I feel bad about this, really bad. Pete Brown’s having a “let’s be nice” month over on his blog, and all I can do is be mean, nasty, negative and carping. (And it’s not because I didn’t win anything in the BGBW awards, ’cos I didn’t enter this year, so there.)
Someone has produced a beautiful “periodic table of beer styles” you can see here, it’s a lovely piece of graphics, based on the familiar periodic table in chemistry, but grouping beers into families of styles, rather than chemical elements. It’s obvious that a huge amount of care and craftspersonship went into the creation of the “beeriodic table”. It looks lovely, and I’ve no doubt many, many beer geeks will print it off and pin it up on their walls. It’s obviously been put together by somebody who loves beer very much. I admire enormously their dedication, and their skill: it must have taken hours, days to do. It’s a great piece of design. And it’s wrong, totally wrong, in so many ways.
The problem with the “beeriodic table” is that it’s fatally flawed in its execution, and hugely, dangerously misleading, by apparently being based on the BJCP classifications, which, for example, completely ignore the once-important Burton Ale style, evidently because Michael Jackson never wrote about it, so therefore it doesn’t exist.
I’ll step back (though I’m sure others won’t) from getting into the “no, German and Belgian wheat beers are NOT ales, nor are lambic and its relatives ale” arguments, and just talk about the area I know best, British beers. Here, the Periodic Table of Beer is beautifully laid out, but a total mess in the accuracy of the information it is trying to impart: porter and stout are not in any meaningful sense different styles; pale ale is not different from bitter; English milds cannot all be lumped in with “brown ale”, since some are pale, and anyway “English brown ale” covers two completely different styles of beer, the “Northern” and (for ease of description, though they were brewed across Britain) the “Southern”. Scottish “light” is not in the same family as Scottish “heavy”, since one is a mild and the other a bitter. Scotch Ale should not be on its own, but in with the Burton Ale family of bitter-sweet, fruity dark ales, except that style’s not in the table. Old ale and barley wine – well, there’s a complex and lengthy question, and one I intend tackling soon, but certainly they should not be left sitting out on their own in separate families.
I’m not sure a “beeriodic table” is even possible, since beer styles are more like a Venn diagram – maybe a multi-dimensional Venn diagram. They overlap with each other, they merge into each other, they link up across “beerspace” in strange ways. Golden ales, for example (which also don’t appear on the Periodic Table of Beer Styles) touch on pale ales on one side and Helles-style lagers on the other, while a beer like St Austell’s excellent Clouded Yellow bridges the space between pale ale and Bavarian Weisse.
I’m trying to think of more nice things to say about the Periodic Beer Table: if it gets people realising the amazing variety of different beer styles and types that are available, that’s good, and if it encourages people to try beer styles they’ve never heard of, that’s good too. But if it’s going to mislead people with inaccurate information, then that’s sad: a good deed, flawed.