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.
So how do we have both? That is, how do we hold up style guidelines as benchmarks against which beers can be evaluated while at the same time celebrating beers that give style guidelines the middle finger? How do we play Scrabble while still appreciating Shakespeare?
The trick is to remember something that is easy for moderately knowledgeable craft beer lovers to forget: namely, what the point of style guidelines even is. Or, I guess maybe it’s better to start with what the point is not. The point is not to enable beer drinkers to tell whether a particular beer is good or bad. In fact, if it were up to me we would eliminate the words “good” and “bad” from the vocabulary of beer drinkers altogether. One question is whether you like a beer, whether you enjoy drinking it. A different question is whether a beer is to style, whether it has the flavor characteristics that are traditionally associated with its declared style. (A still different question is whether the beer has any off-flavors, characteristics that would indicate a mistake in the brewing, packaging, or serving process.) One danger of having style guidelines so widely available and so deeply embedded in the craft beer community is that beer drinkers can easily slide into thinking that “not to style” means “bad”. Just because a beer is not a good example of a particular style doesn’t mean that it’s not a good beer.
So if style guidelines don’t help us to figure out which are the good and which are the bad beers, what do they do? Well, perhaps first and foremost, they give judges in beer competitions some guidance for how to judge beer. But even here it’s important to note that beer judges are not trying to figure out whether beers are good or bad, but rather whether beers are to style. To do that, style guidelines are, of course, essential. The BJCP is explicit about this, and so is the Great American Beer Festival, which says on its website: “The ultimate goal of the Great American Beer Festival Judge Panel is to identify the three beers that best represent each beer-style category…” The style guidelines keep judging from being a wholly subjective process, where each judge just picks the beers they like. But outside of the context of a competition, it’s hard to see why it matters whether a beer is to style – and that’s part of what those craft brewers who shun styles are pointing out. To that extent, they have a point.
So, like dictionaries, style guidelines help us play games. (Judging beer is like playing Scrabble in this respect.) But they also, like dictionaries, help to give us a sense of history. Every beer is just grain tea that’s been spiced and fermented, but that general recipe has been adapted to suit a very wide variety of local circumstances and tastes. Dublin ended up with black ales that wouldn’t have worked in Pilsen, and Pilsen ended up with light lagers that wouldn’t have worked in Dublin. To learn more about beer styles is to learn more about why and how those sorts of things happened, which in turn can give us a better appreciation of what we’re drinking today. Brewing a beer in accordance with a style can be a way of honoring a tradition, of feeling connected to our zymurgical forebears. But as beer evolves, so do guidelines: low bitterness hazy IPAs are sure to make their way into official guidelines soon enough.
Guidelines also help to facilitate communication between brewer and drinker. When you are wondering what to order, it helps to know that saisons are bubbly, German pilsners tend to be bitter, and American wheat beers don’t taste like banana. So when breweries categorize their own beers, they are often just trying to give you an idea of what to expect when you raise that pint glass to your lips. (Next time you visit, ask the folks at Menace about why their Retro Pale has that name.) But once you Prost and take that first swallow, if it’s delicious, does it really matter what it’s called?
Some brewers see guidelines as a source of inspiration; others see them as constraints on creativity. In truth, they can be both. But we can be smarter (and less annoying) drinkers if we keep in mind that style categories and guidelines are usually devised with a particular purpose in mind – to facilitate competitions, or to keep a historical record, or to help you select a beer from a menu. When they are ripped from those contexts, they lose their significance.
So, some practical advice: get acquainted with style guidelines as a way of increasing your beer literacy, and even take them to the brewery with you if they will enhance your appreciation of what you’re drinking. (You’ll fall even deeper in love with Chuckanut, for one thing.) But just remember that guidelines aren’t, and were never intended to be, the definition of delicious.