A comment on this recent post on Tandleman's blog brought up the issue of the BJCP style guidelines - the judging guidelines for the different style categories recognized in American Homebrewers Association competitions.
I've not yet entered a homebrew competition myself, partly because that sort of thing isn't really my bag and partly because, if I'm honest, I suspect that the results would be pretty embarrassing at the moment. However, I do have some idea of how competitions work.
As in the comments on Tandleman's post, the BJCP guidelines often get stick for being a) overly prescriptive and b) wrong. But while there's some truth in this, I think that it misses the point of them a bit. Their goal, as I understand it, is to give some semblance of order to homebrew competitions, and enable them to test how much control the brewer has over the results of their brewing process. If you brew a Märzen for a competition, for instance, then as well as just brewing something that the judges enjoy drinking, you also have to demonstrate that you have the technical chops to make it malty but balanced with a moderately dry finish and a medium body. It's a bit like playing scales and arpeggios in a music exam; they don't represent everything you could ever want to do, but they do let you demonstrate your technical competence in a relatively controlled format.
This is fine, and it seems like a pretty good learning exercise for a homebrewer to go through - a bit of rigor and attention to detail never hurt anyone. The problems come when people lose sight of that, and start treating the BJCP guidelines as a guide to what beer styles actually mean out in the wild, and what they definitively ought to be like. The divisions between different porters and stouts are what the complaint that inspired this post was about, and the complaint is a valid one - for example, the Charlie Papazian has admitted that the division between robust porter and brown porter was basically an artifcial way of splitting an overly broad category, but it's a division that's now reflected in the names of commercial beers as well. There's plenty of other shonky stuff in there as well that I'm sure gets treated as authoritative well outside of its original intended context.
In spite of this, I've been guilty of consulting the BJCP style guide when planning my own decidedly non-competitive brews. And why? Because it's easy. The BJCP document is readable online, and you know that if you keep your recipe somewhere within the its guidelines then you've got a reasonable chance of ending up with something that's drinkable and in roughly the style you'd expect, and from where I'm currently at at least that counts as a result. If you want to know more reliably how style terms are actually used in their proper contexts and how they've evolved over time then you start needing to consult specialist books, or try to pull out the bits that you currently need to know from long and information-dense articles and blog posts, assuming you can find anything authoritative on the subject anyway. And while doing either of those is a fine way to spend a rainy afternoon, there are times when you just want to get on with brewing, and a quick dip into the BJCP document lets you do that.
So what would help?
Well, homebrewers - and professional brewers, and drinkers, come to that - could do their research properly. It'd be great if everyone who tried a bottle of Westmalle Triple and thought "hey, that was nice, I'd quite like to brew something like that" went out and bought a copy of Brew Like A Monk and read it from cover to cover. But realistically that's unlikely to happen.
Another thing that would help is better pre-digested sources of information about beer styles. Something with about the level of detail that the BJCP provide - typical gravities and IBUs, typical ingredients and so on - but properly sourced and with more of a slant towards reflecting how terms are used in the wild and how they've evolved over time rather than towards simply providing a workable format for competitions. I might have a punt at this myself, but given my normal rate of posting, it'll be a while before I get much coverage.
Or is this just something that we're going to live with? Accept that Robust Porter is a new style classification in the late 20th Century just like India Pale Ale was in the 19th, and that every now and then, your meticulously sourced account of the history of Bavarian brewing is going to be met with someone insistently pointing you to Category 8A (Munich Dunkel)?