July 7, 2014

Proposed BJCP Updates

At the National Homebrewers Conference this year, Gordon Strong announced a major upcoming revision to the BJCP Style Guide. The revision will be the first since 2008. Over the past six years we have seen the explosion of IPA and its variants, two waves of saison trends, the year of imperialization of everything, barrel aged everything, the year of Belgian yeast in everything, and several other trends. Undoubtedly the world of craft beer has expanded over that time period as much as it will likely expand in the next six years. In light of all those trends, we were long overdue for an overhaul. The 2014 BJCP overhaul includes an expansion of the number of styles, revisions and clarifications of style identifications, reorganization of styles and updates of archetypical examples of each style. The new guidelines offer over 100 beer classifications (plus mead and cider) with considerable expansion in the IPA department.

I have mixed thoughts about the overhaul. There are some changes I like and some I really dislike. BJCP has opened up the proposed draft for commentary on the BJCP forum (www.bjcp.org) where you can also find a copy of the proposed draft (you must log in to the forum to view). I would encourage people to voice their opinions although it seems like a foregone conclusion that the basic structure of the guidelines will remain as is and the general defense seems to be that any problems can just be judged around. So I thought I would open up another avenue for my opinion by posting it here. Feel free to tell me if I'm being a jerk or wrong.

Positives of the 2014 BJCP Revisions

Recognition that BJCP guidelines are used globally: BJCP guidelines have been used for homebrewing competitions around the world for several years in spite of the current guidelines' focus on American brewing and beers widely available to Americans. The new guidelines are more expansive and incorporate a slightly expanded set of brewing regions and styles but where this recognition really shines is opening up the descriptions of the styles beyond narrow American interpretations.

Expanded style definitions: The explanation of each style is beefed up over the current version and it is organized more closely with the format of the BJCP judging form. Importantly, the style definitions are more broadly defined which allows brewers greater justification for recipe variations with less fear of penalty for brewing to taste rather than a seemingly arbitrary paragraph of descriptors.

Improvement in accurate style definitions: The style definitions are also more accurate (but still include several inaccuracies) than they were in the past.

Recognition of both new and historical styles that are gaining popularity or are already popular: Styles like Gose reborn from the past and new(er) styles like wheatwine have received appropriate placement as independent styles that do not have to fight over the old specialty category for attention.

Specialty category expansion: The specialty categories have broken out various major subsets and new classifications like "experimental beer" and "mixed-style beer".

Recognition that IPA needs more space: In many competitions IPA receives several times the number of entries of other styles. Add to that the popularity of all the IPA variants and you have a style begging for more opportunity to expand out and give better opportunities for good beers to receive respect.

Negatives of the 2014 BJCP Revisions

Guidelines written with the judges and competition organizers in mind: Wait, hear me out. The BJCP guidelines are naturally intended to allow judges to judge competitions with an agreed set of rules (no matter how right or wrong they are). However, we cannot ignore that participants design and submit beers based on the style guidelines as well. The defense often raised that judges can judge beyond the defects in the guidelines is true as long as one ignores that participants cannot do the same or hope that judges will judge in the way they want or that certain specialty styles will be included by the organizers. Dismissing criticism of the styles in a way that ignores the effects on competitors is, in my opinion, a huge mistake.

Superfluous style abound: While some of the style expansion makes a lot of sense, on the other hand many of the styles seem like splitting hairs where there is little meaningful division. For example, the English styles include golden ales (with an admission that these are bitters), three other bitters styles and English strong ales, which include ESBs and English pale ales. Why? Further, why is there a distinction between brown ales and English dark mild? Why three different Scottish styles? How does an English strong ale category include anything stronger in all other English categories? If it exists, why do we still need old ale? Why doesn't English barleywine fit in that category? Why American strong ales for beers that could easily go into an IPA, DIPA or American barleywine classification? IMO these are unnecessary divisions. Sure, for example, British homebrewers may take issue with their historical bitter divisions being consolidated but given that there is no serious distinction to the variants in the commercial market (historic or modern) it makes little sense to force homebrewers anywhere to try to sort it out.

