Styles are a convenient shorthand for discussing beer. They allow all those who are tasting and describing a beer to use a common framework and language. Style Guidelines are designed to assist organizers, entrants and judges participating in beer, mead and cider competitions by providing a standardized set of descriptions of beer, mead and cider styles.
The styles included in the guidelines are not meant to describe every beer style made in the world (at least not yet). They are meant to cover the most common ones entered in homebrew competitions. The style descriptions are based on currently acknowledged world class examples, historical references to styles no longer brewed, and writings of noted beer researchers and journalists.
In a competition setting, the Style Guidelines provide guidance to judges so that there is a level playing field for all entrants. Judges and entrants are both using the same descriptions, so the decision on “which beer is best?” is based less on personal whim of the judges and more on how well the entered beer matches world class commercial examples of the style. Without styles, competitions would be nearly impossible to conduct. Judging would simply become a hedonistic event, where judges would simply pick beers according to their preference. The outcome would be totally arbitrary and would depend on the background and preferences of those who judge their beers. This is not a desirable situation.
Style guidelines assist competition organizers by grouping together beer styles of similar characteristic for judging purposes. Judges have an easier time selecting the best beer in a flight if there is as little variation as possible. Grouping beer styles together into categories makes this easier. Category groupings are somewhat arbitrary at times, since some beer styles don’t necessarily have strong historical, regional or cultural ties to other styles.
Also, this type of question often comes from people who misunderstand the purpose of our Style Guidelines. Our guidelines are descriptive, not proscriptive. That is, they describe similar beers as produced by world class brewers. Our guidelines are not meant to tell those brewers how to brew. As styles evolve, so do the guidelines (not vice versa). We cite commercial examples for our styles to help judges understand how they should taste.
A common argument is that styles inhibit the creativity of the brewer. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many of the styles in the BJCP Style Guidelines are very open, and allow significant creativity on the part of the brewer. Look at the Dark Mild and Old Ale categories for examples. If a brewer wishes to create and enter a totally unique and creative entry, we have the Specialty Beer category for just that purpose. Knock yourself out; just tell us what you intended so we have some idea of how to evaluate your beer.