Understanding Typology vs Taxonomy to Understand Approaches to Beer Styles

So, I realize that while I’m in the midst of posting this long series on developing a Bolivian style of beer, continued research and reading on the topic is revealing a couple fundamental assumptions I made about “style” that mean I’m, if not mistaken, then perhaps just misguided.

I realized this a few days ago, and then the next day the news came out that the Brewers Association (BA) had added Adambier and Grodziskie to their official list of beer styles. This seems to have elicited a fair amount of backlash, although it’s important to note that the BA says itself that, “Our decision to include a particular historical beer style takes into consideration the style’s brewing traditions and the need to preserve those traditions in today’s market.” In other words, they’re taking commercial demands into large consideration. They are the Brewers Association, after all. So inevitably the end result is not going to purely reflect the historical traditions involved.

Now, for some reason when I started this series on a Bolivian style, I only looked at the BJCP guidelines, not the BA’s set as well. When I finally looked at the BA guidelines it was a bit of a revelation because they are organized to meet different goals: one is a typology and the other is more of a taxonomy.

When you’re trying organize a set of data, knowledge, a field of study, theological stances, whatever you want, there are myriad ways to approach it, but typologies and taxonomies are two of the most utilized. A typology attempts to take the broad spectrum of all that is—in this case beer styles—and group them into more general ideal types. In other words, the boundaries are drawn in broader strokes and arranged around a general set of characteristics. These would be the BJCP guidelines, which go to great lengths to define larger boundaries and ranges of characteristics for beer styles.

On the other hand, a taxonomy is far more specific way of organizing in which the attempt is made to identify all possible types within a set. So here, you’re going to find a far larger number of possible beer styles because each possibility is identified and set apart. And in this case, the BA guidelines are much more like a taxonomy because they identify a far larger number of beer styles and really parse things out, and also why their Hybrid/Mixed category includes a whopping 32 entries; a few of which would fall into standard BJCP categories, but most of which would otherwise be lumped into Fruit/Herb/Vegetable Beers. Heck, the BA taxonomy even specifically mentions chicha as an example of indigenous beer.

Let’s use Belgian styles for a comparative example. The BJCP guidelines identify Belgian Strong Ale as a category with the following styles:

  1. Blonde
  2. Dubbel
  3. Tripel
  4. Golden Strong
  5. Dark Strong

On the other hand, the BA guidelines identify the following styles that would be probably subordinated to the BJCP styles listed above (I’ve mixed up the order so it lines up better with the BJCP guidelines):

  • Blonde (A)
  • Pale Ale (A)
  • Table Beer (A)
  • Dubbel (B)
  • Tripel (C)
  • Pale Strong Ale (D)
  • Quadrupel (E)
  • Dark Strong Ale (E)

There’s more diversity in the BA guidelines if you compare the British and North American-origin styles, but that’s for you to do.

So, regardless of whether or not you agree with the BJCP or BA’s style guidelines, it’s helpful to understand how they’re aiming for slightly different goals when they outline these characteristics. I’m sort of kicking myself for not seeing this earlier, but perhaps I’ll use it to revise the series at a later point or design it as an argument for the inclusion of a new style since the BA guidelines are open to it: “If you have suggestions for adding or changing a style guideline, write to us, making sure to include reasons and documentation for why you think the style should be included or updated.” Although come on, honestly, the only argument I could half-way make is for the Argentine Dorada Pampeana.

Finally, I should say that the reaction I mentioned above to the BA’s introduction of Adambier and Grodziskie as new styles shows that the BA guidelines themselves are not even a full taxonomy. The influence of commercial necessities and interests mean that the BA and BJCP are inevitably still going to be exerting influence over the way we talk about, describe, design, and think about beer. Is that good? I’m not entirely sure, but it’s something to consider.

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