In the past year, I’ve tasted a lot of beer that tastes great, but doesn’t fall into a neat category. Many of them are of the Northeast IPA variety that is described in this article about Tired Hands HopHands IPA. Many of these beers look exactly like a glass of orange juice and have a wonderful malt and hop balance. However, they do not follow the style guidelines for an IPA.
What beer drinkers are starting to discover is that the concept of style isn’t fixed. Ask anyone tasked with creating a style guide. Any description of a style that you read from the Great American Beer Festival or the Beer Judge Certification Program is a snapshot in time of that style. What is described as an IPA today is different from what it was 10 years ago and is different from what it will be 10 years from now.
When organizing a festival or a judging competition there has to be some rules to govern how you are going to judge or present the beer. Basically, you have to call the beer something and if you are judging you have to organize how you are going to taste the beers to make it a fair competition. However, as we are seeing the guidelines can’t keep up with the speed of that brewers change styles. As a judge, you have to base your decisions on the guidelines. You may taste a beer that is awesome, but when you break it down and compare it to the guidelines you may find it outside category. If you’re an attendee, you are just looking to drink good beer and may wonder how the judges are so stupid that they missed that one really great beer. The answer is they probably didn’t miss it, they just couldn’t award it a medal because it doesn’t fit the guidelines.
I have often had the moment, in the recent past where I’ve tasted a great beer and then looked at the description and said to myself, “Nope, it really isn’t one of those, but I really like it.” Often at beer festivals they will have a judging competition where they award winners via categories. These festivals will also occasionally also have a best of show type award for attendees to award. Usually, the attendees popular pick is something that finishes first, second, or third in its category in the eyes of the judges. However, we are in a time when that is not necessarily going to always be the case.
As someone who believes in the need for critics and who is working towards getting Cicerone certification I believe in the need for some type of structure in beer styles. However, I know some the of the greatest artistic achievements came from people who looked at the rules of their particular discipline and decided to break every one of them. That is where growth and innovation come from and we should all embrace it.