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What is a Beer Style?

This is the first in a series of articles covering the subject of Beer Styles in which we look at what Beer Styles are, where they come from, how they are used, and the differences between the various styles.


Ingredients: Barley, Water & Hops
Ingredients: Barley, Water & Hops (by Pixabay)

So what are Beer Styles? In simplistic terms they are ways of categorizing and describing different types of beer. Often these differences can be in the aroma or smell, flavor or taste, alcoholic strength, color, level of carbonation, and many other characteristics that are the result of variances in local ingredients and brewing methods or even historical preferences of what people preferred to drink.

Why are Beer Styles important and should we care about them? Beer Styles are used by a wide variety of people connected with the beer industry e.g. at competitions and events, distributors and retailers, web sites owners and contributors, authors and publications, home and commercial brewers, to name but a few.

Who devises beer styles and maintains them? This is an area of contention because like many attempts to standardize within an area, there are various styles that are used by different groups and organizations plus beer is an ever changing industry especially over the last 10-15 years so keeping pace with this poses its own challenges.

In this series of articles we will try to cover the various points raised above.


In the early years of brewing, which in the modern sense of using hops for bittering was around 1400 in Germany, beers from different regions of the world and in particular Europe (e.g. Belgium, Czech Republic, Germany, UK) varied considerably due to combinations of the following local factors:

  • Ingredients – the quality of cereal crops such as wheat and barley, the varieties of hops available, the preferred strains of yeast, access to adjuncts such as molasses or maize.
  • Water – differences in hardness due to the underlying rock strata within water catchment areas, the mineral content due to bedrock and vegetation that water passed through.
  • Brewing processes – differences in climates, availability of caves for lagering, preferred or available technologies and innovations, kilning methods for grains, use of open or closed fermentation and linked to this the impact of air-borne bacteria and yeasts when open fermenting.

Jamil Zainasheff also points out in his book, Brewing Classic Styles, that it is not only the ingredients used but also the quantity of them that also differs between styles.

Whilst Beer Styles differ in one or more of the above, many share very similar ingredients, water types and brewing processes but only vary subtly. These are often grouped together into categories of styles such as Bitters, Bocks, IPAs (India Pale Ales), Lagers, Pilsners, Porters, Sour Ales, Stouts etc. Beer Styles also extend to other related alcoholic beverages such as Ciders and Meads.

When were Beer Styles first devised? In 1977 a book called World Guide to Beer was written by Michael Jackson which included his categorization of beers from around the world. This work was then built upon in The Essentials of Beer Style (1989) by Fred Eckhardt.

Do we need Beer Styles?

Some typical users and uses of Beer Styles include:

  • Books, Publications & Websites – information, recipes and reviews in books, publications and on websites often either group beers together by style or use the style as an attribute or characteristic of the beers themselves to assist with identification.
  • Brewers – styles are often used by brewers in order to help communicate with their various customers what sort of beers they are producing, these customers may be end consumers, distributors, retailers or even organizers and judges at competitions or events. Beers may be brewed that are off-style or a particular variant but identifying a style in the description helps explain in commonly understood terms the type of beer being produced.
  • Competitions & events – homebrewing events such as the National Homebrewers Conference (NHC) and commercial events such as the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) use Beer Styles in their competitions to help group together similar beers for judging purposes as well as to provide standards to measure the entrant’s beers against i.e. how well they have been brewed according to style.
  • Beer Retailer using Beer Styles within store
    Beer Retailer using Beer Styles within store

    Distributors & retailers – elsewhere within the alcoholic beverage industry wines have been grouped together by country/region or type (e.g. red, white, rose/blush, sparkling) for some time and liquors/spirits have also been grouped together by type (e.g. vodka, bourbon, gin, port etc). Beers are now being grouped together more frequently by style as interest and growth in Craft Beers gathers momentum whether it be at the simplest level of ales, lagers & ciders or down to individual category or style such as Bitter, Bock, IPA, Wheat Beer etc. The level to which a retailer goes down to mainly depends on how extensive the range of beers is that they carry with the ultimate aim of assisting the consumer with their purchasing decisions.

