Certifiable: Beer Classification, Evaluation, and Certification

You may not know this, but you're wearing a beer and brewing straitjacket.  It has one purpose: to make your beer, whether brewed or purchased, boring and common.  It goes by many names.  It's called beer classification, or a style guide, or a defined historical beer style - but you know what I call it?  Being in league with the anti-creative beer devil.  ABV 6.66%.  Beerelzebub.  A dark force that makes you brew over and over again with the world's least creative yeast (Saccharomyces Luciferensis).  Its minions command a legion of beer snobs and uptight beer demons branded with the mark of their master: a beer glass and four cryptic letters (B...J...C...P...chills), or a disembodied hand bearing a soulless flute of dead ale and the name of what is probably a necropolis buried deep beneath the Vatican (it's something like....Cicerone?).

And these people are out to ruin your beer fun and slap those brewing cuffs on you.  Want to add some fennel to that Saison?  Hell no, chief - let's just put down the fragrant flowering plant bulb and back away.  Considering fermenting that Pilsner with a traditional ale strain? Pitch it and die.  Go ahead - make my day...  Pondering an imperial Berliner Weisse?  That's it, crazy eyes - into the back of the Style Guide patrol car.  As they lead you away, no doubt quoting the Reinheitsgebot and/or humming "Deutschland uber Alles," you'll realize that you never should have even considered such a travesty.

Right.  Or not.

If you believe half of what you read on the internet about the organizations that try to define and classify beer, you'd believe what I just wrote.  But the reality is that this fear of beer classification (and those who seek to - dare we say it - judge beer) is both deeply irrational and in no way a threat to beer's diversity or creativity.  And if you stare into the depths of the BA style guidelines, your face isn't going to melt off like that Nazi at the end of Raiders - you'll just shrug, walk away, and continue to brew what you want, taking what you just read into account, or not.

Classification is helpful and useful as an informational shortcut for brewers and drinkers.  Evaluation of beer is simple if you want it to be, and can be done by anyone.  Certification isn't some path to an exalted plane of beer nirvana, it's just a way to demonstrate a minimum level of competence in a certain brewing-related activity.  And all of this does nothing to limit brewing creativity.  So let's talk about it.

A Rose by Any Other Name...

I spent about an hour the other day trying to nail down someone's objection to beer guidelines.  The thrust of the argument was that because guidelines provide definitions for beer and beer styles, it hampers creativity.  How?  Well...I don't know, but one day, because we have these guidelines, breweries might want actual LAWS passed that protect certain style names and require they be brewed in a specific way, or in a specific place, or with a specific ingredient, and pretty soon all you have is a few styles of beer that never change and are held in place by hidebound LAWS that never let us be creative - or so it was argued.

That, my friends, is the very definition of a "slippery slope" fallacy.  The individual in question was irate because this was his/her interpretation of what happened in France with wine, and that it was inevitable that the same would happen in the US  and elsewhere with beer.  See, I like to think that we're smarter than that.  I don't envision the day ever coming when a brewery can't make an English Pale Ale with German hops, because a law was passed that says English-style beers must be brewed with English hops. But let's say we're dumb.  And that law has been passed.  So what?  The brewer calls it something else and continues to brew it.  Done.

In the meantime, we get to take advantage of the good that guidelines do.  They make it more likely you're satisfied by your beer choices.  They make it possible to at least attempt to objectively compare and evaluate beers.  And they educate you on the history of beer styles, which ingredients often lead to the flavors, and probably even inspire you to brew or drink something new (to you).

Classification isn't there to inhibit you - it's there to help you.  And it's unavoidable, by the way.

We name things.  We group things.  Once we do, we create expectations about what that group label means.  And we do that because we're trying, maybe without appreciating why, to create efficiency in our lives.  If you don't believe me, ask yourself how long it would take you to order a beer if the tap list didn't say things like "IPA" or "Stout" next to the beer name, and instead every one had a paragraph-long description.  And imagine how you'd respond if you ordered "John Smith's White IPA" and got something that looked and tasted like Sinebrychoff Porter - would you say, "my goodness, this is exactly what I expected and wanted when I ordered my White IPA!"  No, you'd have a few obvious questions for the bartender - specifically, whether someone had mislabeled a tap or if they had recently been blinded by someone throwing quicklime in their eyes because this clearly isn't a WHITE IPA.  

