Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Lumpers and splitters

A large part of my holiday reading was Ron Pattinson's excellent "Porter!", a huge collection of lightly edited posts from his blog on all types of stouts and porters, including surprisingly enough occasional pale ones.

An early article argues against the "Stalinist fantasy" of the ever growing number of rigid style guidelines from the BJCP, instead opting for the "Trotskyist" position that there's a permanent revolution of beer styles as they evolve over time.

Now I must admit he has a point, but as I've already been called a Stalinist by the other great blogging beer historian Martyn Cornell I find myself in a difficult position. Am I a Stalinist-Trotskyist or a Trotskyist-Stalinist? Is such a thing possible? Maybe, I have always thought that the differences between Stalinism and Trotskyism are greatly exaggerated. What would Nestor say? "Never trust a Bolshevik" probably.

So I'll move on to terminology I'm happier with. The good old taxonomist's terms of "lumpers and splitters". As far as beer styles go Ron would be called a lumper, as he reduces the number of British beer styles down to four: porter, mild, bitter and strong. I certainly have more sympathy with this way of thinking than the splitters of the BJCP with around 80 beer styles or the Brewers Association which now details well over 100.

I'm going to drift off topic now as far as beer blogging goes but bear with me, I think it makes sense. Working as a microbiologist I saw many changes in the names of bacteria due to advances in DNA technology. The Salmonella genus went from having over 2,000 species to just two, and an old favourite Chlamydia psittaci suffered the indignity of being re-classified as Chlamydophila psittaci. This meant we had to call a number of bacteria we'd worked with for years by new names, even though they were exactly the same organisms. To use a beer example lager yeast has had its name changed from Saccharomyces carlbergensis to Saccharomyces uvarum to Saccharomyces cerevisiae to Saccharomcyes pastorianus.

As a scientist I thought the point of classifying things was to help us, not confuse us, and I can't help but think the same when it comes to beer. So having an ever growing number of beer styles, including such delights as "American-Belgo Style Dark Ale" doesn't bring any clarity, it just adds to the confusion. Equally though excessive lumping would lead to a lack of information being conveyed, so though Ron may have only four beer styles we find in Porter! details of various sub-styles from the early all brown malt porters to the weak milk stouts to the strongest imperial stouts.

With the vast range of beer produced, and the variations over time and between countries it's clear that if beer styles are to be of any use they have to be broad categories. But really it's best to see them as adjectives not nouns, so they are ways of describing things not definitions to be adhered to.

This means some of the dafter beer styles like Black India Pale Ale do actually have a use. Clearly a black beer is not in any way a pale ale but if you order one you'll know what you're getting: something black with a strong flavour of American hops and only a slight roast grain taste. Or in my case not getting, as they're not to my taste.

I'm not entirely certain whether this makes me a lumper or a spliter, but I do know that what I want when I'm looking for a beer is to be given information that's actually of use to me.


  1. What would Nestor say?

    Just out of interest, what % of readers are you expecting to know which Nestor you're referring to?

    (First Stringers and now this. Old anarchists never die, apparently...)

  2. Back on topic, this is an interesting one. Most of the time I don't think it matters - people can slap the label of 'bitter' on everything from Wild Swan to Old Peculier, and nobody really minds. The problems start with dark beer; I've had several in the last few months where I honestly didn't know what I was drinking - porter? stout? dark mild? unusually dark bitter? - and it did bother me. (In some cases even the brewery doesn't seem to know - Lymestone describes Stone the Crows as "A rich red to black beer".) I think what we need is

    - a single generic name for all dark beers, like 'bitter' for pale beers which aren't lager; ideally this would be 'porter'
    - much more use of descriptive style labels, including on pump clips ('dark'/'pale', 'sweet'/'dry' etc, rather than 'IPA', 'old ale' etc)
    - more brewers producing milds (dark and light), just to complicate things

  3. Actually Phil, I think what you were drinking would be what I'd like to see called a "dark ale", which is the one category Ron left out, and which covers beers from Owd Rodger and Young's Winter Warmer (ie Burtons) through Old Peculier to Hobgoblin and Black Sheep's Riggwelter via something like Speinghead's The Leveller: they're not bitters, because hop character isn't predominant, they're not porters/stouts, because roast character isn't predominant. This would even cover something like Fuller's new/old XX, and Gale's POA, which is a "sour dark ale".

    Sorry I called you a Stalinist, Ed: clearly I should have said Makhnovist.

  4. I suspect most of those beers will come under 'mild' Martyn.

  5. Give over. Milds are sweetish but light, in body and alcohol (although not necessarily in colour).

    In other news, I had a pint of cask BrewDog Edge today & it was fantastic - one of the best milds I've had in years. Bastards!

  6. Ah, but Ron is a beer historian and I'm sure he has figures for historical milds that were strong and full bodied. Like Sarah Hughes Original Dark Ruby Mild come to think of it, which they say is from a Victorian recipe.