An issue that keeps recurring throughout beer criticism, and even the industry itself, is the function and value of style guidelines. Indeed, this is a debate held in just about any industry where styles are generally outlined; e.g., cheese, wine, restaurants, cars, etc.
There are a few accepted guideline definitions. The Beer Judge Certification Program is probably the most-widely cited. The BJCP sets out as its goal "to promote beer literacy and the appreciation of real beer, and to recognize beer tasting and evaluation skills. ... The guidelines are not meant to describe every beer style made in the world (at least not yet). They are meant to cover the most common ones entered in homebrew competitions. The style descriptions are based on currently acknowledged world class examples, historical references to styles no longer brewed, and writings of noted beer researchers and journalists." [emphasis mine]
Thus, before we go too much further, let's look at the things I highlighted: "describe" and "entered in homebrew competitions." We'll talk about descriptions in a little bit, but it is important to note that the primary purpose of the BJCP guidelines to provide a framework for judging homebrew competitions. It sets out "rules", more or less, that must be followed by amateurs entering their beers to be judged in a BJCP-approved contest. Thus, if a homebrewer wants to enter a beer as an "altbier" the BJCP has set out guidelines that it deems a proper description of altbier for judging purposes.
Another source of accepted stylistic guidelines is the Brewers Association. The Brewers Organization is a national guild body of both professional and amateur brewers. These guidelines were established in 1979, and updated yearly since, for the purpose of "providing beer style descriptions as a reference for brewers and beer competition organizers. Much of the early work was based on the assistance and contributions of beer journalist Michael Jackson. ... The availability of commercial examples plays a large role in whether or not a beer style 'makes the list.' It is important to consider that not every historical or commercial beer style can be included, nor is every commercial beer representative of the historical tradition (i.e., a brewery labeling a brand as a particular style does not always indicate a fair representation of that style)."
Again, there is the word "descriptions", which we will come to in a minute. But, here, we see that the guidelines are reference-point. There is also an explicit acknowledgment that just because a brewery labels a beer with a particular style does not mean that the beer falls within the described style. For reasons I'll get to in a minute, I wish that the parenthetical were a bit more artfully worded. But nonetheless, it does recognize that styles are not rigid.
Which brings us to the final acknowledged authority on style: Michael Jackson, the Beer Hunter himself. His two seminal books, Ultimate Beer and The Great Beer Guide, both set out a world-wide categorization of beer that was heretofore unparalleled. Jackson traveled the world cataloging beer and assiduously arranging the beer into categories that we now recognize as beer styles. Much of it was based on historical reference; we need not attribute the invention of "doppelbock" to Jackson. But we can certainly attribute a careful description and definition of the style to him.
Of course, descriptions of style existed long before Jackson. Since the early 1800s there are references to what is and is not a Porter, for example. But none had compiled the list of styles into one tome in an easy-to-reference manner. A feat that would revolutionize beer, American beer in particular, as much as the hydrometer or glycol chiller ever did.
Before Jackson's escapades from the mid-60s through his death in 2007, styles were, more or less, confined to a region. The existence of things like "German Porters" and "Belgian Porters" didn't, for the most part, exist. Of course, I'm not saying that no German brewery brewed a Porter, but the Germans didn't call it a Porter. A dark ale-like thing brewed in Germany was more likely crowned "alt" there and brewed in an ale style with lager yeast. Moreover, the Belgians didn't set out to brew a "dubbel" they just brewed a brown beer with "double" the recipe and the yeast in use in Belgium and called it a "dubbel".
It wasn't until much later that someone, Jackson, came along took all of the "things" that the Belgians called "dubbel" and attempted to set out a loose description of all of these things together.
Thus, throughout history, and even in all of the guidelines themselves, we see that stylistic definitions are "descriptive." Yet, drinkers and brewers alike both treat these styles as "prescriptive."
Descriptive means that the style tries to explain how things actually are. The describer looks around at all of the things that are attributed with a particular name and attempts to put forth some common characteristics. By definition this description will be incomplete and set out a range of values for the things described, as all of the things are not identical.
Prescriptive means that the guidelines are setting out the way things should be. Often prescriptive guidelines are ideals. In language, for example, "when adults learn a foreign language, they typically want someone to tell them how to speak, in other words to prescribe a particular set of rules to follow, and expect a teacher or book to set forth those rules."
Likewise, when people want to learn how to brew beer, it helps to have a set of rules to follow and be told how to brew. Hence, the BJCP guidelines set out "prescriptive" rules for having beer judged at homebrewing competition. And, to the extent that the Brewer's Association is intended for competition, like the Great American Beer Fest, it is also prescriptive.
But, what about non-competition situations? Are these guidelines prescriptive or descriptive? I find it hard to find in the stated goals or underlying purpose set forth by the various bodies anything that indicates that we should take them as anything other than merely descriptive. But, I hear time and again from brewers themselves that "we brew to style" or "this beer is brewed to style." In many cases these are beers intended for a market whose primary consumer is unfamiliar with beer. In this case brewers are clearly brewing with a set of guidelines in mind.
Far be it from me to deride a brewers' choice, but is there really any need for more than one brewery to "brew to style"? If two beers are both brewed to style, they are going to taste very, very similarly. If everyone brews to style, we end up with a very homogeneous marketplace. Moreover, we end up with very static styles.
On the other hand, if we see style guidelines, as a general rule as descriptive we end up with a far more dynamic range of beer. Of course, applying this standard seems to imply that a brewer could develop a light-bodied pale ale and call it doppelbock. Not only would that be confusing in the marketplace, it would reveal a contempt for history, and a sense of sarcasm not generally appreciated by the beer-buying public. But, maybe that's what the brewer is going for.
The margins are a harder call. What to do with last year's "Alt" from New Glarus? The Alt was a beer that was far beyond what the descriptive category prescribed. Yet, here it was. Not only was it fully within the spirit of the style, but it pushed the style in a way that is uniquely American and seemingly lost to the Germans, thus it is fully within the brewing spirit as well.
Finally, it is this descriptiveness versus prescriptiveness that results in confusion in the marketplace as different consumers have different views of the role of the guidelines. For example, last week's debate about Sand Creek's Badger Porter. Given Sand Creek's place and purpose in the market, I expect that a product like Badger Porter would be "to style", and in that regard I think the beer falls short. If we take the guidelines as descriptive, then the Porter is simply not to my tastes and what my limited descriptive experience tells me to expect from the style. As a descriptor, do I handle Sand Creek as one point in the range or as an outlier to be ignored. On the one hand, this is one of the hazards of "brewing to style" - you get held to the style. On the other, the brewer has to rely on the drinker's experience, and let' face it, we're not all Michael Jackson.
Remind me later to tell you about Oktoberfests.