EXTREMOPHILES

Ratebeer's Top Ten brews of 2011.

The problem is that the crowds doing the ratings [on RateBeer] are dominated by geeks who think having their taste buds smashed in by a baseball bat of a beer is evidence that this is the greatest beer in the world, whereas people with a more normal view of what beer ought to be are too busy leading meaningful lives, rather than spending all their time opening beers with one hand and writing up tasting notes with the other.

-Martyn Cornell

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I have written about my enjoyment of and frustration with Martyn Cornell on these pages before. He is one of the pre-eminent beer historians and beer writers in the UK. But he’s also a complete crank who takes offense with anyone who doesn’t share his exact beliefs regarding the fermented arts. In a recent All Beers Considered, Slouch Sixpack and I compared Mr. Cornell to Dan Shaughnessy, the famously pugnacious Boston Globe columnist who seems to exist solely for the purpose of making his readers angry. The above quote, from the Comments section of a recent Martyn Cornell post about the dangers of “extremophiles” in the beer world, reads like a classic Shaughnessy diatribe against the baseball “stat geeks” who sit in their basements and crunch numbers instead of enjoying the beauty and simplicity of the game.

When you have a moment, read the post that Cornell’s above comment was attached to. It’s understandable why some people would be so riled up about it. In a nutshell, Cornell is vilifying the contributors to RateBeer’s Top 100 Beers list. Of course, any “Top [Fill-in-the-blank]” list is going to get people fired up…that’s just what they do. But Cornell takes it one step further. It’s not just that he disagrees with the selections (though he does), it’s that he has a fundamental issue with the people making these lists.

Cornell’s concern is that the world of beer is being taken over by what he dubs “extremophiles”. Essentially, these are “beer geeks” or “beer snobs” who worship at the altar of massive hop profiles, huge ABVs, barrel-aging, and rarity. While Cornell writes about his concerns in his typically artless fashion*, I do think he makes some arguments that appear compelling on the surface.

*For an example of a Cornellian straw-man argument, look at the part of his post where he subtly compares Egyptian extremists with beer “extremophiles”. He worries about the “deeply dangerous implications” of the RateBeer reviewers’ “obsession with the extremities of beer”. Really, Martyn? Deeply dangerous implications? Comparisons with the craziness in Cairo? It’s just beer. You’re acting like a Fox News pundit.

I decided to try to approach his post as subjectively as I could so I’m looking at each of his concerns to determine how valid they are. While the original post was entirely Mr. Cornell’s opinion, this response is entirely mine. So while you should clearly take his arguments with a grain of salt, you should take mine with a frickin’ boulder of sodium chloride.

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POINT 1: “Nobody in the real world cares what a bunch of loopy extremophiles drinks or thinks.”

With the above statement, Cornell immediately reveals his true colors in this argument. He obviously has a very low opinion of the folks who post reviews and ratings on sites like RateBeer and BeerAdvocate. I have a lot of problems with this statement. First, the “real world” phrase is the kind of word choice that angry, bitter folks use when they disagree with someone who is passionate about a particular topic. You love arthouse films? You love abstract sculpture? You love atmospheric video games? Well no one in the “real world” cares about that shit so clearly you’re a weird, “loopy” outlier.

The second concern I have with his opening argument is that A LOT of people care about the reviews and lists on RateBeer. It’s one of the most popular beer reference websites out there and you’ll see their ratings listed in newspapers, in magazines, and even on package store shelves. But more importantly, I would assume that Martyn Cornell considers himself part of the “real world” and yet it is obvious that he, at least, really DOES care about what the RateBeer folks have to say. He can call them loopy extremophiles all he wants, but he’s clearly paying attention to the website and commenting on it. And if nobody cares about it, why was his article about the RateBeer list one of his most visited posts ever?*

*He notes in his Comments section that he’s received thousands of hits on this one post in just a few days.

