How long have we been talking about styles of beer? Fewer years than you might think. In the firestorm set off around the beer blogging world by the zythographers’ union‘s recent seminar on the subject of beer styles (see, for example, here and here and here, and also here and here, and here as well) one perhaps important point seems to be missing. The expression “beer style” is entirely an invention of the late Michael Jackson, it’s barely 30 years old, and it’s only been “mainstream”, in the sense that “everybody” uses it when talking about beer, for a couple of decades.
I was invited to be one of the speakers at the British Guild of Beer Writers’ “beer styles” seminar in the Old Brewery at Greenwich, but to my deep regret I couldn’t make it. However, here’s a little taste of what I would have said had I been there, based on the research I did for the forthcoming Brewery History Society magazine “Michael Jackson” special edition.
The perhaps remarkable thing is that before Michael Jackson wrote The World Guide to Beer in 1977, nobody used the expression “beer style” at all. I searched through books on beer from the 1830s to the mid-1970s, and they talked about “divisions”, “species”, “kinds”, “varieties”, “types”, “classes” and “families” of beer, but never “styles”.
In The World Guide to Beer, however, Michael devoted a section to what he called “The classic beer styles”, though he still differentiated between “beer styles” and “beer types”, saying:
If a brewer specifically has the intention of reproducing a classical beer, then he is working within a style. If his beer merely bears a general similarity to others, then it may be regarded as being of their type.”
(The World Guide to Beer, 1977, p14)
The term “beer styles” still seems not to have been in universal use in the 1980s, and Michael’s first Pocket Guide to Beer in 1982 still talked about “types of beer”, as well as styles. It is not until the New World Guide to Beer in 1988 (the same year as that picture above) that he appears to have abandoned the idea of “types” entirely for the concept of “styles”, producing a “Family Tree of Beer Styles” with just two basic divisions, top-fermenting and bottom-fermenting, and all the many other styles, from lambic to bock, branching off.
The big push to the idea of beer “styles” came when the extremely influential American beer writer Fred Eckhardt seems to have picked up on Michael’s terminology in 1989 and ran with it in his self-published book The Essentials of Beer Style: A Catalog of Classic Beer Styles for Brewers and Beer Enthusiasts. This, and Michael’s books, were hugely important in forming the way American homebrewers thought about beer categorisation, and fed into both the Beer Judge Certification Program and the rapidly expanding boutique or microbrewing movement in the United States. When, subsequently, beer “appreciation” websites such as Ratebeer.com (founded 2000) sprang up in the US, they naturally used the “beer styles” ideas pioneered by Michael and used by the BJCP to help their contributors categorise the beers they were rating.
(Addendum – since I wrote this, Stan Hieronymous has revealed the existence of a pamphlet written by Fred Eckhardt and Itsuo Takita in 1977, the same year as the World Guide to Beer, called Beer Tasting and Evaluation for the Amateur, which apparently talks about “bottled beers types and categories”, but NOT “styles”, underlining again that “beer style” was not a concept used by anyone before Michael Jackson invented it.)
Why did Michael come up with the idea of “styles” of beer? In my piece for the BHS I speculate that it was because of his background in journalism – but you’ll have to buy the magazine to read more about that.
But is the concept of “beer style” a “good thing”? Well, it’s fun for geeks like me to explore the idea (you’re not a geek, of course – you’re a connoisseur). But brewers and drinkers got on fine without talking about “beer styles” for several millennia before 1977. And the average British pubgoer probably recognises exactly three beer styles – lager, bitter and Guinness. So: for geeks/connoisseurs – yes. For punters, and probably for brewers – not so much.
Meanwhile this is as good an excuse as I’m going to get to run a picture I’ve been meaning to upload almost since I started this blog, from the first ever British Guild of Beer Writers trip abroad, to West Flanders, in February 1988, courtesy of the West Flanders Tourist Authority. There we are at the Poperinge Hop Museum, including one man, Tim Webb, who, inspired by this trip, would make a career out of producing beer guides to Belgium. Sadly, at least two people in the photograph, Michael, and Danny Blyth, are no longer with us.
1 Michael Jackson, journalist and beer writer; 2 Ted Bruning, journalist and beer writer; 3 John Simpson, cartoonist; 4 Roger Protz, journalist and beer writer; 5 Unknown Belgian; 6 Mike Bennett, journalist; 7 Brian Glover journalist and beer writer; 8 Danny Blythe journalist and beer writer; 9 Martin Kemp, owner, Pitfield Brewery; 10 Tim Webb, beer writer 11 Iain Dobson, administrator, Campaign for Real Ale; 12 Martyn Cornell, journalist and beer writer; 13 Tim Clarke, travel company owner; 14 Lynne Arblaster, travel company owner