THE PLUS-MINUS RATING SYSTEM

The McHops clan vacationed in my ancestral homeland of Massachusetts last week to partake in the holy triumvirate of Cape Cod traditions: the beach, lobster rolls, and ice cream. We were joined by Smiley Brown’s brood and, with his usual flair for magnanimity, some incredible bottles from Smiley’s epic beer cellar. As I’ve mentioned in the past, Smiley is one of those rare Aleheads who can afford to build up an incredible beer collection but has little to no time to actually drink any of his wares. So when the opportunity arises to share his spoils with a fellow Alehead, he goes all out.

Smiley’s prestige bombers were accompanied by a case of SoCal beer sent to us from the Czar as well as some big beers brought down by Gramps McHops. All in all, we weren’t exactly hurting for suds. In fact, we only made two package store runs during the entire week which is practically unheard of for a gathering of Aleheads. The last time Slouch and I vacationed together, we basically just set up cots in the closest bottle shop.

Smiley and I recorded some run-of-the-mill tasting notes throughout the week, but since I find standard tasting notes so dull, I decided to do something a little different. In this post, I’m introducing the wholly new concept of the Plus-Minus Beer Rating system. A little background is in order…

My favorite sportswriter is a gentleman named Joe Posnanski. Poz has won numerous awards for his writing and has most recently worked for Sports Illustrated and the Kansas City Star. If you’ve never read his work before, you should check out his archives…even if you’re not a sports fan. He writes about everything in an informal and immediately engaging style. His blog posts are filled with emotion without ever being nasty or negative and he has a way of drawing you into his narrative from the first word…even if  you don’t think you’re remotely interested in the topic at hand.

Anyway, one of the various conceits that Posnanski has developed is the idea of the Movie Plus-Minus Rating system. In a nutshell, he decided that the best way to rate a movie was to compare one’s expectations about said movie to the actual reality of watching it. I’ll give a couple of personal experiences. When I saw Inception, I was expecting a great movie. It had a killer cast, a proven director, and an innovative, high-concept plot. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but it didn’t really exceed my expectations. I was probably expecting a 3.5 star film and that’s what I got. So the “Plus-Minus” for Inception would have been zero stars. Now compare that to Madagascar 3. I went with my 3-year-old expecting the usual, inane kid’s fare. And yes, there were some moments (mostly involving Chris Rock’s yammering zebra) that made me cringe, but overall it was a fun, surreal, and actually quite entertaining movie (I can’t be the only one who was surprised to see Noah Baumbach’s name as a writer in the credits). So I went into it expecting a 1.5 star film and got a 3 star movie instead…giving me a Plus-Minus of 1.5. While Inception was a better film, the “experience” of watching Madagascar 3 was better. The former met my expectations, the latter far exceeded them.*

*Joe Posnanski always uses the example of “Hook” as his ultimate indicator of the utility of the Movie Plus-Minus Rating system. He went to Hook expecting magic. Spielberg. Hoffman. Robin Williams back when he was still considered funny. The can’t-miss story of Peter Pan. It was all there for a masterpiece, and then…the movie kind of sucked. For him, that was a far worse movie experience than going to some cheap-ass horror movie that you already KNOW is going to be terrible.

I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. We’ve got a Four Hop rating scale for beer at Aleheads. In the case of this post, I’m going to put the overall rating AND the expected rating for each beer to see what the Plus-Minus is. So if I had an Imperial Stout that I was expecting to be a no-question, Four Hop beauty, and that’s what it was, it gets a zero in the Plus-Minus scale. But if it’s a Pale Lager that I barely even wanted to pour and it ends up being a great beer, that might be a +1 or even +2 on the Plus-Minus scale. That’s not to say the Imperial Stout isn’t a better beer…just that it’s a wholly different beer drinking experience when you get what you expect versus getting something much better (or worse). So here’s a partial list of beers that Smiley and I tackled during our joint family vacation…with their real ratings, expected ratings, and Plus-Minus ratings. Enjoy!

