Love is Blind: Perceptual Screens and Beer Evaluation (Christmastime Edition)

canada-2340312_1280.jpg

There's a certain IPA that hits the market in the late-fall of every year.  It has a red label, features a snow-covered cabin, and is festooned with poinsettias.  I buy it every year.  I can't wait to pop open a few bottles of it to celebrate the assorted holidays of the season.  I love, love, love this beer. 

I honestly don't know if it's any good or not.  

Why?  Because I love it.  

A Tenuous Relationship With Reality

Human beings have a highly conditional, tenuous, perverted relationship with "reality."  The perceptual screens and stereotypes and blind spots we employ to make sense of a "bright, fuzzy world" (to quote one social scientist) and navigate it efficiently (if imperfectly) mean that we don't evaluate things as they are.  We don't "see and then define - we define, and then we see."  

The same logic that makes evaluations of politics and society so thorny applies to beer evaluation, and for the same reasons.  It's a noisy, crowded marketplace out there for beer.  We, as individuals, employ stereotypes and heuristics (informational shortcuts) to make sense of the craft beer world, and in doing so we distort it.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's something we should be aware of, since a common in-subculture sport of craft beer folk is the sharing our personal evaluations of the beers we consume.  We wrongly describe this as what we "think" about a beer.  If only - instead, what we're really sharing is a combination of things (what we feel, what we perceive, what we assume, and, yes, also what we think) that lead to what we conclude about the quality and/or desirability of a particular beer or brewery.

We all drink in the same world - but we think and feel in different ones.

Draw a Line

I try to take this approach to chatting about beer quality: the stronger my preferences, the more I condition them when making recommendations to others.  That way, any firm impressions (the literal, etymological definition of "stereotype") I pass on are qualified by an equal-in-magnitude, fair-warning communication that they're based on my acknowledged biases, for better or worse.

Let's go back to my seasonal IPA.  Since I know I love it, when asked about what seasonal beers I might recommend, I have no problem at all saying, "I love _____________ IPA!," because I then follow it up with (as I have above), "but I don't know if it's any good or not."  

What this does is draw a clear line between preferences and quality.  If I have no particular feelings about a style (let's say, for Cream Ale), then I don't, when sharing an evaluation, hesitate beyond the normal acknowledgment that beer evaluation has an unavoidable element of subjectivity.  But when I know I have a marked preference or prejudice about a beer, or style, or brewery, I acknowledge that whatever I'm saying should be taken with a grain of salt because I'm viewing it through a glass, darkly (and maybe literally).  

I'm reminded of this every year, about this time of year, when I look at that snow-covered cabin, and I'm glad for it.  It reminds me to be humble about making recommendations, evaluations, and judgments.  

After all - love is blind.

Have a wonderful holiday season!

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).

 


A Matter of Time: Evaluating a New Brewery

Even by "craft beer explosion" standards, there are a lot of new breweries near me.  Forget the ones in the nearby major city: I just mean the ones in my own suburban backyard.  As they open, local beer friends and I invariably stopped in and tried their beers, and as the social media posts began stacking up one of our homebrew club members asked: how do you evaluate a new brewery?

How, indeed?  There's always just tasting the beer, but that's like evaluating the climate of a place by just visiting it on one day.  Maybe that one day isn't typical, or symptomatic of what things are usually like and where they're headed.  My wife, Barbara, and I spent exactly one day in Bergen, Norway.  It was glorious: sun shining, cool breezes, drinking hyper-overpriced Pilsner while sitting on the Bryggen (the historic harbor district, now a retail area and UNESCO World Heritage site) after a wonderful walking tour of the city, including the "oldest street in Norway."  To us, Bergen is sunshine and open-air dining.  Turns out, we just got really lucky: it rains in Bergen 231 days a year, on average (that's worse than Seattle, by a pretty big margin).  

So, long story short (too late): tasting is just one part of the process. Let's make the story longer, though.

Structural Considerations

The first thing you might consider is how many offerings a new brewery has available, and what they are.  You can usually get this information from press releases, the brewery's website, or reviews that might have popped up from soft openings.  

I don't like to see anything more than six beers on offer, to start - maybe eight at the outside.  I know what it takes to start up a brewery (having seen it at close hand on a number of occasions), and a place with a dozen or more beers on in its first couple of months probably hasn't had the time to run them all through test batches, refine recipes and processes, and tune them up.  While every brewery learns by doing, at least in part, jumping in too fast with too many beers is a potential warning sign that they're willing to sell mediocre (or even bad) beer, rather than building slowly and offering high-quality products.