The same logic would apply to shopping at your favorite bottle shop or beer store.  You scan the shelves and look at the offerings, and you're reading traditional style identifiers - Pils, Stout, IPA, Kolsch, Sour - sometimes with modifiers (imperial, cherry, dark, etc.).  Those exist to help you get what you want, not to put handcuffs on brewers.  

And let's talk about those handcuffs for a second.  Yes, you can reasonably make the case that assigning parameters to beer might inherently limit brewers.  Maybe they brew within the guidelines to make their beer easier to sell.  Maybe they brew to your expectations instead of their imaginations.  Maybe they follow the herd.  But that's THEIR decision.  It isn't imposed on them by the guidelines.  And I think we can all agree that there's enough of a non-traditionalist vibe among craft beer people that we'll still get plenty of brewers who aren't so prosaic and plenty of drinkers to reward them for it.

Finally, let's talk about whether those handcuffs are handcuffs at all.  Most of the people I know who rail against the BA or BJCP guidelines have never really read them, or are reading WAY too much into them.  Take a look - they're broad as hell, both in terms of the diversity of styles and the way the parameters within this styles are drawn.  And if you've somehow managed to create something that matches no beer that ANYONE has ever made - that's what the open/specialty/experimental categories are for (and some of those have literally NO style parameters).  So if they're handcuffs, they're handcuffs that are so loose that they can be slipped at will.

I'm not willing to eliminate the profoundly useful informational shortcut/heuristic that beer style names/descriptions provide just to avoid a potential slippery-slope towards legal restriction some years down the road.  Let's have that discussion when the issue actually arises, OK?

Simple Beer Evaluation - Know What You Want, and Get It

We've covered this to some extent here before, but as a quick contextual recap, there's a difference between "evaluation" and "judging."  "Judging" is about sensory analysis to a known (and hopefully objective) standard - in other words, comparing what a beer says it is to what we generally expect or know similarly-identified beers to be.  In a perfect world it's a systematic process that allows us to quantify a beer's "fit" with developed norms and (to a lesser extent) its overall quality by identifying any "faults."  And in that context, published guidelines aren't just handy, they're essential, to be sure that we're doing everything we can to judge beer fairly.

But you don't need to judge beer to evaluate it.  You just need to decide what goal you're serving in your evaluation.  Do you want to know whether this is an historically-accurate Gose?  Do you want to decide whether a beer is "too bitter" for your palate?  Are you trying to evaluate a brewery's brewing skill?  Do you just want to know whether you'll order another one?  Because those are all evaluative goals.

You're probably also doing it whether you know it or not.  At a basic level, unless you're drinking just to get drunk, you're evaluating whether the beer is "good" or not.

So if we're talking about consciously evaluating beer, there's a few simple steps you can follow to do it more effectively - whether you use published guidelines to do so or not.

1. Decide what you're trying to ascertain.  It's totally your call.  What do you want to know?  

2. Gather any information you'll need.  At a minimum, I recommend doing a quick read of the brewery's description of the beer, so you have some idea what to expect.  It's exceptionally challenging to pick out flavor elements "blind" - prime your sensory system with a little information and you'll have an easier time working out how well the beer works for you.

3. Drink consciously.  In other words, don't just chug (unless the evaluation is whether you can chug a beer quickly or not).  I always tell people to spend more time sniffing than sipping, since it's easier (to me) to "reset" your nose/olfactory system to keep getting more perceptions - one quick sniff of your own sleeve, and you can jump back in.  You should also, when you get around to sipping, do it with a purpose: one sip for initial/dominant flavor, a second for bittering levels, a third for esters/phenols, a fourth for finish, a fifth for lingering aftertastes, etc.  Trying to sense it all in one gulp is really challenging - by looking for particular elements with each taste, you can pull more out of your sensory experience and increase the odds of meeting your evaluation goals.

4. ALWAYS ask whether you like the beer.  Forget the style, the description, your expectations - did you like drinking it?  Because at the end of the day that shouldn't be overridden by whether it "fit" the style.  Maybe it is too light for a Russian Imperial Stout - but was it "good" in terms of your enjoyment?  If so, that's always worth noting!

