "Craft vs Crafty" PR stunt by the BA a while ago*).

The only problem that there seems to be with this beer is that they sometimes do not "respect" the style they claim to be. Clearly referring to Quilmes Stout, which the author points as the one that started the trend, a small brewer complains that "Many people, when speaking about stout, say 'I like it/don't like it because is sweet'. Actually, Stouts are hardly ever sweet, but the industrials have made people understand that they are."

I can understand a bit why this person is bothered by this. He must make one of those nicely roasty and bitter stouts, and if someone drinks it after having tasted and liked Quilmes's, chances are that they will be surprised (either way); while another person who does not like Quilmes Stout because it's sweet, might be reluctant to try the one this good man makes because it has the same word written on the label, or not, it all depends on how good this brewer is at selling his beers.

But regardless of that, I got stuck with the word "respect" a style. Respect it in what sense, in accordance with what? Many will answer this question with the "BJCP/BA style guidelines", which doesn't make much sense for three reasons: 1) it isn't and has never been accepted anywhere as an ISO-like standard of quality, 2) it can't be used as a brewing manual (neither it intends to be), 3) it's not even a guidelike of styles proper, it's a list of categories for competitions that has little if any consideration for history or traditions, and the inclusion of new styles, at least when it comes to the BA, seems to depend to a great extent on how good were certain brewers lobbying to open a new category.

The only real purpose of these style guidelines are competitions. Participants can use them to know in which category they can present their beers (I remember a few years go that, at the World Beer Awards, Primátor English Pale Ale won a medal in the Brown Ale category) and they tell judges what are the evaluation parameters and criteria for a given category.

It is already well known how beers are evaluated at competitions like the World Beer Cup (blind tasting of small samples provided by the brewers themselves, all in very controlled conditions). What is not so well known is how the winners are determined. Each judge's evaluation must naturally be as objective as possible, the criteria is 100% technical and the winning beer will be the one that best fit into the technical parameters of its category, which, at WBC and other competitions, is not decided by a score, but by consensus, all members of the jury agree, regardless of their personal taste, that this or that beer is technically the best of the lot.

That is why, among the loose thoughts, I said this: "Someone who uses the BJCP style guidelines as a parameter to evaluate a beer, shows they understand little about the BJCP, styles and beer." Anyone who uses a list of competition categories when reviewing a beer, is doing it wrong. In real life, a beer must be evaluated on the basis of how much we like it, the price/quality ratio and how it compares to other similar beers we've had. On the other hand, in order to make a correct technical evaluation of a beer, it is necessary first to know the intention of the brewer, which is what determines a well made beer.

Unfortunately, there are way too many people on both sides of the counter who have anointed these lists of competition categories with an almost legal (if not religious) authority and that is why I understand, and share, Ron Pattinson's strong discontent with the specifications for Grätzer (Grodziskie), one of two new styles categories accepted by the BA this year. Ron has been working very hard for many years to bring back to life this very interesting, extinct and almost forgotten Polish style. The BA didn't give too many fucks about any of that, and chose to open a new category that will fit what a few brewers were making. They called it Grätzer, but it has so little to do with history and tradition that they could have easily called it Kaczynski.

Na Zdraví!

* You didn't really thing that the issue of the Craft vs Crafty thing had anything to do with transparency, did you?

7 comments:

  1. well, if you say red color in our country, everybody will understand. If you say pilsner, most of the people will know, as probably everybody went at least once to a local pub in prague or elswhere. But if you say stout, people will look at you and...probably nothing.

    I think its good that there are categories as you can imagine what to expect.

    I dont think that World beer awards is a good example as they have generally very wide categories. But as with BA, they have to go very detailed as for each style and category you have usually quite few samples...

    And we had many discussions and controversy at WBC and GABF based on our preferencies and what the judges liked and liked not...

    Honza, CZbeer.cz/Nomad

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There will always be categories, but each person should build their own based on their experience and not on those of a more or less anonymous panel who are mostly responding to the needs of a bunch of American brewers.

      Delete
  2. I'm learning quite a lot by following your thoughts on this subject, although I'll admit I'm still finding parts of it immensely confusing. For one, I'm 100% guilty of BJCP guidelines to evaluate the beers I've brewed as well as ones I've consumed. Part of that is personality and a desire to have a point of reference for better understanding beer. Can style guidelines not function as benchmarks of sorts? Or is that wholly inappropriate? and why or why not?

    And second, I don't follow how your proposal ("beer must be evaluated on the basis of how much we like it, the price/quality ratio and how it compares to other similar beers we've had") actually replaces utilizing style guidelines as a way to outwardly/verbally describe a beer. Does "stout" mean anything at all? What about "IPA"? Inevitably some entity is going to have a role in defining those, whether or not it can come to a consensus with other competing definitions, right? or no?

    And then my last question is, how do you design a beer from scratch? Say I want to make a brown ale. At least from my experience, it's been helpful to have the BJCP guidelines as benchmarks for replicating something similar. (I live in Bolivia, and brown ale just doesn't exist [as far as I've found], so I don't have any examples to go off of or easily accessible literature to read up on to better know the style.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The problem with the BJCP/Ba guidelines is that they exist to serve American brewers, one of the two new styles, Grätzer, is proof of that. As it is described in the BA guidelines, the beers that will be brewed to fit that "style" will have nothing to do with beers that were brewed, and are still being brewed in the Grodziskie area in Poland (that used to be Grätzer, when it was part of Germany). Another example is the Bohemian Pilsner Lager. It's something that here does not exist, and certainly not with a Plato of up to 14º!

      Evaluating a beer solely on the basis of, among other things, how it compares to other similar beers you've had replaces style guidelines with your own experience as a drinker, which is the most important parameter when evaluating a beer. Some people will always try to define them (actually, they have), but rather pointlessly, in my opinion, at least as far as it should concern the consumer.

      Styles in the past weren't made official by institution or another. They happened organically. A brewery made a new sort of beer, it was successful, other breweries copied it, and this sort of beer spread. In the meantime, it changed in order to adapt to new tastes, technologies, policies, etc. If you read the history of, for example, British styles, that is rather well documented, you will see how some of them even changed colour!

      As for how to do a beer from scratch. I think it's very easy. I've downloaded a freeware to design recipes called Brewtarget (I really recommend it). It comes with some recipes of commercial beers, and there are tonnes more on the internet. You start with one you know, because you've drunk it, clone it, and then make some changes to see what will happen.

      Delete
  3. I would also add Beersmith as a great resource for designing new recipes. The brewing network has some great podcasts on styles (whether you adhere to them or not). I agree there are many faults with the BJCP guidelines and it is geared towards an American audience strictly for Homebrew Competitions. Have you looked into the Craft Brewers style guidelines as a comparison model that might be more digestible? The 2013 PDF has been released.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Since I'm not a brewer, I really don't care much about guidelines of any sort, as I see them by and large pointless for consumers. But if I was a brewer (home or otherwise), I would do things pretty much the way we've done it with Gypsy Porter, get the recipe of a well known, and renown, beer and change it a bit. Which is, basically, the way most styles spread...

      Delete
  4. I do remember you brewing a strawberry weizen a couple of years back. I think in general your point is correct, the BJCP guidelines were not created for consumers but for homebrew nerds that want to enter homebrew comps. No one should get all that hung up about styles, just enjoy the beer if its good.

    ReplyDelete