THE DUBIOUS UTILITY OF TASTING NOTES

How useful are tasting notes?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?

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17 comments

  1. SBBEER · · Reply

    I look at them, not always but I do. It’s interesting to see what other people have picked up and then to go back and see if I agree or disagree. Can’t say a review has ever really influenced me to purchase or not purchase a beer though.

  2. Sickpuppy and I were having this conversation recently because him and I have 2 different palates. We make it a point to tell people to form their own opinion and that what you experience is never wrong. There are enough beer snob bitches that bash people for not having the same experience. I rarely read RB or BA because I don’t need 1687264872442432 reviews telling me the same thing and most are ppl rewording others to boost their stats. Beers I think are an “A” could be a “C” to others. We have a fan who is 100% BJCP standards and if the beer he drinks doesn’t meet every specification he hates it. Not because he doesn’t personally enjoy it but because in his head a group dictating takes higher priority.

    Craft beer is meant to be enjoyed however you like but Butternuts should still die a miserable death 🙂

  3. I think they have their place but should be treated as a guide rather than “this is what this beer should taste like”. I rarely use them before or during drinking the beer, but have done either afterwards or more often than not beforehand when looking to try something new or recommended.

    In stark contrast to this, I had an experience a few days ago that went completely against that grain and wrote a post on my own blog about it. Basically in short I was reading a review of a special old ale, when I was told about an audio review by another person on Twitter. By the time I had finished the beer, I had several people chatting away about the beer, including both the brewers, retailers and potential new customers. Very different but nonetheless enjoyable;

    http://wp.me/p1mN8x-lg

    Cheers
    Phil
    @filrd
    http://beersay.wordpress.com/

  4. At least we can all agree on Butternuts, Spoon.

    I still love Beer Advocate as a resource, but I’m continuously amazed at how much stock people put into their Ratings. I prefer it more as a reference site to discover new, local breweries when I’m traveling. And it’s the ideal resource to find new beers from breweries I already like. For instance, if I love Port Wipeout, I can just sort their beers on BA and see if they make any other IPAs for me to try.

    Perhaps my biggest problem with tasting notes is that even idiots like me can write and publish them.

  5. idiots like me have a podcast and beer column 🙂

    I think both RB/BA are great resources but I’d never take as gospel. I like the food pairings and the glassware suggestions. When i travel i use the city guides to see where I should check out. Wish BA would have an app because their site sucks on my droid X. I have the RB one and its alright.

  6. Yes, but your Podcast is actually good. Ours mostly consist of Slouch slurring and me yammering incoherently.

    Beer Advocate is in DIRE need of a site update. It’s been the same format for as long as I can remember (which, to be fair, isn’t very long…thanks, beer!).

  7. I put little stock at all into the merits of tasting notes, especially the descriptors, but I do enjoy them nonetheless. I’m a big analogy guy so as long as a note says something akin to “If you’re a fan of big, cirtrussy West-Coast hop-bombs like the Hop Stoopid, you’ll probably enjoy X IPA”. Or, “It tastes like a bag of assholes, so best to avoid”. Those things are helpful to me.

  8. robert berkoff · · Reply

    at one time I did read tasting notes…..By the time I actually purchased the beer, I had preconceived ideas of what the beer tasted like….Most of the time those ideas and mine were not the same…Now I mostly read tasting notes as a comparison on beers I had tasted to see how other judge the beer….on the other hand, I have never tasted a Bells beer. I know one day they will make it to California. If they do, I only have my preconceived ideas of what I should buy…..I am sure I will work it out when that day comes…….

  9. This is the mystery of beer blogging; everyone writes tasting notes, but no one wants to read tasting notes. I wouldn’t expect either to change anytime soon.

  10. Kid Carboy Jr. · · Reply

    I go into tasting notes really only curious of “did they like the beer or not”? That’s the main thing I take away–was it good, bad, or mediocre?