The style expansion (and existing superfluous styles) recognizes the difficulty in trying to fit an amorphous world of beers into tight classifications that do not exist anywhere but in the classifications. However, instead of trying to craft an increasing number of classifications to fit everything into a home it could have been easier to group styles together in a single style grouping that pairs beers with similar attributes together.

Inconsistent approaches to styles: Some styles are given wide latitude while others are fit into tighter molds although in practice these approaches do not make sense. For example, IPA is turned into a nearly limitless classification while saison is dumped into one category with a limited description although it is a style with vast expanse. (Given the growing popularity of the style it would have made sense to give saison the same treatment as IPA.) Some brewing regions receive careful division of each of their popular styles while others have all their beers lumped together. Moreover, some classifications rely more heavily on identification by location or attributes while other classifications, such as American Wild Ales, focuses more on brewing technique than particular attributes in the final product or use of particular ingredients. I am not opposed to the focus on brewing technique. I actually think those broader categorizations would make judging similar beers easier and more friendly to both brewer and judge.

Inconsistent approaches to different brewing regions: Major brewing regions, like England and Germany, receive a large number of styles. As do Belgium and the US. However, while we see Czech beers recognized in the new guidelines, other areas like Scandinavian countries receive little to no recognition. Australian and New Zealand brewers get to savor their local equivalent to English golden ales while their craft styles are left out.

Some specific examples of these issues:

  • English styles over-divided: I mentioned this above but there is little reason why three different bitter styles continue to exist when there is so little distinction between them in commercial practice or any historical meaning. Reduce English golden ales and ordinary bitters in one style and best bitters and strong bitters could fit together under one style classification. Wrap old ale into the English strong ales classification. 
  • Scottish styles over-divided: For a nation with a brewing history that largely emulates British brewing, it makes very little sense to dedicate four styles to them, especially when three of them are basically repeats of the same description with slightly higher gravity. The three Scottish ale classifications could be reduced to a single classification. At very least, there is little reason to force three different classifications for some nod to history when the descriptions are so identical. It reads like the authors couldn't distinguish any significant difference beyond alcohol but Gordon Strong was convinced to use three classifications by Ron Patterson. Not a particularly meaningful justification for the surplusage.
  • Czech styles...is there a need?: Certainly some Czech styles are distinguishable from German styles--particularly pilsner--but the amber and dark styles are so close to the German styles that it seems like a single continental dark lager classification could have accomplished twice as many classifications. That doesn't mean Czech styles are not relevant or quality styles but when two regions brew nearly identical beers it makes little sense to try to draw a fine line between the two where the same fine distinctions are not made in other classifications. 
  • Kellerbier style arbitrarily classified: I am obviously a fan of the kellerbier style, considering I have one lagering right now, but I am not sure it makes sense to give it a classification. One problem, identified in the style guidelines, is that the beer is a beer that rarely leaves the brewery's local area and when it does it often loses the qualities that make it a unique beer. That makes it difficult for judges to understand the style and for homebrewers to gain a sense of what beers in that style should express. That is disadvantageous to both sides. Additionally, the Czech pilsner classification identifies this kind of unfiltered pilsner as a part of the Czech pils classification rather than a kellerbier, suggesting that only German lagers should be entered as kellerbier. Easy fix here is to identify in the Czech pilsner description that unfiltered versions should be entered as kellerbier. Also, I also wonder whether this classification will be used as a way to gain an advantage in the guidelines for those of us who bottle condition and have a harder time producing brilliantly bright beer. Since kellerbier is unfiltered it can be slightly hazy so any lager that fails to drop bright can be entered as a kellerbier instead of the regular style. 
Messy Belgian classification: I already mentioned that I think the saison classification is too limiting but I also think it is misclassified in its overall classification. Setting low ABV saisons against big BDSAs within the abbey classification makes little sense. It's not a good grouping because people who like saisons are not always the biggest fans of the abbey/trappist styles and vice versa. It makes more sense to put together a classification with biere de garde, saison and witbier. Each have a rustic character and history that make them a good grouping. Maybe biere de garde could fit with the abbey/trappist styles but saison and witbier are definitely different beers from the other more refined Belgian styles. 

Some of this is a matter of opinion but I suspect after a few years we will find the style guidelines needing a retooling over several of these issues in addition to whatever changes are necessary due to the inevitable shifts in styles. What are your thoughts?


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