*************************************

Three Floyds Alpha Kong:

Expected Rating: 3.5 Hops

Actual Rating: 3 Hops

Plus-Minus Rating: -0.5 Hops

Notes: The good folks at Three Floyds rarely have a misstep and the Alpha Kong certainly wasn’t one. Still, there wasn’t much about this solid Belgian Strong Pale Ale that blew Smiley or I away. Granted, it had been aging for quite awhile and perhaps the Kong is a beer best served in a slightly more “fresh” state. Lots of banana and clove notes in the nose and the classic, Belgian funk in the taste that you would expect. It was very good…but not quite the world-beater we were expecting.

Hill Farmstead Arthur:

Expected Rating: 3 Hops

Actual Rating: 3 Hops

Plus-Minus Rating: Zero Hops

Notes: I’m torn on Hill Farmstead. On the one hand, I’ve really enjoyed every beer I’ve had from them. On the other, they seem to benefit from the “homer” on-line grade inflation more than most breweries. Check on-line beer rating sites and Hill Farmstead dominates more well-known competition. That’s not to say they aren’t one of the best American breweries, but I do think that a small Vermont brewery with limited distribution will simply be rated slightly differently than a large-scale craft operation like Lagunitas, New Belgium or Oskar Blues. While I like Hill Farmstead’s beers quite a bit, I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re one of my favorite craft breweries. I was expecting a well-made Saison with the Arthur and that’s exactly what I got. No better or worse than any other good example of the style.

Ballantine Burton

Expected Rating: 3.5 Hops

Actual Rating: 2 Hops

Plus-Minus Rating: -1.5 Hops

Notes: It’s really not fair to rate this beer the same as the others on the list. The Burton was brewed before my parents were born and had been sitting in its bottle since before the Korean War. I had very high expectations for it because of its legend and rarity, but, as is often the case, it didn’t really live up to the hype. It was an interesting beer, no doubt. I mean…how often can you say that you drank a beer more than twice as old as you are? But after so many decades in the barrel, the alcohol had dissipated and the carbonation was long gone. What was left was an oily elixir that tasted like “essence of beer”. It was clearly a beer-like product, but the usual things I associate with beer (fizzy bubbles, hop bitterness, alcohol bite) were all missing. I’m REALLY glad I got a chance to try this brew and I give huge thanks to Smiley for bringing a bottle to the Cape. Despite the negative Plus-Minus, I wouldn’t say either of us were particularly disappointed with it. I think we just had no idea what to expect and probably expected too much. But again, it was a fun experience.

Lightning Electrostatic

Expected Rating: 3 Hops

Actual Rating: 3.5 Hops

Plus-Minus Rating: +0.5 Hops

Notes: After moving to Carlsbad, the Czar “discovered” the Lightning Brewery in Poway, California and has been raving about their offerings for months. Since Lightning doesn’t distribute very far afield, he sent a case to Smiley and I to sample on our trip. The Electrostatic, a Bière de Garde (Lightning calls it an Imperial Saison), was the first we cracked into. It was also my one true screw-up on the vacation (other than that one day I opted not to get a lobster roll…what was I thinking?). You see, after a full day of travel with two little ones (including two flights and a long drive in Cape traffic), I desperately wanted a beer. Smiley had arrived with the bottles in tow just a few minutes before us, so the beer was still warm from a hot, summer car ride. I quickly grabbed the first bottle I saw (the Electrostatic) and tossed it in the freezer (oh come on…like you haven’t done this?). I figured I’d pull it out in 15 minutes with a little chill on it and crack it open. Well, I apparently forgot that we were traveling with four very young children. This meant getting everything unpacked immediately, making “potty trips” and diaper changes, figuring out where everyone was sleeping, and busting out the various toys, books, and games to keep them entertained. By the time I remembered my freezer beer, it had been two hours and the Electrostatic had transformed into something of a Bière de Slushee. And you know what? It was still delicious. After a long, hot day of travel, a half-frozen Saison margarita was just the thing I needed. Sure, I ruined a perfectly good beer…but it was still damn tasty.

Lightning Amber

Expected Rating: 3 Hops

Actual Rating: 2.5 Hops

Plus-Minus Rating: -0.5 Hops

Notes: Not much to say about the Amber. It may have suffered in comparison to some of the other big beers we brought on the trip. It was fine. Easy-drinking, sessionable…a little bit of hop bite in the back end. I don’t know…I was expecting a bit of a twist on an amber ale and I just got a garden variety offering. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I liked the other Lightning brews better.

