I received Keith Richards’ autobiography, Life, for Christmas and have been devouring it speedily and with great interest. It offers fascinating insight into the man and the band, of course, but of even greater interest to me are Richards’ observations about music, in terms of both structure and form.
What does this have to do with beer styles, you ask?
Plenty, says I.
In Chapter 3 in particular, Richards goes on at length about the pointlessness of pigeonholing musical styles one way or the other, accusing blues purists of the early ‘60’s of wanting “their Negros…to be dressed in overalls and go ‘Yes’m, boss’” and “trad jazzers” of looking down their collective nose at rock and roll. This all culminates in one magnificent line about the distinction between rhythm and blues and rock and roll: “Totally pointless categorization of something that is the same shit – it just depends on how much you lay the backbeat down or how flash you play it.”
Taken in light of the Brewers Association’s recently released list of 140 beer style guidelines, this speaks volumes. There is a point in the book where Richards talks about the evolutionary nature of music, how rock and R&B and jazz all flow from the blues, and I think the same could be said about beer. What is a “double” IPA other than a ramped up IPA? Or a so-called quad other than a more intense dubbel? Laying the hoppy backbeat down in a different way, to be sure.
None of which is meant to discount beer style descriptions entirely. Some, like pale ale, pilsner, IPA, porter and oud gueuze are quite useful in conveying to the consumer what he or she is about to drink. Imagine desiring a hoppy IPA and receiving a tart lambic in its place! But getting all doctrinaire about the differences between, for instance, the BA’s three definitions of porter – “porter,” “brown porter” and “robust porter” – or its three – three! – categories of Bamberg-style rauchbier is, in my opinion and for the general beer consumer, or even the committed beer aficionado, simply taking matters more than a bit too far.
The BA’s categories do work well in the role for which they have been fashioned, specifically to provide medal categories for the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup. But in using them for anything beyond that purpose, we’d be wise to recall that one person’s jazz is another’s blues, and that what we once identified clearly as punk rock, like the second Clash album I’m listening to as I type these words, is in today’s context simply good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll.