American-Style 'Contemporary' and 'Light' Lagers Added to the Brewers Association Style Guide
This week, the Brewers Association (BA) released its updated 2020 Beer Style Guidelines. (The craft beer trade group admitted it hasn't publicized the release to instead keep focus on the effect the coronavirus outbreak is having on breweries—though at the same time, talking about beer styles may be just the break we need.) The differences are subtle, even when it comes to the two new styles that have been added—but when you have over 150 different beer styles already, truly revelatory new brews are rare. That said, changes are changes—and even seemingly small tweaks to the guidelines can provide insight into ways in which the beer industry is shifting.
Starting with the new styles, the BA has teased out Contemporary American-Style Lager and Contemporary American-Style Light Lager from the existing American-Style Lager and American-Style Light Lager category. This tweak is actually more significant than it might seem: Strictly by volume, American-Style Light Lager and American-Style Lager are the two most consumed beer styles: America's top three selling beers—Bud Light, Coors Light, and Miller Lite—all land in the first category while Budweiser and its brethren fall in the second one. At competitions, these kinds of categories are where big-name beers win medals. PBR grabbed a silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival as recently as 2017.
However, as people's palates have tired of IPAs, craft lagers have become more popular. And here's the rub: Beer styles aren't inherently about what tastes "good"; instead, a style is guidelines for how these beers are intended to taste. So by reverse-engineering, if PBR—which has been around forever—doesn't taste like an American-Style Lager, then what the hell is an American-Style Lager supposed to taste like?
That's where these new "Contemporary" versions come in, opening up more ground for defining more innovative attempts at these old-school styles. "The new contemporary lager categories reflect renewed interest by some small brewers and drinkers in lower gravity, lower alcohol lager styles which exhibit slightly increased hop flavor and aroma compared to the traditional adjunct lager styles prevalent in the U.S. beer market," Chris Swersey, the BA's competition manager, told me via email. And though the BA Guidelines and the Great American Beer Festival guidelines aren't the same, they do inform each other, and it certainly would be nice to see Contemporary medals offered in the future.
Beyond these new lagers, the only other noteworthy change for most drinkers is that as craft brewers' beloved IPA style continues to evolve, so have the definitions. American-Style India Pale Ale and Imperial India Pale Ale, Juicy or Hazy India Pale Ale and Imperial India Pale Ale, and American-Style Black Ale were all "revised to affirm distinctions between these styles and Experimental India Pale Ale," the BA said in the press release.
"The annual update keeps the guidelines accurate and relevant to today's dynamic beer market," Swersey added in the announcement. "For example, the Juicy Hazy categories have been updated after two years to reflect trends in those popular categories. We're very thankful to have a working group of brewers who engaged with us to ensure these categories are well-written."
In the end, honestly, none of these changes really affect drinkers: Even with these guidelines, beer labeling is at the discretion of the brewery (and sometimes they don't even get it right when they try). But the fact that the most action is happening in the American lager and IPA categories seems indicative of where brewers' heads are at right now… that is, until the BA adds a hard seltzer category.