Clearly, all beers have a description (otherwise you've had too many.) On the most basic level a beer can be described as light or dark, bitter or not, strong or weak. But how do you categorize a beer that's amber coloured? Or sour? Or gives you a buzz after two? That's where beer style guidelines come in to play.

Nevertheless, it's not that simple. There are some schools of thought that say that beer style guidelines are somewhat arbitrary and that it forces a beer into a little box that's been otherwise obliterated by more exceptions than rules. Take a look at Black IPAs, for example. If you were to read the generally accepted description for an American IPA the colour typically ranges from a gold to a dark amber. Yet, there are black IPAs in abundance in the industry these days. If you put the qualifier of "black" in front of it does it truly maintain its status as an IPA? Not according to the style guidelines! But don't tell that to brewers or those who have designed the broody black labels for the bottles.

Nevertheless, some sort of categorization is very important to have--especially for the consumer. A style name and description gives the customer the expectation of what's inside the bottle. Have you ever been shopping for beer and picked up a bottle that has a really cool label with psychedelic 3D skeletons on it but you couldn't--for the life of you--tell what it was you were about to buy? If beer descriptions were to be deemed irrelevant everybody's beer choices would be subject to chance and you could end up with a mouthful of lambic and not expect it. Which, ummm, would be quite a shock.

It's worth noting that the key word here is "guideline." Not a law. Not a commandment. Nope, just a guideline. There is so much overlap when it comes to style descriptions that they do seem somewhat groundless; it's hardly possible to make them into a law. Besides, what fun would beer be if it got its knuckles cracked by rulers for stepping out of line?