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Sunday, February 25, 2007

How Many Beer Styles Are Enough? The Brewers Association Says 125 and Counting

To most Americans there are just three styles of beer: regular domestic lager, imported lager and light beer. Chris Swersey knows better.

Swersey from Salmon, Idaho, spent time as a brewer at Heavenly Daze in Colorado, Mickey Finn's in Illinois and and the Ballyard Brewery in Arizona, and still consults with breweries in addition to running a river guide business. He is also the Competition Manager for the Brewers Association, which runs two of the most prestigious judging events for beer in America: the annualGreat American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup, held every other year.

Swersey will tell you that there are 125 different styles of ales and lagers in the world. It's not a guess. That is the official number according to the Brewers Association 2007 Beer Style Guidelines.

"The style list is a living document. It has changed over time to reflect what is happening in the brewing world," says Swersey. For instance Pumpkin Beer is a new category on the list. It used to be part of Fruit and Vegetable beers, but because of growing popular and acceptance was given its own spot on the list. American-style Wheat Wine has found its own place, as has Wood- and Barrel-Aged Sour Beer, which used to be lumped into the Experimental Beer category.

The Guidelines are the handy work of Charlie Papazian and a committee that includes Ray Daniels, Paul Gatza and Swersey. The Guidelines have been copyrighted since 1993, but really go back to 1979 when the Brewers Association first attempted to provide style guidelines to brewers. The works of English beer journalist Michael Jackson and German professor Anton Piendl contributed greatly to defining various beer styles. The committee that reviews the Guidelines looks at market trends and takes comments from the beer industry.

"The guidelines were first developed for breweries and for the judges," said Swersey. "But there are also very sophisticated beer consumers these days. The guidelines really help them."

The Guidelines are also used to help group beers together for judging events. Brewers association rules say that each category must have at least three entries for medals to be awarded. Swersey and his team uses the guidelines, along with the number of entries from breweries, to shape the competition. At the most recent Great American Beer Festival there were 69 categories in the competition.

"We don't police where brewers enter," says Swersey. "The judges fill out written comments on each beer and these are sent back to the brewers." The comments can then help brewers decide if the next time around a beer might be a better fit in a particular category.

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