Lightning Ionizer

Expected Rating: 1.5 Hops

Actual Rating: 3.5 Hops

Plus-Minus Rating: +2 Hops

Notes: The best Plus-Minus Rating from the trip, the Ionizer is characterized as an American Malt Liquor on BeerAdvocate. That was strike one. Strike two was the word “lager” on the label (hey, we’re Aleheads, dammit!). Strike three was the word “corn” in the ingredients list. Add it up and Smiley and I were expecting a disaster. But the Ionizer was good! Like, really good! We both spent 10 minutes drinking the thing and exclaiming, “Wow! This is so much better than I thought.” As it started to warm up, the appeal wore off a little bit, but there’s still no question that the Ionizer defied all expectations. Perhaps Malt Liquor really CAN be consumed out of something other than a paper bag.

Iron Fist Dubbel Fisted

Expected Rating: 3 Hops

Actual Rating: 3 Hops

Plus-Minus Rating: Zero Hops

Notes: Wifey McHops wanted to get in on the beer action too and she’s a sucker for a Belgian Dubbel. This offering from Iron Fist in Vista, CA was part of the Czar’s care package and it was a good one. Mellow relative to other Dubbels, I didn’t get a lot of big fruit flavors or spice. It actually drinks more like a slightly yeast-forward old ale or quad. Still, pretty tasty and a nice introduction to a brewery I had never heard of before.

Lightning Black Lightning

Expected Rating: 3 Hops

Actual Rating: 2.5 Hops

Plus-Minus Rating: -0.5 Hops

Notes: The Black Lightning had the unfortunate fate of being the final beer on our biggest drinking night of the vacation. After a Black Tuesday, Oude Gueuze, Ballantine Burton, and a variety of high-gravity bombers, the Black Lightning was probably not the best nightcap. I’m sure it’s an absolutely delightful Baltic Porter, and I certainly recall it being fairly tasty. But we probably should have held off on this one until the next day. Whatever…it was good, not great.

Portsmouth Kate the Great

Expected Rating: 4 Hops

Actual Rating: 4 Hops

Plus-Minus Rating: Zero Hops

Notes: Hey, here’s a shocker! I had outrageously high expectations for one of THE prestige Imperial Stouts on Earth…and those expectations were met! Wow! Quelle surprise! Like most Imperial Stouts, it improves wondrously as it warms. The big dark chocolate and coffee flavors need a few extra degrees to really shine. A lighter-than-expected mouthfeel makes this one eminently drinkable and the alcohol is completely incorporated. Smiley claims that the Kate is better on tap than in the bottle and since I have no basis of comparison, I’ll nod to his experience. I wouldn’t put the Kate quite on the level of some of my favorite Imperial Stouts (Cigar City Hunahpu, Deschutes The Abyss, Three Floyds Dark Lord and Founders KBS to name a few), but it’s damn close. And it’s as drinkable as any of the big-name Imperial Stouts (with the possible exception of the aforementioned KBS).

Iron Fist Velvet Glove

Expected Rating: 3 Hops

Actual Rating: 3.5 Hops

Plus-Minus Rating: +0.5 Hops

Notes: Smiley and I both really dug this Imperial Stout from Iron Fist. Not a lot of hop or alcohol bitterness in this one…just malt-forward chocolate sweetness with a hint of coffee in the back. Not as big or bold as other Imperial Stouts, but a nice change of pace and super-drinkable. Another great offering from the Czar.

Czar’s Rye Homebrew

Expected Rating: 2 Hops

Actual Rating: 3.5 Hops

Plus-Minus Rating: +1.5 Hops

Notes: And speaking of the Czar, he sent us a bomber of his own rye beer creation. To put it mildly, we were not expecting much. What we got was a really well-balanced rye pale ale that was as tasty and drinkable as any straight-forward rye beer I’ve had. The Columbus hops gave it just enough bite to cut through the pale malt sweetness and it was extremely refreshing and well-carbonated. The Czar claims that he pissed in the carboy which, considering the claimant, may actually be true. Regardless of whether or not the beer contained any micturition, it was remarkably tasty. Nicely done, Czar.

