TASTING IS BLIND; OR, ZYMURGICAL INVESTIGATIONS

Many beers ago in college, when the Internet was young and nubile, I frequented the movie review site Aint It Cool News. At that point AICN was to film what Aleheads is to craft beer now- an independent fan site run by a motley crew of non-experts and outsiders, fueled by an insatiable enthusiasm for debating their favorite topic and led by the vision of an uber-geek. I enjoyed reading the reviews by the site’s founder, Harry Knowles, not because I always agreed with his recommendations (the kudos due for compelling me to see The Big Lebowski opening weekend when everybody thought it was just a movie about bowling are more than tempered by his culpability in my sitting through What Dreams May Come in an empty New Hampshire cinema) but for the sense of personality he imbued into his posts. Harry geeked-out to science fiction, super heroes, epic adventure and had a sentimental streak a mile wide that allowed him to overlook serious deficiencies in his review subjects. This was fine by me- if you read his stuff regularly you got a good understanding of his sensibilities and could generally decode whether a given movie would appeal to you. A hallmark of his long-winded reviews were the opening salvos in which he described his mood and mental state, any expectations and preconceptions going into the movie, and the minutiae of his life in the hours leading up to the viewing that he felt could have an impact on his enjoyment of the film. Harry felt strongly that you could never experience a movie in a vacuum- that the reviewer by necessity brought emotional baggage to the cinema that must be acknowledged and navigated through rather than denied and suppressed in the name of objectivity.

Smash-cut to today’s beer review environment in which aggregator sites like BeerAdvocate and RateBeer utilize proprietary rating systems to host millions of reviews from users all over the world; the social beer service Untappd and its easy one-click five-star rating system is surging in popularity and hit a million beer check-ins last June (during the recent IPA Day festivities they recorded over 11,500 mini-review check-ins). At our site and countless others across the web, bloggers are drinking and reviewing beer using a wide variety 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” certification, drinkers can get involved with the Beer Judge Certification Program (for training beer and homebrew competition judges) or the Cicerone Certification Program (for educating and certifying beer servers). The BJCP in particular trains Beer Judges to be as objective as humanly possible, laying down detailed templates for each style with which to evaluate any beer poured in front of them. Thus in beer competitions among five American Brown Ales, judges are trained to score the beer according to style-specific guidelines, rather than the one the “like the best”.

So when evaluating a commercial beer, what factors should an Alehead consider? Should we judge the beer based solely upon the liquid in the glass or take into account the entire experience?

On one side of the coin are the BJCP-certified Beer Judges- those with the training and belief that a beer can and should be evaluated based upon the precepts laid down by their organization. When it comes to homebrew or commercial competitions, you really have to judge beer this way. Without categories and judging criteria, competitions become the hodge-podge of opinion and personal preference found in, well, beer review on the web. But for you, as a craft beer tasting a new beer, should the wealth of backstory available influence your conclusions? And if no, is it even possible for this to be avoided?

Here are a couple of philosophical exercises that plumb some of the issues I’m trying to raise; please use caution, things might get ethical:

  1. Beerford McBrewin’ is an environmentalist living in Portland, America’s best beer city. He’s concerned about sustainable brewing practices, local ingredients whenever possible, as well as local distribution that cuts down on energy costs for getting beer to consumers. With such a cornucopia of options from the forty-some breweries within his city limits, he can afford to be picky. He finds small local craft and nano brewers that innovate within the sustainability space like Hopworks But then he gets some bad news- Barley McHops is coming to visit, and he wants to go drinking. He wants some hoppy northwest brews, perhaps some of them thar’ Cascadian Dark Ales he keeps hearing about. There are tons of good CDA’s to choose from. For Beerford as an Alehead, is there a moral imperative to drive Brother Barley to Hopworks, or is it more important to find the very best CDA available, even if it’s produced by a brewer that puts less emphasis on environmentally friendly practices?
  2. Kid Carboy is an influential journalist (remember, these are thought exercises) and blogger living outside of Chicago. Like all Aleheads he loves good craft beer and hates Anheuser Busch. One day he receives a mysterious invitation to attend an exclusive tasting at the Goose Island brewpub. On hand will be some of the experimental Goose offerings we keep hearing about: rare sours like Lolita and Madame Rose, and a Rye-barreled Bourbon County Stout. the only condition- he has to review the beers on Aleheads. No doubt the beers will be good, but by writing about them in a positive way is Kid supporting A-B and their desire to stamp out the craft segment of the market, by acquisition or whatever means necessary?
  3. Barley McHops is someone that people have come to look towards on the subject of new breweries in Alabama (again, thought exercise). He meets the enthusiastic founders of a new local brewery and soon receives samples with the request that he write about them on his highly under-the-influence beer blog. He finds the offerings to be promising, but inconsistent. Is it incumbent upon Brother Barley to be honest, or take into account the many challenges facing new Ale Factories and overlook small issues with quality control, knowing that a damning review from an influential reviewer could halt this small operation in its tracks?

