Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Resisting Beer Snobbery (through math)!

A great recent forum thread on Beer Advocate got me really thinking about beer reviewing and hunting.  But before that, a little reviewing primer:

When I review a beer on BA, I give it scores out of 5 for appearance, smell, taste, "mouthfeel" and overall drinkability, which are then weighted to give me an overall score out of 5 for the brew.  My highest score so far is a 4.8/5 (an A+ for Schneider Aventinus Weizenbock and St. Bernardus Abt 12), while my lowest is a paltry 1.75 (an F for Berthold Keller Lager).  An extra little statistic BA throws in is the review deviation (rDev), which tells you how far your score differs from the average.  It's only so useful as a statistic, but it does let you know roughly how in line your opinion of the brew is with everyone else's.  If everyone happens to love a beer, and you hate it, your rDev is going to be incredibly low: probably a good idea to consider the possibility that your beer might have gone bad, or whether it's a style you just generally hate.  Or who knows: maybe you just generally dislike it.  That's okay!  Everyone's opinions differ, and that's part of the fun.

Normally, I'm not too far off the pack, usually within a few percentage points, but every so often I rate really high or really low.  So far, my highest deviation from the norm is 15%, based off a review for Kaiser, an Austrian lager.  I didn't even rank it that high (about a 3.2, or C+); it's just that everyone else seemed to really hate the brew and gave it low D's.  I happened to think it was okay: boring but drinkable.  My lowest is, again, Berthold Keller lager, at a whopping 51%.  I gave it an F; other folks have been less stingy towards this nightmare.  I don't give out D's or lower too often; to earn such a low score, the beer has to pretty much be a drain-pour - undrinkable, like Berthold was for me.   Everyone has these variations - sometimes a brew hits you just right, other times it doesn't. 

Back to the matter at hand.

The forum asked the question of whether you were a 'stingy' or a 'generous' reviewer, and the best way to find that out is to look at your rDev and see how many of your reviews are positive or negative.  No question about it, I'm a very 'generous' reviewer; of my 250 reviews, about 140 of them have a positive rDev, meaning I scored the majority of my reviews higher than the average.  Some folks were nearly the opposite.   A good little discussion followed from this comparing how one should approach beer reviewing.  Of course it got me thinking: how should I review my beer?

The beer reviewing community is getting larger everyday; the presence of sites like BA and  Ratebeer, coupled with ability of anyone with even the most basic knowledge of computers to blog/post about beer only guarantees that this trend will continue.  And, to be honest, there's been a bit of a backlash.  Some folks out there, including many on BA, argue that beer geeks are quickly turning into snobs, no different from the snooty wine drinking crowd we once railed against.  I think this is a valid point.   Sometimes when I read wine 'critiques' in the paper or online, I'm truly baffled by the kinds of flavors the reviewer claims he/she can detect (Zambian honeysuckle? Really??).  We scoff at the ridiculous language ("impudent", "presumptuous", "flirty") they use to describe what essentially amounts to rotting grape juice.   Then there are the contemptuous drinkers. There's this one girl at the Grad House that refuses to drink any Ontario reds, loudly proclaiming that all Ontario wine sucks.  If she wasn't such a good tipper, I'd be soooo tempted to pour an Ontario wine into an Aussie bottle and see if she notices the difference.  The funny thing is, she probably won't.  Apparently, humans are TERRIBLE at distinguishing tastes; so much of how we compare A to B comes down to how it's presented and what our pre-conceived judgements happen to be.   In a recent well-publicized study, Stanford researchers conducted a wine taste test.  Bottle A claimed to be a reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, regularly retailing for $90 a bottle, while Bottle B was labelled a $10 boxed wine from Walmart.  As you might have guessed, the participants rated the $90 bottle far higher, noting subtle hints of this-and-that and marvelling at the delicate something-or-other, while slamming the $10 bottle as being uninspired and lacking.  As I'm sure you've also guessed, it was the same damned wine in both bottles.   We're so conditioned to believe that 'expensive equals better' that our brains will imagine differences between two versions of exactly the same thing.  After all, who wants to be the uncultured swine who can't discern a good wine from a bad one?

Yet, we see the same trend in the beer community.  Like with the wine snots, some of the beer reviews can be downright laughable, especially the ones that take a good paragraph to describe how the beer 'feels' in their mouth.  (For me it's either watery or thick, creamy or slick, over- or under-carbonated). The outright scorn some beer geeks display towards anyone they perceive to be drinking 'lesser' brews is embarrassing , and really pisses me off (Coors Light bashing is always acceptable, however).  Hype and limted output tend to skew things towards cool-sounding American craft brews, but I'm willing to bet that a blind taste testing would drastically affect how beer is rated on BA.  So much is based on where the bottle is from, the reputation of the brewery - even the label can alter our perceptions.

So why slam beer?  Beer is supposed to be a social beverage, a source of great joy and comfort; finding and drinking great beer only makes things better.  The advancements of beer knowledge and beer culture over the past two decades have been fantastic, but like with any hobby/passion, it can (and is) getting a bit out of hand.   By being an overly 'positive' reviewer, am I doing a disservice to the beer reviewing community?  I don't really think so.  Reviews are biassed and skewed enough as it is.  Moreover, my reviews are simply there to provide my own impressions which are usually for my own purposes.  I'm not a beer judge, although that would be a sweet gig.

I like to think that my reviews are generally positive because, lets face it, beer is good.  Very good, in fact.  So good that it's hard for me to truly get angry about a particular beer, as some reviewers do, because I tend to be pretty stoked that I happen to be drinking a beer at that particular moment.   I may sometimes play up my dislike of a particular beer on the blog, but I do that for effect (i.e., the laffs); I'm generally not angry at it; maybe just a bit frustrated that my $2.50 I spent on the can could have gone to something much better.   Indeed, despite about a year of serious reviewing, I still think that I generally like about 90% of the beers I drink - I just like some more than others.    A good thing I like to keep in mind: it may not be the greatest beer ever, but it sure beats the hell out of a glass of water.  

Any beverage that makes me look this stupid can't be a bad thing.

I like to think that my reviews aren't snooty (tell me if I am being snooty.  I'll stop - promise!), but if I don't like the beer or the brewery, I'll say so.  I also know that I'm guilty of rating craft brews high and macro brews low; this is why I tend not to review many big name lagers. I know I don't like them, or at least I know I'm biassed against them, so why review them?  But, if you happen to drink nothing but Busch or Canadian, it doesn't bother me in the slightest, though chances are I'll be bringing my own beer to your party and it'll be something I'll like.  If I offer you one of my craft brews to try, it's because I think it tastes better and I think you will find it does too.  If you don't like it, no skin off my nose (or, as my hero Norm Peterson famously proclaimed: "Would [whatever you're doing] raise the price of beer?"  "No." "Then what do we care?!") I review because it helps me keep track of the beers I've tried, if there's beers that I should avoid or ones I should keep coming back to.  It helps me distinguish between different styles and methods of brewing, which goes a long way to help appreciate a beer for what it is.  Every beer has its purpose.  I may not really love PBR, but if I'm at a party drinking it in great quantities, PBR might just be the ticket.  If it's hot as stink and I'm outside on a patio, even the world's greatest Russian Stout will still taste lousy and make you feel bloated. 

I started this blog because I'm passionate about beer, and I hope you are too.  If by keeping track of which beers you like and by being open to trying new styles, the end result is people drink better beer, then everybody wins.

And now, here are some of Matt's guilty beer pleasures, just so you don't think I've gone too far along the craft brew choo-choo.

1. Corona.  Is it a quality beer? Absolutely not; in fact, it's a pretty substandard lager.  Will I drink 10 of them right now? You bet.   Drop a lime in the beer and you've got summer in a glass.  It's funky, it's overpriced and overexposed, but it's just fine with me.

    b.  As a subset of this, I'll just say that I'm not above putting limes in any lager, especially in the summer. Fuck it - it's hot out, and limes makes a lot of crappy beers taste better.  Just as long as it's a REAL lime I cut myself.

2. Rickard's White.  It's not a sterling example of the Belgian wit style; it's pretty tame and one-dimensional (orange-dimensional?).   But on a hot day, its terrific.  Sure, I'd love to be drowning myself in a super-sized bucket of Hoegaarden or Hacker-Pschorr instead.  But load that Rickard's sumbitch up with oranges and I'll be a very happy guy. 

3. Cheaper beer, depending on the brand.  While I'd love to have a cellarful of nothing but Chimay Bleue, Russian River RIS or Pliny the Elder, we have to face facts - beer can be pricey, great beer even more so.  But I gots to have me beer, so a 2-4 of something on the low price-point scale is fine with me, as long as it's drinkable.  A beer I can just open and drink, with no well-rinsed glassware or concern for 'proper' serving temperature.  Ice cold, right out of the bottle.  A "fuckin' beer", if you will.   Despite having all these impressive-sounding beer reviews, I usually have a few Trailhead, Holsten, Red Baron or Maclays kicking around the fridge. 

4. Light beer.       Nah, just kiddin.'

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