I don’t think the RateBeer reviewers are loopy extremophiles (though I’m sure there are a few). I think they’re mostly thoughtful beer drinkers that perhaps have skewed tastes towards stronger, bolder beers (like pretty much all the Aleheads). But more relevant to Martyn Cornell’s above point, I think that both “beer geeks” and “beer novices” enjoy reading sites like RateBeer and BeerAdvocate. It’s one thing to disagree with their ratings, but to entirely dismiss the RateBeer contributors (who review beer for one of the most visited beer sites in the world) is just ridiculous.

POINT 2: A “world’s top beers” in which seven out of the top 10 are imperial stouts? You are having a laugh.

I joked in my Goose Island Bourbon County Stout tasting note that the reason Imperial stouts were rated higher than other beer styles is because they’re just better. I was kidding, of course, but I think Cornell actually makes a very valid point here. Whenever you see these “Top Beer” lists, they’re always utterly dominated by Imperial/Double stouts and Imperial/Double IPAs. Considering the amazing depth and breadth of the beer world (which is one of the reasons we all love beer so much), it does seem a bit odd that 7 of the top 10 beers are Imperial stouts. Cornell goes on to note that the word “Imperial” appears 39 times in the list of the Top 50 beers.

Are Imperial stouts actually “better” than all of the other styles? Of course not. That’s a completely subjective opinion. If your favorite style is Pilsner, then the RateBeer list probably looks insane. Cornell is right to question a list that puts a small number of  styles on a pedestal at the expense of everything else. It makes the beer world look “smaller” than it is and doesn’t speak to the staggering variety of brews out there.

On the flipside, I DO understand why Imperial brews top these lists. Personally, I love Imperial beers. I like challenging, big, bold flavors. I like huge hop profiles and complex malt backbones. But even ignoring my personal tastes, it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that the biggest beers sit atop the leaderboards. Imperial stouts are hard to make and expensive. They require a lot of pricey ingredients, careful brewing, and long aging. If a batch of your pale ale that is ready to ship a few weeks after brewing goes bad, you’re only behind schedule by so much. But if your barrel-aged Russian Imperial stout that’s been sitting in casks for a year gets infected with Brett yeast, you’re in deep trouble. Beer enthusiasts understand the trials of brewing such big beers. They know they’re more expensive and time-consuming to produce and are more a labor of love for the brewer than something that will sell pint after pint at the local taphouse. Because of this knowledge, such beers tend to receive higher marks than the flagship ambers and pale ales.

So while I agree with Mr. Cornell that the dominance of one style on these Top Beer lists is highly problematic, I also think it’s highly understandable.

POINT 3: Because the first problem is that more normal drinkers, if they see that list, are going to look at it and get an utterly distorted and entirely false idea of what really great beer is all about.

I think this point is rubbish. What’s a “normal drinker”? Is it the guy who pounds a case of Bud Light over the weekend with his buddies? Is it the elderly pub-goer who has stuck by his favorite session bitter for decades and drinks four or five pints every night? Is it the girl who heads to her local taphouse and samples a variety of different styles to help refine her personal tastes? Or is it the guy who travels to breweries and brewpubs looking for obscure one-offs and barrel-aged brews that you can only get at the source?

Perhaps I’m being too sensitive, but I take some offense to the idea of the “normal drinker”. The implication is that such people eschew “extreme” beers and stick with low-ABV session brews. That’s like saying that people who only eat meat and potatoes are “normal eaters” or that people that only watch big-budget blockbusters are “normal theater-goers”. The idea that someone who truly loves Imperial stouts is an abnormal beer freak smacks of Cornell’s earlier “real world” point. He’s trying to paint the RateBeer folks as obsessive, ill-informed outsiders who are at odds with “the people”. Anyone can join and review beers on RateBeer. Like BeerAdvocate, it’s a truly populist site. The reviewers represent the entire spectrum of the beer-drinking world. If their opinions skew towards “bigger” beers, well…just re-read my response to Point 2.

