Sunday, June 22, 2008

World Beer Styles: An Introduction

I recently completed the Beer Judge Certification Program's exam for the first time. I've judged a handful of local competitions in the past, but studying for and taking the three-hour essay exam has provided a lot more formality to by brewing studies. I won't learn my results for several more weeks, but I'm hopeful (and reasonably confident) that I'll earn at least a passing score high enough to rank as a BJCP "Certified" judge.

While part of the exam covers brewing basic brewing and beer-judging principles, most of the exam requires a detailed knowledge of the official BJCP Style Guidelines, which provide the foundation for almost all homebrew competitions in North America. If I had had my act together, I would have used the spring months leading up to my June exam to prepare detailed write-ups of all the different styles. But such was not the case, and necessary detail was thus lacking from some of my exam responses. Now that I have some free time with the arrival of summer, however, I'm going to use this blog to continue my beer studies further, embarking on a multi-part series on this blog that profiles the multitude of recognized beer styles. Perhaps someone else studying for a BJCP exam down the road will find this series of use. Perhaps it will be me when I re-take the exam some day to shoot for a Master-level score.

There already exist many different sources that profile each of the 23 major styles of beer, which are subdivided further into 80 distinct substyles, not including the meads and ciders that also fall under the BJCP's purview. Besides the official Style Guidelines themselves, excellent introductions have already been provided by, among others, the authors Michael Jackson, Ray Daniels, and Jamil Zainasheff. (Homebrewer extraordinare Jamil also hosts a weekly program on the on-line Brewing Network, and the archived podcasts of that show provide a fantastic resource for brewing award-winning examples of these styles at home.) But there is one thing about these sources that leave me a little unsatisfied: all are exceedingly detailed, in order to provide as precise a target as possible for both the style-minded home brewer and for the evaluating judges. As anyone who has prepared for the BJCP exam can attest, trying to master the styles and commit their details to memory is a daunting task indeed; it's virtually impossible to see the general "forest" behind all the specific "trees", such as the common adjectives used to describe classic aroma and flavor characteristics, and quantified vital statistics (OG, IBU, SRM, etc.).

My intent is different. I will attempt to provide a brief "story" of each group of related styles, particularly as it relates to their place in the global historical geography of our greatest beverage. To develop this grand story of beer and all its diverse traditions, I'm going to summarize where and when these styles come from. My organization will thus deviate from the usual categorization, which is designed to serve brewers and judges by emphasizing characteristics (appearance, maltiness, hoppiness, etc.). Instead, my historically minded organization will trace beer's stylistic evolution as follows.

  • Part One: The Pre-Modern Traditions of Northwestern Europe
  • Part Two: The Modern Lager Revolution of the mid-1800s through the mid-1900s
  • Part Three: The Post-Modern Craft Brewing Renaissance

I do intend to summarize the different styles' qualities, as both judges and brewers would understand them, but always in the context of understanding their place in the larger story of beer and brewing. It's a story that, from a geographer's perspective, is a fascinating one that has taken a diversity of local traditions, simplified them into a small handful of global standards, before exploding into to the chaotic diversity of the "glocal" present. Check back soon for the first installment of Part One: the rustic "farmhouse" and "old style" beers of the northwestern European plain.

Meanwhile, back in the brewery.It's been several months since my last post, and I managed to fit a few brew days into an already busy schedule. In April, I brewed my second-ever CrossXtoberfest, which should be nice and lagered by the time September rolls around. In May, I brewed my first-ever batch of Embrocator, a doppelbock made with yeast harvested from the CXfest. It, too, is now lagering, and I expect to begin sampling it during the winter holidays. With supplies of beer that I can drink now running low, I made a batch of Velo Wit about a week ago, and it is now finishing its ferment and should be ready to drink next month. After that I'm going to have another go at my Belgo-American hybrid ale called Single Speed--a hopped-up version of a Belgian Pale Ale.