Thursday, April 10, 2014

Telephone 26: Why Style Matters

          Stripped of its history and pedigree, style is a contract between producer and consumer. Style tells consumers that this beer is hoppy or this beer is malty or this beer is sour so that they can judge whether or not they want to purchase a given producer’s beer. Style thus indicates a set of characteristics connected to a particular type of beer, characteristics that should reciprocally inform consumer expectations. If I order an American IPA and it is more malt-forward than hop-forward, I am annoyed. Why? Because hops are the defining characteristic of an American IPA—hop aroma, hop flavor and hop bitterness—so there should be citrus, resin, and evergreen in the nose and body, along with a fair share of bitterness in the body and lingering bitterness in the finish. Malt may be present to provide balance and backbone, but everything in this beer is in the service of showcasing hops. Similarly, if I order an English Brown, the emphasis should be on the malt and not the hops—my expectations are that the beer will have a rich malt character with toffee, caramel, biscuit, and bread crust, along with hints of dark fruit and coffee. Chocolate and/or hop flavors would make this an American Brown, not an English one; a small claim to difference, certainly, but still one that matters. These expectations extend well beyond those connected to just flavor: a saison, for example, should have a dry body, while a Russian Imperial Stout should have a chewy, thick body. Clarity, color, carbonation level: they all connect back to style. This is the language of beer. It is the nomenclature we use to communicate regarding beer. To not attempt to educate yourself—to willfully disregard the established language of beer and pretend that it doesn’t matter—pretty much means that your interest in beer is insincere.
          So when I hear a brewer proclaim “I can’t be bothered with style” or “style limits my creativity,” all I hear is “I am a lazy brewer who doesn’t care about my customers.” If you want to experiment, go for it. Experimentation is fantastic. But market it as such. As a homebrewer, I brew all kinds of esoteric things: I spent all last year brewing Brettanomyces-only beers. But I’m brewing for myself, not customers. When commercial brewers decide to brew a random creation and slap a style name on it because they assume consumers won’t know the difference, they become part of the problem. The phrase “you need to know the rules before you can break the rules” may be cliché, but in this situation it has merit. Impress me with your ability to produce quality American Pale Ales or Oktoberfests that reflect established categories before you expect me to embrace your cutting edge ways. Respect your craft. To put it another way, while passion is important, so are skill and knowledge. After all, if you don’t have passion for beer, quite honestly, then you shouldn’t be brewing. Thus, if everyone has passion, then what will set you apart as a brewer is the skill and knowledge you use to craft your product. And one of the central components of beer skill and knowledge is an awareness of and respect for style. I wouldn’t pay a random stranger off the street to fix my car, regardless of the level of her or his passion for cars. The same holds true for beer. Passion alone has limitations. Just because you love beer doesn’t mean you can produce good beer. To those of you reading this, I suggest using the same rules of logic you all apply to other consumer goods when it comes to considering beer.
          To return to style, and the contract it represents between producers and consumers: breweries that disregard or blatantly ignore style when marketing their beer perform a disservice to craft beer. This point is important, so let me repeat it, as I want it to sink in. Breweries that ignore style—intentionally or unintentionally, it doesn’t matter—are hurting consumers in general and craft beer writ large. I speak here both ethically and economically. If good beer is a civic responsibility—and it is—then it behooves producers to perform their actions in good faith towards the consumer. While expediency is often the excuse, it doesn’t make it acceptable. Similarly, consumers who reward beers with excessive scores on social media sites when that beer clearly doesn’t fit the style, or who provide degradingly low scores for well-made beers because they dislike the brewery, are also part of the problem. Yes, you, with the straight 5s on Untappd, including similar scores for beers that are clearly infected, are part of the problem. Like and dislike are perfectly acceptable when hanging with friends who share similar ideas about beer. But when you are providing information to other consumers online, your opinion alone outside the parameters of style is not enough. After all, viewers seeing your comments don’t know whether or not you love or hate certain types of beer. And that type of information matters. Thus, you owe it to others consumers to provide appropriate information and feedback. In other words, you owe it to other consumers to know what you are talking about. Again, these are the ethical and economic dimensions of beer referred to above. Get educated. Learn. Otherwise, you’re a bad beer citizen who disregards and disrespects craft beer. Which leads me to next week’s topic: putting the craft in craft beer.

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