    I also like comparisons. Comparing one beer to a few other beers is something that actually helps me describe a flavor or picture what something will taste like better than description of the flavor itself.

  11. LadyJay · · Reply

    I pretty much only read tasting notes for one of two reasons:

    1. Herr Hordeum can’t make a decision at the beer store, and the only way we’re getting out in under an hour is if I look up BA ratings on my phone.

    2. There’s a hook (e.g. Barley’s Tolkeinian note on Dark Lord: https://aleheads.com/2011/01/15/the-dark-lord/#more-7046).

    As with movies, I’m much more of a fan of uninformed risk taking in beer selection. Sure, sometimes you’ll end up not even able to finish the grape-soda-adjacent Singing Detective, but other times you’ll end up savoring the hoppy zest of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang again and again and again.

  12. I mostly use RB/BA for finding beers for the store. That’s how I managed to pester Mad River & Santa Fe brewing until they got into my state. I find that with those people that use rating sites, if a beer has a poor rating, even though it doesn’t have hardly any reviews, it turns into a slow seller. It is irritating, cuz I look at beer like an adventure- drink it, damn the reviews, & see if you like it.

    I find Untappd http://untappd.com/ more useful in finding beers that I like, either based on the ones I’ve already had, by my friends choices, or just lurking in the Pub section.

  13. BA/RB are great resources, but I only rarely ever read the tasting notes. The only thing they’re useful for is if I’m trying to identify a flavor in a beer and can’t think of it… and even then, I feel like half the folks there are making stuff up.

    However, beer blogs are another story. It’s dependent on the blog having a big number of reviews though. I treat it sorta like a movie reviewer. When I have a beer, I immediately write down my first impressions, then I will often go around and check some other folks I regularly read to see what they though. Yes, I often differ considerably from these folks, but it’s a consistent difference (this is a big problem with BA/RB for me – I can never build up a relationship with one specific reviewer there) and there are sometimes interesting tidbits I wasn’t aware of when first tasting, which is a good thing. This is all happening after the fact, though, so a new tasting note is often met with a “meh” until I actually end up having that beer.

    As for my own beer writing, I think you hit the nail on the head about folks starting blogs just so they can keep track of what they’re drinking. I also find that writing about beer forces me to learn more about beer and also helps me articulate things better. In that sense, writing tasting notes is probably more useful to me than it is for my readers. I do try to provide some additional context in my reviews though, whether that be notes on the history or style of the beer, or any other interesting components of the beer. Sometimes I think I’m mildly successful at that. And sometimes… not so much. But again, I’ve found that I’ve learned a ton because of writing my blog, which I think is useful enough for me…

    Incidentally, the tasting note of the Weyerbacher 16 has made me want to go out and get it, so there’s that too.

  14. Mark, I think that’s probably the most logical response. Tasting notes really DO seem to be more for the author than the audience. It’s a way for you to connect with your beer in a deeper way since writing the note forces you to think about more than just “do I like this?”. It requires you to think about why you do (or do not) enjoy a beer and what aspects appeal to you.

    The problem, as you noted, is that reference sites like BA and RB compile thousands upon thousands of tasting notes and they become mind-numbingly dull after awhile. Beer may be infinitely complex in theory, but in practice, there are only so many ways you can describe fermented sugar water flavored with hops.

    I also like what you said about having a connection with the author. If Doc or the Baron write a glowing tasting note about a beer, I’ll read it eagerly because I know them and trust their tastes. But if “BeerGuy5525” on BA writes a two-sentence tasting note about some new IPA, it’s meaningless to me.

  15. CZAR VLADIBEER S. BOOTIN' · · Reply

    Do people without beer blogs read beer blogs?

  16. […] of methodologies. Everyone has an opinion, and we’ve already come to question the efficacy and utility of tasting notes on these hallowed pages. In terms of adding credence to their reviews with “professional” […]

  17. […] reasons discussed in previous posts, I haven’t been quite as prolific with my Tasting Note writing as I once was. Still, when a […]

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