Russian River Beatification

Expected Rating: 4 Hops

Actual Rating: 4 Hops

Plus-Minus Rating: Zero Hops

Notes: No surprises here…a prestige beer from one of the most highly-lauded brewers in the craft world. And yeah, it was pretty good. The Beatification is an all-Brett Wild Ale aged in oak barrels for 8-15 months and then bottle-conditioned. This particular bottle came from Batch 002 meaning it was brewed back in 2007. The beer was a bright, gold color and almost shockingly tart. There was little of the tell-tale mustiness or mildew that you generally get from Brett beers. Instead, this was a full on, mouth-puckering sour-bomb. Absolutely delicious and ridiculously complex, the Beatification is proof, yet again, that Vinnie Cilurzo is pretty good at this whole brewing thing.

Alesmith Decadence

Expected Rating: 4 Hops

Actual Rating: 2 Hops

Plus-Minus Rating: -2 Hops

Notes: Easily the biggest disappointment from the weekend, this was a 750 of the 2011 Decadence which is described as a Maple Smoked Barleywine. I’ve loved the Decadence in the past and was very curious about last year’s new version. Alesmith might be my favorite brewery in the country and as far as I’m concerned, they can do no wrong. Or so I thought. Because seriously…fuck this beer. It was terrible. A giant, malt-forward barleywine utterly ruined by an overwhelming smoke flavor. There was none of the maple flavor that the name implies to counteract the acrid smokiness. It really just tasted like a vial of liquid smoke poured into an already too cloying old ale. Smiley and I finished the bottle, but we weren’t happy about it. I guess even Superman has his kryptonite…and Alesmith has their Maple Smoked Barleywine.

Lightning Fair Weather Pale Ale

Expected Rating: 2.5 Hops

Actual Rating: 2.5 Hops

Plus-Minus Rating: Zero Hops

Notes: We did the Pale Ale no favors by drinking it as a “warm-up” before we cracked into the Bruery Black Tuesday. After that ridiculous behemoth, the Pale Ale was nothing but a vague memory. From what I recall, we both wanted an easy-drinking, hoppy Pale Ale and that’s what we got. It might have been better than that, but if so, the Black Tuesday erased that thought from my brain.

Bruery Black Tuesday

Expected Rating: 4 Hops

Actual Rating: 4 Hops

Plus-Minus Rating: Zero Hops

Notes: One of those beers that makes you cringe with the first sip (in a good way). At 18.3%, the Black Tuesday is an ass-kicker no matter how you slice it. As viscous, overwhelming, and just plain BIG as any beer I’ve had in my many years as an Alehead. Somehow you get no alcohol in the flavor (but it’s there…as our hangovers the next morning can attest). The booze just can’t escape the black hole of maple syrup, molasses, dark chocolate and roasted malt. It also has a touch of that queer “umami” flavor that seems common amongst vintage Imperial Stouts. This was an outrageously good beer…in my opinion, the best of the weekend. It’s probably best shared amongst four or five folks…Smiley and I splitting a 750 wasn’t the wisest decision we made (it would have been fine by itself, but paired with the other 7 or 8 beers we had that night, it did not go well). If you ever have a chance to experience this beer, don’t miss it. It’s that special.

Cadillac Mountain Stout

Expected Rating: 4 Hops

Actual Rating: 4 Hops

Plus-Minus Rating: Zero Hops

Notes: My last experience with the Cadillac Mountain Stout was with Doc some time last year. I remember thinking then, “Hey, this is one of the best Irish Stouts I’ve ever had!” That same opinion jumped from my lips this time around, so I finally bothered to check the on-line ratings. And lo and behold, it’s the highest-rated Dry Irish Stout on BeerAdvocate. This is the kind of beer you keep in your fridge year-round for any occasion. Balanced, delicious, easy-drinkin’, and much lighter than it looks. Love this beer.