More importantly, I don’t see how these kinds of lists would give anyone a distorted view of “what really great beer is all about”. Unless you’re impossibly stupid, you understand that lists such as these are entirely subjective. When you read a list of the Top 100 Songs or Top 100 Movies or Top 100 Athletes, do you honestly think they’re 100% accurate? Of course not! They’re just lists made up by a flawed, objective individual or a flawed, objective group of people. Lists are conversation STARTERS…not enders. I’ve read hundreds of “Top Beer” lists on-line and they’re all entirely different. While I put some stock into the lists on RateBeer and BeerAdvocate (because, for the most part, their reviewers are quite thoughtful), I have never considered them the final word on the world’s best beers. I can’t imagine that anyone sees them this way…except perhaps Martyn Cornell’s fictional legion of “normal drinkers”.

POINT 4: It will also encourage journalists who no know [sic] better to frame beer enthusiasts as people totally out of touch with the “normal” beer drinker, and only interested in beers with 100 IBUs and abvs of 10 per cent or more.

Umm…you mean journalists like you, Martyn? As far as I can tell, you’re the only one who’s painting a picture of beer enthusiasts as extremophiles. I’ve read many, MANY recent articles in respected publications like the New York Times and Washington Post about beer and beer drinkers. And the beer-lovers in those pieces generally come off as rational, astute folks who appreciate all aspects of beer culture…not as obsessive, “loopy” extremophiles who only care about massive IBUs and ABVs. If journalists HAVE framed beer enthusiasts in the way that Cornell fears, I’ve never seen it (other than in his posts, of course).

POINT 5: This sort of utterly distorted listing encourages brewers to concentrate on “extreme” beers, with more hops, more numbing flavour, more strength, to try to impress the blinkered tasters that seem to form the majority of RateBeer members, to the detriment of those of us who want nuance, subtlety and depth in our beers.

Mr. Cornell notes that this last point is perhaps the “worst problem” with RateBeer’s focus on extreme beers. If it was grounded in reality, I would concur with him 100%. I may love big, bold beers, but I still mostly drink lower-strength, easy-drinking brews (hey, I must be a normal drinker, after all!). It would be a shame if breweries stopped making such beers and only made crazily-hopped, 15%-ABV beers so that they could dominate RateBeer’s lists.

Of course, that concern is utter horseshit. Brewers are businessmen first and foremost. They would NEVER destroy their bottom line by only shooting for the moon with every beer they produce. Take a look at the flagships of practically every brewer in the US and you’ll see a list dominated by pale ales, ambers, reds, and browns. Brewers know what they have to produce in order to pay their leases, make payroll, and keep the lights on. Any brewmaster dumb enough to focus exclusively on “extreme” beers would be out of business in a month.

That said, I think brewers these days ARE putting a fair amount of time and money into making “extreme”, high-octane beers. But I think that makes perfect sense. First of all, brewers are craftsmen…artisans if you will. Like any artisan, they want to show what they’re capable of. And what better way of doing so than by tackling more challenging, difficult-to-make beers? When I learned to play guitar, I wasn’t happy just learning simple chord progressions. I wanted to learn Hendrix and Clapton riffs. Sticking with the basics is boring…it’s fun to test your mettle (Note: I never really mastered those riffs…for I am a terrible guitarist).

But I also think there’s a grain of truth to Cornell’s last point in that I imagine some brewers take on the production of extreme beers PRECISELY so that they can find a place on these Top Beer lists. But what’s wrong with that? If you’re a new brewery, what better way to make a name for yourself than by cranking out a delicious, bourbon barrel-aged Imperial stout and watching it rocket to the top of RateBeer or BeerAdvocate’s Top Beer lists? Most of your focus may still be on making a perfect flagship pale ale, but that Imperial stout you spent a little time and money perfecting just got you a ton of free marketing and publicity. And now the tens of thousands of people that read those Top Beer lists will recognize your brewery’s name and maybe they’ll grab a sixer of that pale ale the next time they hit up a package store. It’s a win-win for everyone.

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You may disagree with my arguments entirely and think that Martyn Cornell is dead on. That’s your opinion and you are, of course, entitled to it. But I think the biggest issue here is that Mr. Cornell apparently does NOT think that people whose opinions differ from his are entitled to theirs. That bothers me.

