Pop quiz: what do the words eventful, lonely, and obscene have in common? I’ll give you a hint: they all entered the English language between 1590 and 1610. Alright, I’ll just tell you: what those words, and at least several hundred others, have in common is Shakespeare. He didn’t just use them; he invented them. And now they are perfectly acceptable and high-scoring Scrabble words, appearing in every dictionary. You know what other string of letters would help me get a high Scrabble score? qxav. But if I tried to play that word, you’d challenge it, and you’d win. So what gives? Why do I have to abide by dictionaries but Shakespeare didn’t?
Well, dictionaries are funny, two-faced things. On the one hand, they provide a record of how language actually gets used by ordinary folk, so they evolve as we evolve. This is why the Oxford English Dictionary now has an entry for muggle, in addition to eventful. But dictionaries also have authority over how language should be used. This is why I can’t just play the letters qxav when they suit my triple-word-scoring purposes, and it’s how I can get away with grading my students on their spelling when they turn in term papers.
In this way, dictionaries are like baseball umpires: they both describe and prescribe. A good umpire calls a strike only when the ball crosses the plate at the right height (they try to accurately perceive where the ball is), but every pitch that’s called a strike is a strike, even if it’s off the plate (their word is the law). Dictionaries walk that same line: if enough people who aren’t J. K. Rowling use the word muggle, a dictionary has to try to accurately record that fact, but when you challenge my attempt to play qxav, the dictionary is the law, and I’ve broken it.
In the beer world, we don’t have dictionaries but we do have style guidelines. In 2015, for example, the Beer Judge Certification Program released its latest document categorizing beers into styles, providing detailed descriptions of the aroma, appearance, flavor, and mouthfeel of each style. The document runs to nearly 100 pages, and along the way it tells us that Saisons are very highly carbonated, that German pilsners are fairly bitter, and that American wheat beers do not taste like banana. But are these descriptions or are they prescriptions? Is this the way these styles do taste, or is it the way they should taste? And if the latter, then says who?
Craft brewers tend to value independence and creativity, and don’t want some panel of self-appointed judges telling them what their beer should taste like. Perhaps no one embodies that ethos better than Sam Calagione, the founder of Dogfish Head, who has said that when he was getting started his motto was “screw beer styles”, opting instead to develop “off-centered ales” that pushed the limits of gustatory sanity. Oh, the centuries-old Reinheitsgebot that says beer can’t have anything except barley, water, and hops? Eff that; let’s shove some cherries in here and see what happens. What “happened” for Calagione was massive success. The Shakespeare of beer, you might say.
This fiercely independent and even rebellious attitude no doubt helped fuel the craft beer revolution, as the founders of the movement sought to distance themselves from the mass-produced fizzy yellow water that had taken hold of the industry after the repeal of Prohibition. But the desire to be free from traditional standards can easily transform into a sort of snobbery, a “more-rebellious-than-thou” attitude that looks down upon those who decide that they do want to brew the traditional styles after all. Take our own Chuckanut, for example, whose lagers are the very opposite of rebellious. (Of course, that they are a craft brewery specializing in lagers has its own hint of rebellion.) Not only is their Munich dunkel delicious, but it also perfectly hits all the marks of the dunkel style, which is why it has medaled so many times at the Great American Beer Festival. I don’t want to drink in a beer world that doesn’t have room for both the Chuckanuts and the Dogfish Heads.