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Really interesting night last night at the magnificent Old Brewery in Greenwich, where the Guild of Beer Writers held a seminar on beer styles.

There was some entertaining and thought-provoking stuff which I'm not going to summarise here, partly because I can't really be arsed and partly because the cream of British beer blogging talent was there, and I'm sure lots of other people will be providing a full and frank account - they were certainly making more notes than me.

Why can't I be arsed? Because talking about beer styles makes my brain itch. This is why I've stopped trying to get on judging panels for international beer competitions - I'd much rather judge a beer on whether I like it or not than whether it is brewed 'to style'. When I wrote Hops & Glory I poked a bit of fun at the US Brewers Association because they believed there were 70 different beer styles. That was three years ago. They now think there are 133 different beer styles. If someone invited me to judge at the Great American Beer festival - which they never will - I would honestly have to decline.

I have two things to say about beer styles, and two only. It used to be one, but the second one emerged last night after talking to Meantime's Peter Haydon about the aforementioned 133 beer styles.

In his post, I'm talking about the first point:

1. Style is not fixed - it evolves
Take India Pale Ale (as a random example plucked from the air). No one knows what the true style is because it evolved from something else, and no one actually called it India Pale Ale until at least 50 years after it was first recognised as a pale ale brewed for consumption in India.

Historians of IPA claim that Hodgsons was the first IPA, and then go on to explain how Burton brewers like Allsopp improved upon it. OK, so right there you have two quite different beers - London IPA, which was described as 'muddy' and bitter, and Burton IPA, which thanks to the water achieved a condition that made it bright and sparkling.

May IPA brewers today tell the story of how the beer changed on its journey to India, and in the same breath claim their beer is an 'authentic' IPA, despite the fact it has not been on that journey, and therefore not undergone that change. If I were a pedant I would argue there has only been one genuine, authentic IPA produced in the last sixty years, and the dregs of it are in a keg behind the bar at the Deputy British High Commission in Calcutta.

Today many English brewers believe authentic IPA should only contain English hops, and that US IPA is some kind of inauthentic, brash cousin. But brewing records from places like Bass and Hook Norton show American hops, which sometimes gave the beer 'an aroma of blackcurrant leaf', were in widespread use in the 1870s because there weren't enough British hops to meet demand.

And at the same time, we had a change in taxation that incentivised brewers to cut the alcoholic strength in their beer. By the mid-twentieth century there were hundreds of IPAs in the UK, and pretty much all of them would have been 3.4-3.5% session beers. That twisted genius Ron Pattinson has shown that even in IPA's heyday, there were some lower strength beers going out to India under this name. The most popular IPA saw these days is that Greene King IPA is not a 'real' IPA. OK it's not authentic if you take the 1830s as your point of reference. But if you could talk to any British brewer in the 1940s, he would have said Greene King was typical of the IPA style. It's no less valid - it's the same beer from a different point in history.

The problem (it's not really a problem unless you're trying to define beer style) is that we're now so interested in all the facets and possibilities of beer that something which had been quite happy to evolve over time now finds itself being pulled out of its timeline at various points, and offered up in the present. It's like those old episodes of Doctor Who where you'd get three or four different doctors all meeting up. Every beer I've described above is a genuine, authentic, traditional British IPA - they should ideally all fit in the British style IPA category in the Brewers Association style guide. But we've got:

  • London style 18th century IPA
  • Burton style 19th century IPA
  • American hopped traditional British IPA
  • Fully matured, warm conditioned and agitated IPA
  • Nineteenth century low strength IPA
  • Twentieth century session beer strength IPA

Six beer styles where there used to be one. And if you were being responsible, you'd cross-reference things like the warm conditioning with the other ones to create even more.

But who would that help, apart for giving a stiffy to some guy in the Brewers Association?

They're all genuine IPAs. They all taste quite different. Most of them are more similar to each other than they are to other beer styles.

I hope this demonstrates why beer style may be useful to a point, but if you pursue with the relentless classification and sub-groupings, it only leads to insanity or absolute indifference.

I'll tell you my other thing a bit later unless you tell me to shut up about beer styles.