None of this requires style guidelines.  None of this is inhibited by it.  You're free to come up with your own rules - you're evaluating, not judging.

But let's talk about those who do...

Certifiable

Becoming a certified beer judge, Cicerone, sommelier or any other such person doesn't make you an expert.  It makes you a certified "whatever."  

It also doesn't necessarily mean you have a superior palate (our friends over at Brulosophy recently weighed in with some data on that), though you might.  It doesn't mean you have the answers on what's "right" or "wrong" about a beer or beer in general, though you might.  It doesn't mean those without the credential are morons, though it might.  What it does mean, usually, is that you passed some series of academic and/or practical assessments and you are now minimally qualified to do whatever that organization says its members can do.  

For BJCP-certified beer judges, that means you're qualified to evaluate beer in a competition setting, communicate your perceptions in writing to the entrant, and assign a score consistent with what other certified judges are likely to produce.  For Cicerones, it means you have knowledge of beer service and quality issues and should be able to address them appropriately.  Other organizations have other goals.  But none of them are seeking to establish global domination and mandate that you brew or drink only what they say.  When they have specific guidelines, they exist to systematize the evaluations they're expecting their members to be able to make, not to limit your brewing or drinking options.  In fact, those guidelines aren't even for you.  They're there to let the organization evaluate, train, and educate their own members.

But since we're on the subject, let's talk about the elephant in the room: yes, some certified beer judges/professionals are certified aleholes.  Sometimes aggressively so.  I still remember my very first turn as a Steward at a brewing competition - it was awful.  I was looking after a table with two of the biggest aleholes you'd ever met.  I was convinced that I wouldn't EVER want to be a beer judge if it meant hanging around people like that - one literally barked "STOP!" at a steward because she removed a bottle cap from the table.   

And these certified aleholes can certainly be unbearable in other situations.  They might tell you that you shouldn't like a beer because "it's clearly riddled with diacetyl - you can feel it, like a slickness on your tongue, and it tastes like movie popcorn butter." Yeah - thanks, d**k.  You know what a lot of people love eating?  MOVIE POPCORN BUTTER.  Let me enjoy my beer.  "You know, you shouldn't pair that beer with sushi because the hop bitterness might overcome the subtle flavor of the amberjack."  Great - I'm just eating here, guy.  I'm not a judge on Top Chef.  

As time went on, though, I found that such people were exceptions, not the rule.  Most, in fact, were very much the opposite - they appreciated beer more because of the work they put into becoming certified.  They were understanding of the challenges of making great beer and worked hard to help people fix it.  They make the beer world a better place because they help brewers identify shortcomings in their process and suggest ways to fix them.  Even when they're overbearing it's because they love beer, and they're trying to help others love beer.

We shouldn't (fittingly or ironically, depending on your experience) judge them too harshly.

The Comforting Embrace of the Straitjacket

Speaking for myself, I like that there are guidelines for beer.  I have my complaints about them - as I'm sure we all do - but those are practical or organizational concerns, not a wholesale anxiety about this notion of classifying beer in the first place.

Published guidelines for beer codify our norms and provide support and guidance.  They aren't constraining - you can always just ignore them.  And for those who worry that it prevents brewers from freely experimenting and stifles them, I'd counter that I brewed a lot of my beers because I read about them in a set of style guidelines first, so that saw can really cut both ways.  

And adding an element of organization and objectivity to beer evaluation is much the same.  You don't need to adhere to it - evaluate your own way, for your own reasons - but isn't it nice to know that we're at least trying to find ways to take the subjectivity out of beer when that's the goal?   

But if you're one of us - and you're certified to judge beer, or identify what are considered faults or mismatches, or recommend corrections or food pairings - then recognize your own limitations, both practically and socially.  Not every scenario calls for your skills.  Your experience in tasting/judging in a systematic way may not mean that you've developed any greater palate sensitivity or sensory skill.  Know your limitations.  Be humble.  

Now, if you're one of those that think we're headed to a new era of beer intolerance and homogeneity, maybe just take a step back and ignore those guidelines entirely.  Don't disparage them (or those who use them) because you're afraid of where they might lead.  In other words, be as tolerant of them as you want them to be of you.  Can't we all just get along?

And when the time comes to fight the New Beer Purity laws, you better believe I'll be right there with you.

Keep it simple.

JJW