I mean…seriously. Does anyone “really” get anything out of reading another person’s breathless description of their own, private, personal sensory experiences regarding a beer? If someone tells me that an IPA is “hop-forward” with a good “malt backbone” and a “medium body”, have I really learned anything? Doesn’t it just skew my perception? Aren’t I better off tasting a beer with no preconceived notions other than my own experiences with beer (and, perhaps, some limited information like what style it is and what the ABV is)?
Now let’s be honest, if I’m slinging stones at the institution of “tasting note writing”, one of the first glass houses to be shattered is Aleheads.com. Roughly half of our posts are some variation of a tasting note. There are plenty of good reasons for that:
- Like most beer blogs, ours was initially founded as a way to catalog our own, personal beer-drinking experiences. That meant writing about the beers we were drinking. And since we wanted a somewhat structured way of doing so, we started using the “industry standard” tasting note format.
- Tasting notes are easy. Podcasts take time to record and edit. Essays require at least a minimal amount of time to research. Travelogues demand that the author actually, you know, travel. But tasting notes? Please. I can crank one out in 2 minutes. Last summer, when we hit the inevitable hot weather doldrums (which we are currently in again, in case you couldn’t tell by our appalling lack of content), I tackled the Summer of Tasting Notes. 94 tasting notes in a row…one a day from the Summer Solstice to the Fall Equinox. It was dull. It was tedious. But ultimately, it allowed us to put up new content every day during a time of year when none of us were feeling particularly inspired. I asked the crew about duplicating that effort again this year…there was some interest in the endeavor, but then it got really hot…and I got sleepy…and I had a couple beers…and where was I again? So yeah…it didn’t happen. Probably for the best.
- While they may be our least interesting posts, tasting notes DO drive traffic. See, no one is going to do a Google search for “How useful are tasting notes?”. But they WILL search for “Sam Adams East-West Kölsch“. And then Doc’s last post will pop up and perhaps the searcher will admire his writing and start clicking around our site. I’d like to think we gain at least a small number of loyal readers from people searching for a specific tasting note. So in that sense, they’re important to us and we’ll keep writing them.
But that gets us back to my initial query? From a qualitative perspective, do tasting notes have any real utility? Seek out a popular brew on Beer Advocate (say one with over 1,000 ratings) and you’ll see tasting notes that vary wildly. Sure, the reviews for an Imperial IPA may all have the word “hoppy” in them, but otherwise they’ll be all over the map. We ALL have different noses and tongues (unless you’re one of the rare, tongue-conjoined twins which, frankly, must really suck). More importantly, we all taste our beers with the weight of a wholly unique set of experiences (or “brew baggage” if you will). My preferences, history with beer, and frame of mind at that moment will vary tremendously from yours. Not to mention whether I drank said beer on tap, from a bottle, from a cask, in a bar, at my house, with friends, by myself, etc. etc. ad infinitum. If all tasting notes were conducted by perfectly identical genetic clones who had all of their previous experiences wiped from their memory by a Men in Black-type mind-eraser, we STILL wouldn’t achieve truly objective tasting notes because I just made up all of those things.
My point is that tasting notes are flawed, problematic, and for me at least, very unsatisfying. I don’t particularly enjoy reading them OR writing them. At this stage, I really only write them to keep track of the beers I’ve consumed and to get a quick post on our site if content is lacking. I rarely read tasting notes on Beer Advocate and Rate Beer anymore. I mostly just use those sites to see the overall grade of a beer and honestly, I put so little stock in those these days, that I’m not even sure why I bother.
So I’m asking Alehead Nation…do you read tasting notes? Do you like tasting notes? Do you get anything out of them? These are “big” questions in the world of beer-blogging since roughly 99% of beer blogs are made up primarily of posts detailing the author’s experience consuming a particular beer. I suspect that’s why most people even get into beer blogging in the first place…to write about the beers they’re drinking (that’s certainly why I did). Perhaps I’m just burned out from writing so many of my own. Or perhaps now that I’ve spent so much time cruising the Intertubes for other beer blogs and discovered a veritable tidal wave of tasting notes, I’ve been drowned by the repetition and tedium inherent in the medium.
Perhaps there’s no right answer to the question. Like two people describing a specific beer, perhaps your answer will differ from mine. Nevertheless, I’m curious….honestly curious.
How useful are tasting notes?