Beer Styles

A few brief remarks, as the question of beer styles is afoot again, with various American and British writers weighing in in different forums.

They look at the value of the very detailed American BJCP system. It is an amalgam of the late author Michael Jackson’s scheme with influence from homebrewing competitions and latterly beer historians, or so I see it.

It’s a good practical workable guide, especially from the standpoint of entering and judging beer in competition.

It reflects its time and influences. And those influences reflect in turn theirs, and so on.

Jackson built, imo, on the scheme layed out by two American beer scientists, Robert Wahl and Max Henius. See p. 701 in the 1902 edition of their landmark American Handy-Book of the Brewing, Malting and Auxiliary Trades.

It seems behind his influential writing on the topic, extending to the numerous beer types the duo had dealt with such as Bohemian, Vienna, and Munich lagers, but also more obscure styles.*3

A British scheme of about 1950, which I discussed recently and deals mainly with top-fermented beer, also is recognizable in Michael Jackson’s work, whether he actually knew of it or not.

This is no surprise, as everything comes from somewhere. Jackson educated himself to learn how to present beer categories, and people were there before. But Jackson used a writer’s talent and romantic imagination to make jejune-seeming categories such as bitter ale come alive.

In his hands, rich business, socio-cultural, and economic context emerged that no one had ever perceived, or presented, in quite the same way.

If Jackson was living today he could fashion such magic of New England India Pale Ale (NEIPA), say. He had a special talent for that.

In the end, everyone interested in beer relies on their own scheme. It will be formed and informed by 1000 influences.

It may be simple, more complex, highly complex. Dark vs. Light. NEIPA vs. West Coast IPA. Northeast IPA vs. NEIPA (yes there can be a difference, for me anyway).

Pale ale à la 1850 vs. 1950. It just goes on. No one standard fits all. Each takes from the sum total of their experience what to buy, and how to judge its characteristics and quality, setting aside where specific criteria are mandated for a competition.

And that’s all.

See our Concluding Note.

*Jackson’s 1982 The Pocket Guide to Beer lists under “Types of Beers” (p. 4 et seq.) a series of bottom-fermented styles, then top-fermented ones, finishing with lambic  – included in top-fermenting beers since it is such – but stating the latter involve no pitching of yeast, but rely on natural microflora. In the opening pages of his 1977 The World Guide to Beer, Jackson seemed to view wheat beers of any style, albeit top-fermented, as a “family” standing with bottom-fermented and conventional top-fermented beers, but in time de-emphasizes wheat beers as a separate family. Even in the World Guide he included in the Belgian section a chapter called ‘Wild Beers”, separate from “White Beers” (also based on wheat), stating “The wheat beers of the Bruegel country have on occasion been termed ‘wild'”. Wahl & Henius, with their sub-classification of beers under each head of top-, bottom-, and spontaneous fermentation, reads very similar to this scheme. Jackson must have read Wahl & Henius, or other texts using a similar arrangement.


3 thoughts on “Beer Styles”

  1. Very much agreed, Gary, but I do have a problem with marketing departments creating the outliers that exist and I also have a bit of an issue mixing two very different beer styles such as Hopfenweisse.

    • Thanks Michael. Certainly understood from the brewer’s perspective. It’s actually an age-old issue, the intersection of marketing and the brewing arts.

      I found for example a pre-WW I “bock steam beer”. Perhaps, like the better known cream ale, it’s the original outlier!

      I’ll find it again and write about it soon, as it shows perhaps, along with with my tendency to conflate Helles and Pils, that there is a limit!

  2. I adjusted text, see especially asterisked note added, to explain further my belief that Wahl & Henius, or a similar early text, influenced Michael Jackson’s classification of beers.


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