"Nothin' Wrong With the Good Ol' Missionary Position": An Examination of One Craft Beer Drinker's Motives

So I was talking to my wife about the blog, and we were discussing the rather complex craft beer world we live in today.  So many new breweries.  So many styles of beer.  So many specialty ingredients.  So many methods, tips, tricks, innovations, and permutations.  And then she hit me with this one: "You know - there's nothin' wrong with the good ol' missionary position."  I'm thinking she wasn't (necessarily) talking about our sex life, but rather that it's easy to lose focus on what I suspect drew most of us to craft beer/homebrewing in the first place: the search for beer that we like.  

But then it also occurred to me that a lot of craft beer drinkers (this one included) have, in our deliberations and discussions, overlooked that basic qualifier, at least based on the anecdotal evidence I have at hand.  Like most everything else around here at Beer Simple, I think that we're due for some "back to basics" thinking, especially in the midst of an industry-wide gut check on beer quality, extreme beer, and the proliferation of breweries.  

The Triumph and Tragedy of Attempted Objectivity

If the first comment out of our mouths when we try a new beer isn't something in the vein of "that's pretty good/not great," then we're probably putting the cart ahead of the horse from an evaluation standpoint.  I do this all the time.  The beer shows up, and after five minutes of sniffing and sipping and looking, I start talking about levels of bitterness, whether the oak is adding wood flavor or just tannic structure, if the alcohols are hot or just warm...but I don't always say whether I think it's any good.  Or if I do, I'm qualifying or conditioning it in some way (as in, "this would be great paired with a dessert").  What a jackass.

Some might think that the good/not good dynamic is one that is obvious or goes without saying, but like so many other things it's easy to overlook the obvious once you up your level of experience and/or expertise a bit.  It's a forest/trees thing.  

People often ask me to describe and evaluate beer, and once I get into that mindset, I'm trying to be as objective as possible.  I've discovered that it's now become a habit...no, that's too weak...an addiction that I have a hard time shaking.  Every sensory evaluation turns into an attempt to tie the description to some objective standard, whether it's the BJCP or BA style guidelines, my impression of what one finds in the marketplace, the flavor profile of the prevailing "classic" example of that beer style, or something else.  Why the hell don't I start with whether or not I like it?  The answer is probably that, as a beer judge, I'm constantly trying to minimize the subjective, fuzzy, and artistic qualities of beer evaluation, which is a natural outgrowth of defending the idea of judging beer in the first place.  

Plus - no one ever asks me if I like a beer or not.  But why does that stop me from starting there?  It shouldn't.  In fact, it should probably be the first thing I decide on and mention, if only to provide a preview of and context for what's about to follow.

Fault Hunting

Then there's the way a lot of us approach beer evaluation in the first place: we're looking for something to be wrong.  Now, maybe this is because we expect great things from craft brewers, especially when we're potentially paying over the odds for a special or unique beer.  It might also be because we're test-driving this beer or brewery, and trying to decide whether it goes onto our list of "good" breweries: we're kicking the tires, just like we would on the car lot.  It may even be because someday we're convinced that we're going to find that "perfect" beer (*cough* Rodenbach Grand Cru *cough*), and in case this one might be it, we want to be sure that we've considered all of the variables.  

But it's still probably a bad habit to get into.

Imagine if every time you met someone, you immediately started picking apart every small thing about their appearance, personality, depth, political views, moral ideals, and professional utility.  Wouldn't that make it kind of hard to make friends?  And what would you think of a person who approached people with that mindset?  You'd end up dismissing a lot of people that might turn out to be "worth" their foibles and faults.  As sloppy and inarticulate as it is, maybe the right move is to just ask whether you like their "vibe."  

Next time I open a beer or the bartender finishes pulling my draft, I'm just going to take a big sip, then another, and ask if I like it.  Not if it's perfect or not, or whether the brewery is new or old, big or small, in New England or in Belgium, or if the bittering level is appropriate for an English Mild or more like a Brown Porter - just whether I like it.  Maybe I'll eventually come to the conclusion that it's a little too hoppy/roasty/alcoholic/sour for my taste, but I really think I'm currently doing that too quickly.

Going Public

Then there's the use of the much-maligned online drinker rating sites.  Ask any professional about them, and I'm willing to bet that they're going to go with some variation of "they're awful, inaccurate, and populated by an unacceptable number of idiots/aleholes." 

I get that.  I recently had the joy of seeing a beer based on one of my recipes released by Noble Brewer, and it was fun seeing the reactions of real beer drinkers - but it was also a little frustrating.  Some of these people clearly just weren't getting it.  They were expecting something else.  They were criticizing it for what one might call less-than-learned reasons (my favorite: "Much more like a Cascadian Dark Ale than an American Brown.  Not very hoppy, though."  WHAT?).  You read enough of what you consider off-target reviews, and it's very easy to dismiss the notion of mass-market, user-generated review sites entirely. But you shouldn't - as a brewer, or as a drinker.  

Why not?  Because these sites are measuring a very simple variable: whatever the sophistication of the consumers that are populating them, you're getting a large sample of the reaction of beer drinkers to the very simple question of whether they liked a beer or not.  In fact, knowing my own shortcomings in this area (see the previous section), I think that the reactions of the uncertified, unCiceroned, unwashed beer masses might be a better barometer than my "Expert Reviews" of whether you're going to like a beer or not.  

And you may well say that a lot (even most) of those raters don't know what they're talking about, don't know how what they're drinking differs from the classics, don't have sensitive or trained palates - and you may well be right.  But that doesn't make them wrong.

I suspect a lot of the nonsensical exposition on why a beer isn't higher-rated comes from a lack of communicative ability, not a lack of accuracy.  Unless they're a homebrewer (and frequently even if they are), they're probably not all that clear on how beer is made and what might have made it turn out that way and what the style designation (if there was one) should connote/lead you to expect.  But it doesn't mean they're wrong when they criticize the beer.  The individual who critiqued my American Brown Ale may have given an asinine explanation for why s/he didn't like my beer, but the rating is still an accurate reflection of his/her enjoyment of it.  Let's not be so quick to dismiss the Public as a basic guide to what will probably taste good.

Just Drink It

Ultimately, I think I need to get back to just drinking and enjoying beer.  There's a lot of fun to be had in lining up a great selection of out-there and extreme beers - but there's also a lot of fun in just having a few bottles of a beer you enjoy (something I was reminded of recently when I was cleaning up the last of my annual Christmas case of Sierra Nevada Celebration).  I looked in the beer fridge the other day and saw that I had not a single can or bottle of a "normal" beer.  I had a Belgian IPA, an oak-aged Russian Imperial, two different sours, a Barrel-aged Rye Pumpkin, and a variety of strong ales.  To paraphrase Coleridge, "beer, beer, everywhere, nor any drop to drink."

I'm not disparaging the idea of being a connoisseur.  I'm not knocking the idea of sophisticated or objective evaluation.  I'm definitely not saying just open any old thing and pinch your nose and knock it back.  But I am saying that I need to get out of the habit of treating every beer like it's a sensory panel subject.  I need to just "enjoy" a little more.  I need to relax, not worry, and have a homebrew.  

Because you know what?  There's nothing wrong with the good ol' missionary position.

Keep it simple.

JJW

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