What's in a Style?

Let's get the exotica out of the way first. Stouts come from Ireland, having evolved from the porter style that started in Harwood's Pub, London, right? A blogger in London says no, but the argument amounts to semantics:
In his book Stout, Michael Lewis tells that "the earliest use of the word 'stout' clearly referring to a beer beverage appears in a letter of 1677..." Furthermore, Lewis contends that porter originated from stout, and not the other way round.

If further evidence were need that stout was not an Irish offshoot from London porter, beer writer and historian Ron Pattinson (author of the online European Beer Guide) tells me that "all the London brewers whose logs I´ve looked at were brewing beers called 'Stout' well before 1800 ... I'm 100% certain stout originated in London".
(Incidentally, that final period isn't in error--that's how they write in England. But perhaps it doesn't jump off the page at you, aggressively, like it does at me.) Porters came from stouts or stouts came from porters--this seems like it has the makings of an irresolvable Irish-English blood feud.

But from it, Lew Bryson last week composed a nice post on the nature of beer styles, a topic that lends itself to different blood feuds.
Look at the beers called "stout": dry stout, export stout, foreign stout, imperial stout, American-style imperial stout (the GABF just added this one), milk stout, American stout, sweet stout, oatmeal stout, cream stout...

Are we really supposed to keep a straight face while saying these are all variations on a theme? These are all dark ales. But "stouts"? That's like saying the beers in Germany and eastern Europe are all lagers.
By way of illustrating the differences in the way Brits and Americans look at beer styles, Bryson compares the categories used in the British Industry International Awards (nine) against the styles of the GABF (75). (Even better, the 140 styles identified by the World Beer Cup. 140! You've got to distinguish, after all, between "American-Style Lager" and "American-Style Premium Lager.")

Bryson chalks it up to the differences in culture, but I don't think that's it. For one thing, aren't Brits maniacs about categorizing things? And aren't Americans democratic and protestant and above careful parsing, culturally, anyway?

Style fascination doesn't arise from our collective psychology, but reflects our convert's fascination with beer. American brewing is really only 30 years old. Before microbrewers re-energized the ancient art, it was a wholly commercial enterprise and the differences between beers had to do with advertising. Forced to parse between Hamm's and Blitz for generations (the great debate was "tastes great--less filling!"), there was something liberating about knowing that stouts even existed. Never mind that there were 27 styles of stouts. What bliss!

Americans have gotten a little too excited, perhaps. Once it becomes old hat--after 100 GABFs, say--we'll ratchet back on the styles. But culturally, we're still learning about beer, and that means sifting through every detail. So for now we're stuck with trying to learn the subtleties that distinguish a strong ale from a double IPA. It'll pass.