As I’ve said before, I will continue reading his posts (just as I continue to read Dan Shaughnessy’s sports columns no matter how infuriating they are). He’s a better writer, researcher, and blogger than me and he’s forgotten more about beer than I’ll ever know.

Mr. Cornell may think that lists like RateBeer’s Top 100 have “deeply dangerous implications”, but I think they’re just fun exercises that make for interesting conversation. I don’t put any more stock into them than any other on-line “Best Of” list. I just assumed that everyone felt that way, but apparently I was wrong. So here’s my advice to Mr. Cornell…lighten up. Everything is not a personal attack on your point of view. The beer world is big enough for an infinite variety of opinions. You may disagree with many…even MOST of them…but that doesn’t make them wrong. It just means they’re different than yours. And from where I’m standing, I think that’s a good thing.

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13 comments

  1. Shaugnessy actually wanted Patriot fans to root for the Jets against the Steelers,.

  2. Thank you for blessing my rantings with an analysis, though I’d have preferred it if you had analysed what I actually said, rather than what you thought I said. Like too many people, you seem to believe I don’t like extreme beers. I love them. But that love is a long way short of believing that extreme beers are the only beers worth drinking, which is the impression the Ratebeer “top beers” list gives.

    Much of your response is predicated upon misrepresenting what I said. “he’s … a complete crank who takes offense with anyone who doesn’t share his exact beliefs regarding the fermented arts.” No I don’t. I have no problem with people who like different beers to me. I do object, though, when a completely one-sided list of beers is held up as “the best in the world”. “He obviously has a very low opinion of the folks who post reviews and ratings on sites like RateBeer and BeerAdvocate.” I think an alarming percentage of them, in my experience, are what we call in Britain “anoraks”, yes. And I don’t think they represent anyone but themselves. The idea that someone who truly loves Imperial stouts is an abnormal beer freak smacks of Cornell’s earlier “real world” point. He’s trying to paint the RateBeer folks as obsessive, ill-informed outsiders who are at odds with “the people”. I don’t think someone who loves Imperial stouts is abnormal, since I love them myself. I think someone who ONLY loves Imperial stouts, and/or DIPAs, is missing the point of beer – and while I’m sure the people who voted all those Imperial stouts into top slots also enjoy other types of beer, my whole point is, the rankings end up giving an entirely distorted and one-sided view of the wonders of beer. They push the idea that only extreme beers matter. Which is bad – very bad. “Cornell’s concern is that the world of beer is being taken over by what he dubs ‘extremophiles'”. No, my concern is that by making so much of the extremes of beer, a totally wrong idea of the drink is being promoted. Extreme beers are great – but not to the exclusion of everything else. “For an example of a Cornellian straw-man argument, look at the part of his post where he subtly compares Egyptian extremists with beer “extremophiles”. He worries about the “deeply dangerous implications” of the RateBeer reviewers’ “obsession with the extremities of beer”. Really, Martyn? Deeply dangerous implications? Comparisons with the craziness in Cairo? Now you really are distorting my words, and finding things that aren’t there. Yes, the situation in Egypt is far more serious than worrying about the beer choices of a gang of anoraks. That’s precisely what I was saying. And I certainly wasn’t “subtly compar[ing] Egyptian extremists with beer ‘extremophiles'” – how do you extract that from my words?

    Ultimately I’m interested in pushing beer and a beautiful, fulfilling, pleasurable drink. Extreme beers, I’m sure we agree, have a part to play in that. But as the old Australian joke about New Zealand goes – not for the whole weekend.

  3. I think someone who ONLY loves Imperial stouts, and/or DIPAs, is missing the point of beer

    This unicorn of a beer drinker is about as common as your “normal beer drinker”. You paint this picture of a bunch of beer fans, drinking nothing but rare one off beers, clogging up the list, scaring beer drinkers into buying $20 bottles of beer and then souring them to beer forever.

    This despite mountains of evidence that most every brewer who makes these beers is selling significantly more “normal” beer, that the person who ONLY likes these beers doesn’t really exist, and the fact that plenty of “normal” beers have perfectly high ratings from these same people who ONLY drink big IRS’s.