  • Education – those involved within the brewing industry who are focused on education and training (e.g. Cicerone Certification Program) use Beer Styles to group together similar beers and help explain their various characteristics to the student. This in turn helps the Certified Beer Server, Certified Cicerone® or Master Cicerone® with beer & food pairing, purchasing decision, beer recommendations to customers etc.

Do Beer Styles help or are they too restrictive? An argument in favor of having beer styles is that they provide parameters for characteristics of beer such as:

  • A range of colors of different Beer Styles
    A range of colors of different Beer Styles

    Alcohol – methods for calculating the amount of alcohol in a beer vary with the most common one being ABV (Alcohol By Volume). This is a percentage measure ranging from alcohol free (0%) up to a theoretical maximum of 100%. Other measures exist such as ABW (Alcohol By Weight).

  • Bitterness – this covers perceived bitterness with IBUs (International Bitterness Units) being the North American standard and EBUs (European Bitterness Units) being the European standard. In both these scales a lower figure means less bitter (e.g. 1-20) and a higher figure means more bitter (e.g. 50-100+). Some research suggests that the human senses cannot differentiate above 70 IBUs meaning a 70 IBU beer will be perceived as being just as bitter as a 100 IBU beer.
  • Color – a number of scales exist for measuring the color of a beer e.g. SRM (Standard Reference Method) in North America which is a scale from light (< 10) to dark (40+). Other measures exist such as °L (Degrees Lovibond) and EBC (European Brewery Convention).

Whilst the above Alcohol, Bitterness and Color have specific ranges and values, additional style guidelines usually cover descriptions and guidelines for Appearance, Aroma, Flavor, Mouthfeel and suggested or allowable ingredients.

A commonly used argument against Beer Styles is that they restrict creativity but most professional and amateur brewers start by learning how to brew defined styles on a repeatable basis before moving on to develop new recipes which build upon these foundations.

What Beer Style standards currently exist?

  • BJCP – the Beer Judge Certification Program’s main purpose according to their web site is to “promote beer literacy and the appreciation of real beer, and to recognize beer tasting and evaluation skills. We certify and rank beer judges through an examination and monitoring process”. The Beer Styles used by the BJCP are broken down into 28 categories and 98 sub-categories or individual styles.
  • Brewers Association – the BA have a set of Beer Style Guidelines which are “compiled for the Brewers Association by Charlie Papazian, copyright 1993 through and including 2013, with Style Guideline Committee assistance and review by Paul Gatza, Chris Swersey and suggestions from Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup judges”. These are broken down as follows (with further breakdown into individual beer styles not listed):
    American Homebrewers Association
    American Homebrewers Association
    • Ale styles
      • British origin
      • Irish origin
      • North American origin
      • German origin
      • Belgian & French origin
      • Other origin
      • International styles
    • Lager Beer styles
      • European-Germanic origin
      • North American origin
      • Other origin
      • International styles
    • Hybrid/Mixed Beer styles
      • Other origin
  • CAMRA – the CAMpaign for Real Ale is a UK organization who “is an independent, voluntary organisation campaigning for real ale, community pubs and consumer rights”. Their site lists 9 main Beer Styles that they cover though these are restricted to British styles presumably due to their sphere of interest.
  • Cicerone Certification Program – this is a training and certification organization and within each of their syllabuses there are style guidelines that are mainly grouped together by country/region as follows:
    • German & Czech Beers
    • English, Scottish & Irish Ales
    • American Beer Styles
    • Belgian Beer Styles

Beyond the above there are also Belgian, Danish and German Beer Style groups as well as various sets used by some of the main Craft Beer websites which overlap to varying degrees with those in the above list.