So what say you, Alehead nation? Is it just about the beer, or can and should the bounty of background information available to us effect our beer reviews and recommendations?

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11 comments

  1. It’s OK to steal beer if you need it to feed your starving children. ‘Nuff said.

  2. Clearly Aleheads needs an Ethicist column like the NY Times Magazine. And CLEARLY Slouch Sixpack needs to be that Ethicist.

    My quandary: Is it OK to light a nun on fire if she’s standing between you and your glass of DIPA? What if it’s just a regular IPA?

  3. I can’t believe you’re not taking these issues seriously.

  4. Kid Carboy Jr. · · Reply

    Someday, when I gradute from Influential Journalist Training Academy, these thought exercises will become all too real.

    And to rationalize writing about Goose/AB, I’ll just steal a lot of beer while I’m there. That should balance things out.

  5. Roguemonk · · Reply

    It’s all about integrity. You must follow your principles. ABI’s purchase of Goose Island means John Laffler’s barrel aged beers are not craft. I will celebrate the day John moves on to an artisanal company.

  6. @Roguemonk You’re even more radical than me! I would certainly classify the experimental beers coming out of the brewpubs as “craft” simply by nature of how they are produced; however, I would never buy them because of the way the money flows back to A-B/ Inbev.

  7. The Brewers Association defines a “craft brewery” as one that is “small, independent and traditional”. The latter term is a little vague to me (for example, would Stillwater fail this definition because of Brian Strumke’s unorthodox, peripatetic approach to brewing?). But based on the first two terms, Goose Island is no longer a craft brewery.

    If Goose is now part of the InBev conglomerate, then they far exceed the 6 million barrel cap that defines a “small” brewer (since InBev alone produces over 300 million barrels). But let’s be charitable and say that their brewing operations should be considered wholly separate from InBev. They still fail miserably on the “independent” rubric since the buy-out.

    As such, I DON’T consider Goose to be a craft brewer. An all-malt brewer, definitely. But not craft.

  8. Here’s a stat for you Slouch – Over 70% of the tasting notes on our site receive at least a 3 hop rating (Based on our 4 hop scale). You could look at that and say we’re afraid to bash breweries or even pick on a brewery that we like based on one bad beer, but anyone that reads this site will quickly point out that we’re a bunch of assholes that don’t care about anyone. Hell, I’m pretty sure I insulted my dad in a recent post so I have no problem listing a terrible beer even if it’s from a well-respected brewer. Like I said, we’re assholes. The fact that we rate beers so highly has more to do with the selection of beers that we drink than an actual bias or fear of coming down hard on an ale factory. What can I say? We drink good beer. Also, tasting notes are kind of boring to write so I’d much rather gush about a beer that I absolutely love so other people might have a chance to try it. Trust me, if I try a beer that really sucks and I want people to avoid it, I’ll write that one up too. I just don’t drink a lot of bad beer.

    Now that I said that, I’ll admit that I would have a really hard time reviewing a beer from a start-up brewery if the beer missed the mark. I know how friggin’ hard it is to get things going in a competitive market. If I try a bunch of their beers and they’re only mediocre, I might just review the entire operation and point to the positives and growth potential than the flaws they have (“Hey, at least they’re cheap and the labels are pretty!”) . However, if I think they’re overrated and getting too much praise or if they’re pushing the typical “Amber Ale” as their flagship, I won’t hold any punches.

  9. To be fair, Rip, your dad ordered a beer based on fermentation temperature and put you in a tough position. He deserved the flack he got.

    When a beer misses the mark it’s easy to criticize, but what about when you’re tasting something that falls between good and great? Do you let your sentiments about a particular brewery swing your evaluation one way or another? I can admit guilt to this one- I gave the Victory Headwaters 4 Hops.

  10. I do get sentimental when I drink and I do write most of my posts when I’m drunk, so yes, I suppose I do let my sentiments about a particular brewery cloud my judgement. I don’t let it sway me enough to throw a 4-hoper out there, but I’m sure I’ve given a 2.5 hop brew the 3-hop “Good enough for me” rating.

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