Paper City Hop Monster

Expected Rating: 3 Hops

Actual Rating: 2.5 Hops

Plus-Minus Rating: -0.5 Hops

Notes: Meh. I’ve had this beer before and wasn’t crazy about it then, but figured with a name like Hop Monster, I’d give it another shot. The name makes it sound like a DIPA, but it drinks more like a Belgian Strong Pale Ale. Too much yeast funk and fruit interfere with the big hop profile and create a muddled beer that isn’t terribly drinkable. The attempt to marry two potent styles does this beer no favors and neither Smiley nor I were particularly enamored with it. Not terrible by any means, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Drei Fonteinen Oude Gueuze Vintage 2007

Expected Rating: 3.5 Hops

Actual Rating: 4 Hops

Plus-Minus Rating: +0.5 Hops

Notes: I suspect that Smiley would rate this as his favorite brew from the trip and if it weren’t for the Black Tuesday, I’d be hard-pressed to argue. Legendary Belgian brewery Drei Fonteinen is most well-known for their mastery of the Gueuze style…and the Oude Gueuze Vintage is probably their masterpiece.*

*We don’t talk about the Gueuze style often enough at Aleheads. It’s essentially a blend of old and new lambics (which are traditional, tart, light-bodied, spontaneously fermented Belgian ales) which is bottle-conditioned for at least 2 years. The conditioning accentuates the tartness and rounds out the flavors from the different lambic vintages giving a well-made Gueuze an intense, dry, sour flavor. With all due respect to Miller High Life, Gueuze is truly the champagne of beers.

The 2007 Oude Gueuze was wickedly tart but balanced incredibly well by intense Belgian “funk” and a pronounced, dry, citrus flavor. As complex and rewarding as any beer you’ll ever taste, the flavors and aromas changed from sip to sip…particularly as it warmed. With crazy carbonation, reasonably low ABV and a highly effervescent mouthfeel, this beauty was the kind of beer you had to be very careful to savor…otherwise it will disappear far too fast. Which it did, of course.

Dogfish Head 75-Minute IPA

Expected Rating: 3 Hops

Actual Rating: 3.5 Hops

Plus-Minus Rating: +0.5 Hops

Notes: Less ubiquitous than the popular 60-Minute IPA and 90-Minute DIPA, the 75-Minute blends those two brews and then bottle-conditions the resultant mix with a maple syrup addition. I actually like this a bit more than the 60-Minute and quite a bit more than the 90. It’s fuller-bodied and more complex than the former and less harsh than the latter. Plenty of hops in the nose, but they don’t overwhelm the malt backbone in the taste. I don’t get much in the way of maple syrup, but I suspect its presence is felt in the sweeter-than-your-usual-IPA finish. Huge carbonation makes this one light and fluffy on the tongue and gives the 75-Minute very high drinkability.

***************************************

Smiley and I also crushed more than a few bottles of Mayflower Rye, Troeg’s Hopback Amber, Great Divide Hercules, Great Divide Chocolate Oak-Aged Yeti, Southern Tier Hoppe, Bear Republic Red Rocket, Otter Creek Black IPA and much more. I didn’t bother with the Plus-Minus Ratings on those because I figured the chances of anyone even reading THIS far down were pretty slim. Might as well quit while I’m behind.

What about you Alehead Nation? How do you feel about the Plus-Minus Rating system? What have been your best and/or worst beer experiences based on this system? We’d love to hear them!

About these ads

4 comments

  1. Yikes. Quite the embarrassment of riches. Sounds like a great vacation.

    Speaking of high end corn-based beer, I enjoyed the Bruery Cornballer at a tap takeover. Here’s to the growing trend of craft malt liquor!

  2. Unbelievable lineup. I am afraid I can’t identify at all with these people you refer to who have cellars like this but have “no time” to drink the beers. Perhaps this is why I have no cellar.

    That and the lack of money.

    I saw something on reddit today about barrel-aged Decadence selling out in eight minutes, but it doesn’t sound like it would help the beer you describe very much.

  3. I’m liking the plus-minus system, particularly because I like to try so many different styles as well as any local brew I can get my hands on. Keeps everyone on an even playing field, even if they’re not brewing a once-a-year Imperial Stout or insanely hopped Double IPA.

  4. [...] time around (find me a Three Floyds beer that isn’t), it suffered on the relativity-based plus-minus system for beer rating that Brother Barley recently [...]

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,851 other followers

%d bloggers like this: