Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Why I Don't Rate Beer

I don’t prefer a traditional review style of craft beers for a few reasons. There is too much inconsistency in the market, for one: one bottling of Jolly Pumpkin Noel de Calabaza will taste slightly different than a later bottling, for example, and one of the very best conversations one can have with a stranger over a pint of craft beer is the discussion about how the beer has evolved or changed from year to year. Not that this is a bad thing; this is what makes craft beer more similar to the fine wine market than to the macrobrewery experience. I know for a fact that the sun will rise tomorrow, that my dogs hate snow, and that the next can of PBR will taste just like the last can of PBR, which  will taste just like the last can of PBR I drink before I die. Consistency is the mainstay of the macro market, and I am forever glad that it is not the ultimate pursuit of the Michigan craft beer market.

My personal distrust of ratings systems comes in as a close second for why I don’t score beers.  A ratings scale can mean many different things to different people. A score of 5 out of 10, for example, may mean a decent, average beer to some, while many others would rank it as a failure of a beer. A score of C- would seem like a perfectly reasonable beer to try for many people, while the overachieving straight - A students would be turned off by such poor performance. Many people in the reviewing field try to temper this issue in several ways. I know of some who, recognizing that a “x out of 10” scale is unconsciously converted to grades (thus making 5/10 a 50%, or a failing grade), try to adjust by making the lowest score they give a 6. This just masks the issue, and doesn’t get to the root of the problem. I know of others who explain their scores with as much detail as possible, like a restaurant menu carefully explaining exactly what medium rare means. Again, the language leaves too much up to interpretation. One person’s “adequate session beer, worth buying if you can find it on sale” is another’s “pile of discount trash, don’t bother.”

Finally, my own distrust in my palate requires that I not rate beer on a scale. There are so many things that play into my enjoyment of beer that can change day to day that it’s simply an exercise in revisions ad infinitum to try to peg a craft beer to a scale. Drinking a Founder’s Kentucky Breakfast Stout fresh off the tap during the Black Party hosted at Founder’s at 11:00 am on a rainy Saturday with three friends who also love dark beer is a hugely different experience than drinking a half cup of Founder’s Kentucky Breakfast Stout under a crowded tent in a heavy snowfall during the Winter Beer Fest in February: and both are worlds different than sipping a KBS from a tulip in the warm and welcoming environment of one’s favorite bar, surrounded by friends. Even if one has an absolutely consistent craft beer (which as I already mentioned, would not be preferable), one cannot account for changes in mood or environment.

Obviously, beer ratings have their place. Beeradvocate and ratebeer are both favorites saved in my browser. I do base some of my purchases of beer based on aggregate ratings systems, although I always keep in mind that an aggregate ratings system is inherently flawed: ten people giving a beer an A+ rating balanced with ten people giving the beer an F rating does not mean the beer in question is a “C” beer, after all. Aggregate ratings can be used as blunt recommendation systems, not scalpels of alcoholic accuracy.

So what’s the solution? If I write about beer, I can’t just blather on a page, can I?

….why not?

I believe it’s more important to capture the experience of drinking a specific craft beer than it is to ascribe a rating to it. Compare a Dark Horse IPA against a Bell’s IPA against a Saugatuck Brewing IPA. Note the choices of the brewer: did (s)he opt for a combination of barley and hops that lends a fruit experience or a floral one? Is the beer you are drinking more active on the bitter part of the tongue? Did the brewer use the alcohol content to smooth out the bitterness or enhance it? All of these things can help people develop their own feelings toward a beer without locking it into a rating. They develop discussion without encouraging disagreement. Two people can have dichotomous views of a beer but still agree with its flavor profile. My goal is to describe a beer without limiting it to a number that few people – including my future self – would agree with.

I realize that people exist who need the comfort of a score. I know that there are even those who can make the internal leap to realize that a score from a reviewer would not necessarily reflect how others should feel about a beer…although that negates the importance of reviewing things in the first place. So consider the Bottled Michigan posts that you see here less like an objective review and more like Fox News: we report…you decide.

6 comments:

Ryan said...

Hi there... Looking forward to following your blog, and reading some past entries. Just found you! My favorite is Hanging Frank from Shorts... especially at City Park Grill in Petoskey. Also really like Don't Give up the Sip from Great Lakes... I know that is not Michigan, but would you consider them craft? Thanks so much, and thanks for not rating them! Ryan ry_guy78@yahoo.com

Seth said...

Hi Ryan! Great to have you as a reader. Great Lakes Brewing is one of my favorite non Michigan brewers (partial to their barleywine myself! They are definitely craft beers! Hanging Frank is probably my favorite IPA in the state at the moment, although that's always subject to change. :)

Eric said...

I agree with your analysis of not rating beers. At least not rating them on an A - D or 0 - 5 scales. They really are useless. If you are going to rate beers, either describe what the flavor profile is you're tasting, and whether you like it or not, or use the BJCP Style guidelines with a comments for each of the portions on the scoresheet : Aroma, Appearance, Flavor, Mouthfeel and Overall Impression.
These two approaches are pretty much opposite ends of the scale, but both have advantages over an arbitrary scale of A - D, 0 - 5, or Purple - 6.023x10^23.
If you're going to go arbitrary, then just describe the beer as you taste it. Compare that perhaps with what you were expecting. What foods or cheese you think it would pair up with, and whether you personally liked it.
Or, get geeky, and score it via BJCP so people can see whether this is a good example of the beer style. That takes a bit more palate education, but it is fun learning!
Personally, I am more interested in finding beers that are flagships for the style, so I can experience what that style is supposed to taste like.

Ngoc Lan said...

Tin tức mới nhất về Cà phê và sức khỏe
Cafe hiện nay là một trong những loại thức uống thịn hành trên khắp thế giới. Tại việt nam cũng không ngoại lệ khi có nhiều quán cafe ngon ở tphcm được xây dựng lên phục vụ khách hàng. Quán cafe không chỉ là nơi giải trí, trò chuyện mà hiện nay như là nơi giúp giao luu hay các buổi gặp mặt, học tập, offline các nhóm hội khác nhau. Vậy tác dụng một ly cafe giúp bạn những gì?
1. Cà phê làm giảm nguy cơ mất trí nhớ
Theo nghiên cứu đưa ra năm 2014 của Alzheimer Europe Annual Congress thì người uống 3 đến 5 tách cà phê có thể giảm 20% nguy cơ phát triển bệnh mất trí nhớ.
Không những vậy, cà phê cũng góp phần làm giảm nguy cơ nhồi máu cơ tim và bệnh tiểu đường loại 2.
>> Bạn có thể tham khảo thêm thông tin về các ca phe quan 3 giúp bạn lựa chọn không gian riêng cho mình nhâm nhi một ly cafe.

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