Do Styles Matter?

variety-of-beerThere is really only one rule for drinking beer; drink what you like. To steal a concept from the world of Star Trek, this is the drinker’s prime directive. While experimentation and diversity are great rules to live your life by, let alone to shape your drinking habit, no one should be forced to spend money on beer that they don’t enjoy. In a world where many work to afford drinking not a penny should be wasted on bad beer.

Yet ordering an unfamiliar beer is often a risky gamble. In a world where a craft beer might cost upwards of $8.00 a bottle it is important to know ahead of time whether what you are buying is worth the price being asked.

While sampling a local brewery there is little guarantee of quality. Starting a brewery these days seems akin to starting a technology company in the late 1990s where all you needed was a wish and a dream to get investors. Yet at the local bottle shop you can be fairly sure that the quality of the beer will be high enough to merit a place on their shelves. Any dreadful beer shouldn’t slip in amongst the good beer and if it does it won’t last long on their shelves.

Yet a guarantee of quality doesn’t guarantee satisfaction. There are those craft drinkers who have not yet learned to love the hop and that is of course their prerogative. Just because the industry is currently catering to the hop fanatic doesn’t mean that all craft drinkers need to embrace the bitter hop. For them there are an abundance of styles that offer a lesser hop signature.

But this preference requires a certain adherence to style that is quickly melting in the American craft beer industry. I’ve had “pilsners” with an IBU greater than most IPAs. I’ve had “stouts” that are lighter in color than most pale ales. We’ve discussed gueuzes created in seven days or IPAs as black as the richest porters. In a world of the imperial black IPA, the white stout, and blurring of the lines between styles how can a craft beer drinker really know what he is getting before he spends the money on a pint of beer?

BeerAdvocate.com user stonewall2 hit on something that has bothered me for quite some time in a forum post called Does faithfulness to style, or brewing talent, even matter anymore?. If I cannot be assured that when ordering a pale ale that I won’t have my taste buds savaged by an explosion of hop bitterness then how can I be certain of what I am ordering?

Styles exist for a reason, they are a way to inform the buyer of what they are getting before they by. While I’m not opposed to removing styles as arbitrary labels there needs to be some way to inform a buyer that the beer they are about to order may be strong hopped, malted, sour, sweet, or remarkable in any other fashion.

Mike and I have complained about under hopped IPAs before and were very upset that the beer we bought seemed more like a regular pale ale than an IPA. It felt dishonest to label the beer as an IPA without having that distinct IPA flavor to it.

Stonewall2 goes on to claim that he is no longer going to try new beers unless he can first sample them. He is tired of ordering sub par beer at considerable expense only to refuse to suffer the indignity of having to stomach a beer he finds unenjoyable. I sympathize with his desire to only want to drink good beer when spending hard earned money on beer but feel his solution might be drastic. I find myself trying new beer more often by bottle than by draft where samples are impossible.

The question I have is, do others feel this is a trend in the industry? Is this a problem that needs to be address? Would bottle labels with IBU ratings or maltiness ratings provide a better consumer experience? Is there a better solution than only drinking things you can verify before hand? Or should enthusiasts just learn to take the bad with the good? Are we asking too much?