Maybe you’re at a local craft brewery and you come across something wacky — say a cotton candy stout or a corn saison or a sweet potato ale. As wild as these brews are, chances are these beers already fit into a category determined by the Boulder-based Brewers Association (BA), a nonprofit trade group supporting the craft beer industry.
These categories, announced annually, help brewers classify their beers and provide competition committees a reference point for classifying beer. It’s a deep-in-the-weeds aspect of the brewing world that dates back decades.
In 1979, the BA started providing annual beer style descriptions, and much of that work was based on the contributions of the famed food and drink writer Michael Jackson. Over time, the guidelines were expanded and edited, then with the help of Charlie Papazian, the craft beer pioneer who, among many other contributions, started the Great American Beer Festival.
Today, the BA uses sources from the commercial brewing industry, beer analyses and consultations with beer industry experts and beer enthusiasts to determine what makes a beer style a beer style.
On Feb. 23, the BA released its 2021 guidelines after “hundreds of revisions, edits, format changes and additions,” according to the group. It updated some existing beer styles and created several more, including the Kentucky Common Beer, the New Zealand-style Pale Ale (and India Pale Ale) and the Belgian-style Session Ale.
Beer styles in the guidelines are separated into ale, lager and mixed/hybrid categories, and then further delineated by origin (North America, England, Germany, Ireland, Belgium and France, and other).
The BA notes that not every style makes the cut: “Availability of commercial examples plays a large role in whether 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).”
“Craft brewers in the U.S. and around the world continue to push the boundaries of beer by reviving long-lost styles and by innovating in new beer flavor spaces,” says Chris Swersey, the BA’s competition manager. The guidelines, he adds, “reflect many exciting trends in brewing with numerous additions and updates for accuracy.”
That said, additions or amendments to the guidelines are not taken lightly — which brings us to the new styles.
You may have seen a few local craft brewers dip into New Zealand-style ales. In its guide, the BA asserts that a New Zealand-style ale has straw to medium amber color, very low to medium malt aroma and flavor, and exhibits the flavors of “tropical fruit, passion fruit, and/or stone-fruit, cut grass and diesel.” Seemingly contrary to that note on literal truck fuel, the BA notes the style should make for “well-integrated easy drinking.”
The Belgian style was significantly revised this year after plenty of comments from judges and Belgian beer experts — as a result, the beer formerly known as Belgian-Style Pale Ale was renamed Belgian-style Speciale Belge. The guidelines for a new Belgian beer style — Belgian-style session ale — note it is distinguished by its low alcohol content and balanced flavor.
The new beer guideline will take effect before the 2021 Great American Beer Festival.
Find the new beer style guidelines at brewersassociation.org/edu/brewers-association-beer-style-guidelines.