Sure, beer styles aren't perfect, and yes it is true that brewers, whether pro or home, brew beer rather than styles. However, beer styles do serve a purpose as a frame of reference for both drinkers and brewers. If I brew, for example, a 10% pale lager, hopped with Tettnang to 55 IBU and lagered for 60 days, then it is quite clear that it is not a Premium American Lager. The question though that has been bouncing around my head for the last couple of days is "who decides what style of beer a product is?".
It is clear in my mind that the final say should rest with the actual brewers themselves. The one group of people who should resolutely not be allowed anywhere near the decision making process for a new beer is the marketing department. If a brewer, for example, brews a generic pale lager, and the company markets it as a Pilsner, it does nobody any favours, least of all the consumer.
Someone with sufficient knowledge of Pilsner beers, whether German or Czech, will be disappointed drinking a generic pale lager which has been labelled a Pilsner because it doesn't have the requisite hoppiness, body and flavour. If said drinker is also a member of sites such as BeerAdvocate and RateBeer, they will then give their opinions on the beer as a Pilsner and likely how it fails as one and score it accordingly.
Worse yet are reviewers who, through no fault of their own, have never had the inestimable pleasure of travelling to Germany or the Czech Republic to drink the real thing in it's natural environment. Having grown up on beers from green bottles which have been pasteurised and then travelled long distances in less than prime conditions, it is no wonder they come out with some of the drivel you read on the rating sites. It makes me want to scream when I read that an American made Pilsner "has the right amount of skunkiness" for the style, when in Germany and the Czech Republic such a beer would be entirely unacceptable. You only have to drink fresh Pilsner at the source to know that the bottled version is a travesty.
Having said that, if a brewery sticks with the decision to market a generic pale lager as a Pilsner, and the beer is listed as such on the rating sites then the brewery deserves being beaten with the big stick of public opinion. It is a different situation when the beer is clearly labelled as a certain style but listed on the rating sites as something else, take this example for one of my favourite beers:
Why, oh why, is Williams Bros 80/-, known in the US as Heavy, listed as a "bitter"? The commercial description attached to the page claims that the beer is a:
"traditional Scottish ale brewed with an emphasis on the malt characteristics. Lightly hopped, as is true to this style of beer, with fruity malt aromas and a toffeeish mouth feel"
this despite the fact that the site's definition of "bitter" reads:
"gold to copper color, low carbonation and medium to high bitterness. Hop flavor and aroma may be non-existent to mild"
while their definition of a Scottish Ale is:
"generally dark, malty, full-bodied brews"
Whoever listed Williams Bros Heavy as a Bitter is clearly as clueless as people that believe Miller Lite to be a Pilsner.
My problem with all of this is that ultimately two constituencies are affected, the consumer because they are buying into false expectations and the beer itself because when it is mislabelled by either the brewery marketing department or the self appointed arbiters of style it will be panned for not being something it isn't.