Certified Cicerone Program
Certified Cicerone Program

BJCP beer styles

As the previous section shows there are multiple standards and consistency of Beer Styles is not something currently in place. For the purposes of this series of articles we have chosen to cover the Beer Styles set out by the BJCP for the following reasons:

  • BJCP styles are used for competitions sanctioned by the American Homebrewers Association (AHA) who are the largest homebrewing organization in the world.
  • BJCP certified judges use these guidelines at competitions and hence these Beer Styles are familiar to homebrewers who want to compete at the highest level.
  • Most commercial brewers have at some stage been a homebrewer and a number of them have also been successful as amateur competitors so are often familiar with the BJCP style guidelines.
  • Commercial examples are provided against each BJCP style which provides an additional cross-over between homebrewing and craft brewing.

The BJCP styles cover the following 28 categories:

Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP)
Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP)
  1. Light Lager
  2. Pilsner
  3. European Amber Lager
  4. Dark Lager
  5. Bock
  6. Light Hybrid Beer
  7. Amber Hybrid Beer
  8. English Pale Ale
  9. Scottish & Irish Ale
  10. American Ale
  11. English Brown Ale
  12. Porter
  13. Stout
  14. India Pale Ale (IPA)
  15. German Wheat & Rye Beer
  16. Belgian & French Ale
  17. Sour Ale
  18. Belgian Strong Ale
  19. Strong Ale
  20. Fruit Beer
  21. Spice / Herb / Vegetable Beer
  22. Smoke-flavored & Wood-aged Beer
  23. Specialty Beer
  24. Traditional Mead
  25. Melomel (Fruit Mead)
  26. Other Mead
  27. Standard Cider & Perry
  28. Specialty Cider & Perry

Each of these categories are broken down into one or more styles with a character added to the category number e.g. IPA is broken down as follows:

14A. English IPA
14B. American IPA
14C. Imperial IPA

Pliny The Elder IPA by Russian River
Pliny The Elder IPA by Russian River

For each style there are the following attributes e.g. 14B American IPA:

  • Aroma: A prominent to intense hop aroma with a citrusy, floral, perfume-like, resinous, piney, and/or fruity character derived from American hops…
  • Appearance: Color ranges from medium gold to medium reddish copper; some versions can have an orange-ish tint…
  • Flavor: Hop flavor is medium to high, and should reflect an American hop character with citrusy, floral, resinous, piney or fruity aspects…
  • Mouthfeel: Smooth, medium-light to medium-bodied mouthfeel without hop-derived astringency, although moderate to medium-high carbonation can combine to render an overall dry sensation in the presence of malt sweetness…
  • Overall Impression: A decidedly hoppy and bitter, moderately strong American pale ale.
  • History: An American version of the historical English style, brewed using American ingredients and attitude.
  • Ingredients: Pale ale malt (well-modified and suitable for single-temperature infusion mashing); American hops; American yeast that can give a clean or slightly fruity profile…
  • Vital Statistics:
    • Original Gravity: 1.056 – 1.075
    • Final Gravity: 1.010 – 1.018
    • ABV: 5.5 – 7.5%
    • IBUs: 40 – 70
    • SRM: 6 – 15
  • Commercial Examples: Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale, AleSmith IPA, Russian River Blind Pig IPA…

Please note that some of the above descriptions have been shortened and that full details of the American IPA and other BJCP Styles can be found on the BJCP site.

One additional thing to note is the reason that both the Original Gravity (OG) and Final Gravity (FG) are shown as well as the ABV. This is because although the ABV can be calculated from the OG and FG, providing the OG shows how much the wort is fermented out and what residual sweetness is which impacts both the taste and the mouthfeel of a beer. Sometimes on beer bottles and brewer’s sheets the measurement of degrees Plato instead of FG or OG may be used.

The current version of the BJCP Style Guidelines referred to above are 2008 and these are the same ones in use at AHA sanctioned competitions. The previous version of the guidelines was from 2004 and the next version is due to be released in June 2014. The guidelines do go back as far as the late 1990’s. For further questions on the BJCP Guidelines please see the FAQ’s on the BJCP site.

What next?

Our next article will look at the first of the BJCP categories ‘Light Lager‘ where we will examine the five styles, what makes each of them different from one-another as well as what is common between them. We will also take a look at some sample recipes and commercial examples.

If you have any questions or comments about this article, please do not hesitate to contribute to the discussion below.

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