Homebrewers and especially judges have maintained a trend of suggesting alternate beer styles to brewers, when the beer for which they are giving feedback does not fully align with the best examples of a style. For example, we are presented with an American Brown Ale and it has a little bit higher roast character and slightly darker than the best examples of the style; we then suggest “this beer may do better as an American Porter." While their intent is to aid the brewer--often a new brewer--it actually is more of a deterrant to the brewer and opens an opportunity for frustration.
Suggesting an alternate style is a perfectly acceptable tool to use when providing feedback either verbally when sharing a beer with your friends or in a formal judging session, but its use must be limited. If you feel that the beer would score Outstanding (BJCP Scoresheet of Outstanding (45-50): World-Class Example) then definitely provide the brewer with this suggestion. Though, considering that very few judges ever give a beer a 45-50 score, this would be an even more rare occurrence. In a formal judging session, you should add style comparisons so that the brewer understands why you are making that suggestion. For the American Brown example that may be: This beer has an elevated roast malt character, additional malt sweetness and body for style, and would score very high as an American Porter which allows for these elevated characteristics; to score better as an American Brown, you could consider creating a less dextrinous wort and reducing caramel and roasted characteristics.
There are several key reasons why the practice of suggesting alternate beer styles is bad when you cannot definitively say the beer would be Outstanding. (1) The brewer is forever chasing the style; they enter as an American Porter and then get feedback that it’s better as an American Brown. The brewer then wastes money entering it as suggested and could get feedback saying it falls short of American Brown but may do better as an American Porter. Remember it may be you who then gets the beer in the suggested category and you create your own conflict by suggesting it goes back to the original. (2) The brewer relies on your singular interpretation of the two styles, but does not get a clear understanding of either and then does not know how to improve the beer. (3) The brewer’s highest goal may be to brew the perfect American Brown and suggesting a different style that it does not perfectly fit does not give the brewer any constructive feedback on how to brew the intended style. Feedback should be to help the brewer, not to tell them that they were wrong in their interpretation of the style.
Keep in mind that this can happen in an informal setting too, like at a club meeting or at your friend’s house. When it does, provide honest feedback; the brewer fully knows that there could be an issue and so you should tell them exactly what you believe. Never tell them it “tastes good” when it has a problem and when they ask if you think it will do well as an American Brown, then tell them that you feel it sits between Brown and Porter and give the reasons why. Be descriptive!
In closing, I would like to see the practice of suggesting another style only used on very rare occasions. When we do use it, then we must also take the responsibility to provide feedback for two different styles. Remember, the brewer entered a style that they felt best represented the beer they wanted to brew, so give constructive feedback to help them brew a better example of that style. Share this message the next time you are judging and see another judge suggest an alternate style without following it with solid feedback.