    I read through the original post and most of the comments thread, and it amounts to a bunch of grumbling that top XXX beer lists don’t reflect so and so’s tastes, so they hate the lists.

    Martyn has the luxury of ignoring most every valid point made against his silly argument on his site, and either not responding at all or picking out a single sentence to reply to out of several paragraphs. Good times.

    a complete crank who takes offense with anyone who doesn’t share his exact beliefs regarding the fermented arts

    Agreed 100%.

  4. “I think someone who ONLY loves Imperial stouts, and/or DIPAs, is missing the point of beer”

    Exactly, what about creating the Imperial Barleywine Slouch and I were talking about on the last maltercation? That should be the point of beer.

    Also, does anyone think and Imperial IPA is a bit of a mis-nomer? I want a Colonial IPA. Something so strong it will beat your taste buds into indentured servitude and make them cry “taxation without representation!”

    Sorry, the talk of the middle east got me in a serious mood.

  5. Cornell and McHops actually seem to agree on a whole host of principles:

    1. “Best Beers” lists are subjective and only representative of the people whose opinions were taken into account in making the list. (This should be obvious anyway. To say the least, these are not scientific studies. If you polled the entire populace of the US, it would probably be a dead heat between Miller Lite and Guinness.)

    2. A top-10 beers list containing 7 imperial stouts, though understandable in McHops’ view, is not a reliable indication of the actual 10 best beers in the world.

    3. Cornell does not think highly of the reviewers and raters on Rate Beer or BeerAdvocate… at least not the “alarming percentage of them” who are something called “anoraks.” I know, you guys in the UK don’t get our slang either, it’s OK.

    4. Very few of us, Slouch Sixpack excepted, drink exclusively “extreme” beers such as imperial stouts and DIPAs.

    5. There is not much danger in brewers abandoning their non-extreme beers to focus on extreme beers, since the majority of their profits come from the non-extreme beers.

    6. McHops took Cornell’s words out of context to some extent. (McHops hasn’t said so, though I suspect he’d concede the point.)

    7. Cornell likes to rant.

    8. McHops likes to rant. (OK, I’m projecting here.)

    So it’s resolved. Let’s have a pint. This is all making my head hurt, and my head was already hurting.

  6. You can argue that we’ve both cherry-picked our rebuttals to a degree (and, as is often the case with on-line debates, I’m sure that’s true).

    Ultimately, my issue with Mr. Cornell’s post is that he claims that the RateBeer list has “deeply dangerous implications”, yet he provides no evidence to back this up other than his own theories as to what said implications will be. Whether he thinks the RateBeer list is an accurate representation of the “Best Beers” in the world is immaterial. I simply think it’s muckracking at its worst to claim that the RateBeer folks who submitted the reviews that make up that list are “loopy extremophiles” who are somehow causing harm to the beer world. This, to me at least, smacks of Fox News-esque speculation.

    Now, admittedly, blogs aren’t generally considered “real” journalism. But Mr. Cornell is a highly respected voice in the beer industry and I wanted to call him on what I felt was a very dubious article. If I took his words out of context, it was not intentional, and I stand by my key points.

  7. […] next day,  I wrote a somewhat inflammatory rebuttal to a post written by Martyn Cornell, the esteemed British Beer writer. He was very kind to take a few minutes […]

  8. “I am flummoxed that you have portrayed us as crazed obsessives. Perhaps this outraged manifesto will change your mind.”

    Hi, Barley!

  9. We’re all crazed obsessives in some way, Jaydles.

    I have my beer. You have your squirrel porn. To each his own.

  10. […] extremophiles are a danger to us all” — both the comments on his blog and posts (such as this one) it inspired — but I didn’t have anything to […]

  11. […] been much discussion among Aleheads recently regarding the merits of extreme beers that dominate the best beer lists on BeerAdvocate and RateBeer. Like it or not, the easiest way to […]

  12. […] recent debate about “Extremophiles” spurred by a Martyn Cornell blog post got me thinking about beer ratings. Cornell rightly […]

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