Craft beer styles are an essential component to the modern craft beer market. They have become the DNA of the industry, relied upon by brewers and consumers alike—and also ignored, abridged, abused and all-but-abandoned, depending on the style and retailer. However, they still remain integral to the craft beer experience and the social sector that entails.
Styles are a fairly modern craft beer phenomenon, most not formally arising until well into the twentieth century. In the beginning, brewers made beers based on the agricultural ingredients available to them (which were often limited) and in the circumstances in which they lived (climate, seasons, water chemistry, technology, expertise). Remember that the very existence and function of any microbial life (including yeast) was not known to anyone until Louis Pasteur’s work in the 1860s.
Therefore, if you grew up somewhere in Europe in the 1500s, the beer you drank was simply whatever was brewed locally and sold in the local tavern. Perhaps a different beer was available in the spring, and another in the fall; occasionally, a special holiday brew might be available from local clergy, or something was aged since the previous season’s harvest. Beer was simply a staple, not a boutique product. A town in the next province over might brew a slightly different beer, but they lived by the same constraints as everyone in a pre-industrial society.
Beer styles arose from each of these different geographic locations brewing their own “local” beer under their own unique conditions and constraints. The soft water available in Plzeň allowed them to brew what today is labeled Czech pilsner; the hard water in Burton-on-Trent led to the clean, English pale ales; export porters and stouts resulted from brewing stronger beers to survive shipment overseas. Over time, and with significant consumer influence, these styles solidified and were codified into formal, recognizable styles initially based on ingredients, flavor profile and origin. With today’s modern economy and global marketplace, even individual homebrewers can duplicate original conditions anywhere in the world with high precision.
Styles provide a brewing target for brewers.
Brewing is a delayed art. Unlike chefs, who can adjust the seasoning or liquid in a dish or the heat applied under it, brewing highly relies on proper execution up front and then a long string of maintenance points as it progresses to completion. There is little a professional brewer can do to affect the final style after the yeast is pitched and fermentation begins (and a great deal that can still go wrong).
This process inherently creates a rather extreme lag between creation and finished product. Because of this discrepancy, brewers develop very explicit recipes composed of both ingredient lists and procedural details, always with a very specific goal in mind. A professional brewer must replicate this process exactly and steer it perfectly to completion hundreds of times, as consistency is essential to their business. The template of the defined beer style is that culinary bullseye needed for their work every day.
Styles function as a common language for brewers and consumers.
Taste is the only human sense not yet quantified. Vision can be described in terms of wavelengths of light, and the structure and function of the eye has been known in detail for at least a century. Likewise, frequency and decibels of sound are also very well understood, even to the point of technologically replicating the function of the human ear. Pressure (psi, pascals) and temperature (degrees Celsius, joules, kcal) can fully describe the sensation of touch, and can even be robotically duplicated and interpreted by microprocessor. Even scent detection can be artificially constructed, with various particles in parts per million (ppm) used to measure everything from volatile aromatics in wine to traces of explosive materials on the clothes of travelers.
However, no such analogue exists for taste or flavor detection, nor of the brain’s interpretation of the same. In some respects, the flavor of food and drink can be reduced to chemical ppm, but a great deal of what we enjoy in our meals is learned and interpreted. Coffee, wine and beer taste bitter to us as children but become highly enjoyable to us as we mature and acclimate to such flavor elements. Those growing up at opposite ends of the world (or even rich versus poor) will have vastly different diets and culinary preferences. Cicerones and sommeliers are not born experts in their fields but are the result of years of intensive education and training on the sensation of taste.
Brewing is a delayed art.
On top of the physical aspects of attempting to scientifically quantify taste, our personal biology and abilities vary from individual to individual, and will even change with our health, hydration and as we age. At least a quarter of our population is estimated to be so-called supertasters, who experience food and drink with much greater intensity (re: cilantro) than the average person. The other extreme also exists, as some consumers live with tasting “blind spots,” and remain unable to detect certain flavor elements at all.
Style descriptions for craft beer allow consumers to share a common flavor profile with each other. Each defined craft beer style includes many flavor elements for both taste and aroma, meaning that each style description creates a culinary “fingerprint” for that product. These style profiles, whether maintained by the Brewers Association, the European Beer Consumers Union, the BJCP or the many stylistic competitions around the world, are the conceptual Rosetta Stone brewers and consumers use to communicate with each other about their beers.
Styles benefit marketing (if brewers would rely on them).
Just as craft beer consumers spend hours arguing the minutiae of the products they enjoy, craft beer style descriptions are the greatest marketing tool professional brewers have to sell their products. For an educated public, a beer labeled “Oktoberfest” carries with it pages of history, serving details and flavor expectations, and can instantly distinguish itself from a Trappist ale, a doppelbock or a Russian imperial stout. Even modified descriptions function effectively: An “American saison” or “märzen brewed with pumpkin pie spices” tells us exactly what to expect, and can be more effective than any paragraph of marketing buzzwords.
When the modern craft beer movement established itself in the 1990s, new craft brewers acknowledged that their biggest obstacle was one of consumer education. With “beer” commercially redefined since Prohibition by the major industrial brewers (effectively, mostly light German-style lagers), it was an uphill sale for such (relatively) intensely flavored beers like pale ales, IPAs, bocks and stouts to a long-conditioned public. Educating their consumer base in proper beer styles and the language and expectations thereof was a challenge accepted as part of the new industry.
Regrettably, as commercial brewers embrace more experimental beer recipes and search for effective associated language for these new products, formal style descriptions have fallen out of favor. The rigor with which early brewers defined their beers has grown sloppy and inattentive to detail, with style names stretched to include beers that may not sync with consumer expectations. Disappointment prevails as a consumer orders a beer based on its menu style description but receives something far different than listed. Ordering a hamburger but receiving a burrito would be seen as a major flaw in a restaurant’s business, but equivalent incidents have become quite common at many craft breweries and beer bars.
It is not that today’s craft beer styles are “under assault” or fading out of favor. Our modern craft beer industry is ever-evolving under constant consumer influence, and we have left our industry’s adolescence of strict adherence to stylistic guidelines and have entered an age of greater flexibility and creativity with ingredients and products. Even if traditional wares fall out of favor—like any consumer industry, from film to music to fashion—they remain poised for generational rediscovery and rebirth in any future decade.