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:
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?