Styles and Creativity

by Sam Piper, May 1995

NOTE: This article was posted to Homebrew Digests 1738 and 1740 by Don Van Valkenberg, and inspired many well-argued reasons why style guidelines are important. These rebuttals appear in Homebrew Digests 1741 and higher. The opinions of Mr. Piper in no way reflect those of the editors or maintainers of the Brewery web server---but they're certainly an interesting counter-point to conventional judge wisdom!

The following was written by Sam Piper for the Barley Bandits News letter. Since Sam does not have access to the Net, I am putting this out for him. I apologize for it's length, as it wasn't written with the net in mind, but I do feel that creativity is important which is why I am posting it. Because of its length I am posting it in two parts. Private responses may be sent to him through me at:


I once heard a comedian say, "If you're not going to kick a guy when he's down, then when are you? I guess if you're in a brawl, there's some sense to that. And right now the American Homebrewer's Association and the Home Wine & Beer Trade Association are brawling. Their Beer Judge Certification Program (or the AHA HWBTA BJCP, which is pronounced like an explosive sneeze, for the acronymicly gifted) has gone down for the count to be replaced by Ninkenski knows what. It seems the two associations can no longer stand the sight, smell,or suggestions of the other and reached for their dueling Pilsners.

Plainly, this hobby isn't big enough for the both of them. So I think this is a good time for someone as caustic as myself to get in a few kicks.

First, let's examine beer style categories. Most people think you need to have categories and beer style standards & definitions to have a contest and judge beer. I mean, how the hell are you going to fill out the damn score sheet if you don't have the standard of a category to compare an entry to? this could be utter chaos! If you don't have categories and standards, then all you can say is whether or not the beer you are judging looks good, tastes good, and if you would like to drink it again. Now if that ain't anarchy then God didn't make little green bombs and there ain't acid rain in Indianapolis.

Just think of it. What if someone made a pale yellow barley wine? Well, right away you're in a fix because these suckers are suppose to be dark brown. Says so in the style book! Maybe the guy over filtered? Sorry Sam Warmack-- everybody knows you can't do Yellow Dog Wine. Toss it out. Spices? Bubble Gum has spices Piper-- give it to that kid selling the 1958 Mickey Mantle baseball card for $450 and maybe he'll cut you a deal.


Well, listen up, ole horse drop, you say-- if standards and style definitions are so damn bad, did you ever try to judge the Specialties? How do you deal with all that nonsense? Apricot Lambic, indeed. Who ever herd of apricots in a salad dressing?

But we do manage to judge Specialties, don't we! And how often does the specialty category end up either first or second in the "best of show" round? Could there be something to this Anarchy?

The problem I have with beer judging and beer style categories and standards is that they are creative death. Nobody ever grew in life by always trying to copy someone else To copy is to exercise in technique and technique alone. Consider the American Pilsner, the white bread of beer, clone city. Any biologist trying to get the Nobel Prize for cloning should consider switching from poison frogs eggs to Pilsner beer kegs.

Who can tell one American Pilsner from another? This is progress? Since when is sheer banality and lack of product differentiation something to strive for? True, the labels are all different. But consider the net effect of having a beer judge program with style STANDARDS and the encouragement of conformity to that standard: the emphasis is all on technique and copy. Any feature that makes a beer unique is in contrast to that style definition and counts against the entry. This process not only kicks an innovative brewer in the teeth, but it contaminates the expectations of the entire brewing community! Such emphasis on style standards reduces the sensibility of judges, those people who should be the champions of excellence, to being champions of conformity. HUMBUG! HUMBUG, I say!

How did the "standard come to be in the first place? I would argue that the basis of any beverage-of any food, for that matter, is the attempt to make something good with the ingredients at hand. It's that simple. And When you can make something really good, and keep the price down, you've got a product. And when that product begins to be copied, you've got a "standard". It's flattering to the first maker, but not to the second!

Can you imagine a master chef in any restaurant in the world who wants his Veal Florentine to be exactly like James Beard's ... or anyone else's? Hell no. It had better be different, it had better be excellent, and any gourmet should be prepared to appreciate both dimensions of the dish!

The problem with judging and standards is what I call the American way of success death. Because rooted in a standard is the expectation of replication, o loss of individuality, of mass production for mass consumption by the masses of consumers. It's great for commodities, car parts and anything to do with manufacturing or repair. But in the world of arts and appreciation, a standard has to define a level of quality, not limiting characteristics.

And where in all this is the role of education? Where is the responsibility to teach a beer maker to joyfully make his or her own unique beer? or even more important, where is the responsibility to teach the beer consumer to look for taste, to look for what is pleasing and gratifying, and to define those terms by experience of tasting the beer at hand and not by how closely that beer tastes like another?

I am just sick of contest judges who fault stout beers for not tasting exactly like Guiness.

The more we succumb to beer style standards, the less room there is for the individual, be that person a consumer, a brewer, or a business man. But there's still hope for the mass product junkie. I hear McDonald's will put in little syrup breweries so we can all have fresh McBeer to go with the McBurger du Jour. For a quality dining experience!

Sam Piper

Private responses may be sent to:
Don Van Valkenburg