I am the first to admit styles are abused and misused. Miller Lite, despite the company's insistence, is not a "true pilsner". I also admit that when tasting beers, I occasionally find myself saying "that's not a pilsner" or "that's not a porter". More oft than not, I say those things when the beer is awful, like in the case of Miller Lite or Lazy Mutt Farmhouse Ale, and I am angered that the beer is lying to those who actually drink the stuff.
I think we all have our own ideas as to what a porter is, or a pilsner, or a Belgian ale. We create our own style guidelines and judge all comers against our chosen representatives. Take Porters for example. You've got Sam Smith which is caramelly, chocolaty, just slightly carbonated and full bodied. Then you've got Meantime, another English Porter which emphasizes more of the roasty characteristics. Should a Porter be roasty? Some out there say no. Chocolate should be the main flavor we get from the darker malts. Let's throw in Founder's Porter. At 6.5% and 40 IBUs it pushes the limits of Porter. Or Anchor Porter, one of the hoppiest tasting porters I've tried. All call themselves just "Porter" to the consumer, yet are decidedly different. Is one right and the others wrong?
I have not even mentioned New Glarus' Old English Porter. Here is the description from the website:
"... the least understood of the old British beers. The subject (of the Porter Beer Style) is complicated and confused because porter’s heyday lasted from about 1700 to the pale ale revolution of the mid 1800’s. During that time it passed through many transformations. Porter was simply a mixture of two brown beers. The only characteristic that set the porter apart from any other beer of the day was that porter was deliberately soured by adding a percentage of sour beer to freshly brewed beer. The original porters were not, as is commonly supposed, jet-black in colour, but a translucent brown. They had a rich, smoky flavor derived from the use of brown malt and a winey aftertang produced by the deliberate souring, highly regarded by Londoners."
Our interpretation is a Brown Porter based on the style popular in 1870's London. It was brewed with mostly floor malted English malts including the famed pale ale malt, Maris Otter. A touch of smoked malt produced by Briess Malting Company of Chilton Wisconsin was also used. Half of the batch went through a souring fermentation, in the traditional way, to promote the characteristic wine-like acidity. Lastly the beer was aged on wood to extract sweetness from toasted oak.
Beers styles, like people, begin to change and grow as soon as they are born. As we read above, Porters were once blended beers. Then some guy figured out how to get the same flavor without making two separate beers, rather just one. And so blended porter became "old style". Consistent sanitation and modern technology has expelled the sourness and smokiness from beers like Porter that once had a varying degree of both back in the day. This does not mean we are not brewing to style if we don't include a degree of both in our beers. Rather, it means the beer has evolved to suit modern tastes and methods of production. It is actually much more time consuming and difficult to produce an old style porter like New Glarus did nowadays. Especially in a society which craves consistency in its beer (for the most part).
So how far back are we going as far as brewing traditions go when we taste a beer and say "That's not to style". Not very far. Porter 200 years ago was wildly different than today's. Are we merely going back to the emergence of national and multi-national breweries, like Guinness, who became so prolific that we had no choice but to accept their stout as standard of the style? Or perhaps we're going back even less, to the emergence of micro-breweries in the 70s and 80s?
Damned if I know.
Beer styles are unique to time and space. I say we create some new ones to be lost then found again.
With respect to style, let's evolve!