Michael Jackson’s original work into sorting the Beers of the World into categories and styles in order to be able to compare them was a groundbreaking way to look at the huge variety of beers across the western hemisphere. It was an immensely useful discussion tool for beer-o-philes and brewers, to compare the results of different ingredients and techniques – spawning an entirely new vocabulary around beer. It also become an indispensable crutch for the beer sales industry to describe unseen products to potential customers, finally allowing marketers to avoid the dreaded: “it’s like ThisOther Brand, but . . .” descriptions, who then conveyed this terminology down through the tiers. After wholesalers and retailers passed it to taphouses and servers, it rapidly got picked up by the consumers – who included a number of homebrewers, starting to organize into larger clubs and groups. It was inevitable that the homebrewing community would latch onto this new way of looking at and describing beers. Competitions between homebrewers were getting larger and harder to select a single Best of Show from the wide variety – many had begun to apply some of Jackson’s categories to split the large number of entries into groups, allowing beers to be more accurately judged against more similar beers.
Geeks being geeks, heated discussions arose over interpretation of which category a beer belonged in – or about which categories had been selected from the large list to sort the beers with. From this silliness, the first inkling of what would become the Beer Judge Certification Program was born – first, to delineate and codify a standard set of styles for the purposes of consistently running homebrew competitions to the same standards and definitions – their secondary purpose was to write up a “Robert’s Rules of Order” for running competitions – and thirdly, to determine a method to certify someone as adequately knowledgeable to fairly and accurately judge a beer. Heady list, that.
The biggest problem was that, like Imperial measurements, the categories are based on real-world observation and not consistent specifications. By way of analogy, the Imperial measurement system (inches/feet/yards) was based on the length of feet, fingers, and strides, the height of dogs and horses, etc. – which of course, varied depending on who was doing the measuring. (i.e. Sue and Henri measuring the same distance with their feet will get very different results, just as a Belgian and a Londoner mean very different things by ‘dark ale’.)
Most of Jackson’s beer styles were based on his own experiences, so ales from Britain and Belgium have the most differentiation. His general preference for ales also categorized a significant number of German ales. For example, most beers are not considered separate categories based on strength, if all else is equal, yet Scottish ales have 4-5 separately-identified strength levels, English Bitters have 3, as do Porters. Mild, Southern Brown Ale, Northern Brown Ale, Old Ale, and Barleywine are distinguished primarily by their increasing strength and body (although there are some subtler differences). Belgium has a bewildering array of bizarre and unusual beers that are completely different from most of the European beers’. The sheer size of the market forced American Lagers to be split into several styles on the basis of strength and/or colour (although, compared to most beer styles worldwide, they are all pretty much the same). Germany had some of the strictest brewing laws in the world and many styles were only permitted to be made by certain brewers or in certain locations. In fact, many cities only made one consistent style, leading Jackson to name many styles as the locals did, simply after the name of the city: Dusseldorfer (Alt), Bitburger (pilsner), Munchen (Marzen), Dortmunder, Einbeckisch (bock), Vienna, Cologne (Kolsch). Many styles were also named for their traits, such as dark ale (dunkel), the black lager from Bitburger (schwarzbier), the white beer from Berlin (Berlinerweisse), the yeasty white wheat beer from Munich (hefeweizen), its crystal-clear filtered version (krystalweizen), or its dark counterpart (dunkelweizen).
Category groupings were also complicated. British ales were essentially grouped by colours into light, brown, porter, and stout – yet the historical English arrogance still forced Jackson to separate out Irish and Scottish ales, (although the English browns of the time ranged from light and bready (like Irish reds), through smoky and malty (like Scottish ales), up to nearly as dark as porters without the roast character. Likewise, English and Irish stouts were only slightly different in the use of roasted vs. black barley. Belgian beers were grouped more by characteristics, grouping all of the wide array of differing sours into one group (then throwing German Berlinerweisse in with them), the abbey/monastic styles in another, and pretty much everything else between England and Germany/Austria into a third. This last group includes the crisp-clean, cloudy Witbier, which logically, one might group with wheat beers, or perhaps white ales. It includes the Belgian pale ale, something that describes a malty, light-coloured beer in the gravity range of a dubbel (a monastic beer from the second group) with a little less fruit than a tripel would have – and he completely ignored the in-house abbey table beers, now known as singels. Interestingly, it also includes the Belgian/French farmhouse ales full of spices and wild grains (and often yeasts), such as saisons. Sort of a wild card category based on the geographic area. Yet lager styles, overall, are grouped more my colour than geographic or historic relations.
Does all this lead to a bit of a confusing mess? You bet it does. The Beer Judge Certification Program worked very hard to pull all of these different concepts into a usable set of categories and style descriptions, and for the most part, it has worked very well for everything from in-club competitions to the National Homebrewers’ Competition. The Brewers’ Association now has their own (expanded) set of styles and categories for use in commercial competitions, such as the Great American Beer Festival. From the start of the ‘craft beer revolution,’ with Jim Koch educating American drinkers that there was more to beer than American light lager and cream ale, the craft beer industry has embraced the use of style definitions to market their products. As the industry exploded in leaps and bounds, the BJCP and BA styles became totally ingrained in the language and thinking at all levels – until it became so accepted that the newest generation of brewers are rebelling against being confined by ‘the rules’ and are celebrating each and every ‘not-to-style’ brew they release.
Stay tuned for BJCP Update Part 2 – Overview and Lagers/Hybrid Styles in a short bit.