I also like to see signs that you're thinking and/or that your brewery has a focus or personality.  One sign of this not being in evidence was seen at a new brewery I visited a couple of years ago.  They had four core beers (good start!), but they were a Pale Ale (OK), an IPA (a little redundant, but I get it), a coffee porter and a generic medium-strength stout.  It's on those last two that I got my red flag: if you're only making four beers, why those?  Who's going to buy your stout who wouldn't like that coffee porter, and vice versa?  

Anyways, it isn't determinative in any way, but it's something I think about.

First Impressions

Nothing quite like that first taste, though.  There's some luck-of-the-draw here: maybe their best beer is their Pilsner.  If it is, I'll probably hit that before I try the DIPA (just for palate reasons), so I might get a good vibe right off the bat.  If your brewery, though, phones it in on some kind of session Kolsch and it's just OK, then a drinker's first impression might be that you're a little too blah.  Just something to think of for you brewery operators out there!  Don't write off those "crowd pleaser," lighter, low-ABV beers.

As previously noted, I don't like tasters of a beer, and I'm kind of skeptical of flights, so I usually go with a half-pint or better of a couple of their beers in my first visit.  That way I'm getting it as it's initially poured, a little decarbonated and a little warmer as I work my way down the ounces, and then one flat, warm-ish last sip.  I just find it to be a more useful set of perceptions than even a 4-6 ounce short pour, and certainly more so than a one-ounce sip.  

For me, this is just a baseline.  Even my least favorite breweries get more than one visit if they're newly-opened.  But baselines matter.  Take mental notes of what they seem to do well and what needs work (a place I just went to this weekend turned out some great American pale ales but has something really odd going on with their Belgian yeasts/fermentations), and file it away for future reference.

Return of the Beer Geek

After a few weeks, I'll stop in again.  This is primarily to provide a point of comparison: a data point isn't a trend, and two data points isn't something you should hang your analytical hat on, but it's something.  

All I want to see is improvement.  Even a little.  Some of my favorite breweries stumbled out of the gate, but quickly started refining their processes and recipes and you could taste the difference almost immediately.  Breweries that do that will usually, with time, produce killer beer.  Why?  Because those are the breweries that care about feedback and know how to act on it.

I also want to see if they're resolving their focus: is the brand developing in a way that makes sense?  Are they still producing a phone-book-sized list of beers in jack-of-all-styles fashion?  

This initial return trip is usually enough to get a bead on where the brewery's headed.  But just in case...

Beer in the Wild

After this, I'll usually try to find a place's beers on tap somewhere other than the tap house and give them short trials "in the wild."  Believe it or not, sometimes they get better with a little age and/or coming out of a different system.  Just like you shouldn't judge any brewery based on how their beer tastes at any one bar (because that bar might be bad at serving beer), you shouldn't forget that the tap room itself is just one bar!

It also gives you additional data: are they getting better?  Worse?  What's being put on tap out in the market?  Is this just going to be one more on the endless IPA list, or will their cedar-aged Altbier be out there, too?

Last Stop

Somewhere between six months and a year in operation, I'll give any place its last visit before writing it off (assuming it's not coming off well in these evaluations).  Maybe it took a while to learn the system.  Maybe they needed to bring in a lab guy/gal or hire a new brewer, and it took some time to get the new staff up to speed.  Maybe they didn't know how to operate their glycol chilling system at first or a thermometer was mis-calibrated, which made their first beers hot, estery messes.  

Whatever the case, when you're coming up on a year in business, you've had plenty of time to work out the kinks.  I'll give you one last try, and we'll see where we are.  

If there's evidence of improvement, OK, I'll try again in a few months.  If not...

Glutton for Punishment

OK, I know I said that was the last stop, but it really isn't.  Even the worst breweries in my area will get a test drive now and again, even after years of disappointment.  Maybe I'm just an optimist, but I have to believe that bad breweries can't stay in business for years without doing something right.

In those cases, though, I've never been turned around.  Maybe it's just accumulated bias/informational ballast.  Maybe there's a house flavor I just can't get past, like how I love seafood but despise crab in any form.  

Whatever it is, it isn't enough to stop me from giving them another shot.  It's like Charlie Brown and the football.  I just can't help thinking, "maybe this one will be great!"

So, to make a long story long, how do I evaluate a brewery?  Endlessly.

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).


Beer Yoga Is Stupid (or the "Taking Beer Seriously Equilibrium")

For any thing that anyone cares about, there's someone who cares insultingly little about it and, at the other end of the spectrum, someone who cares way too much about it.  This week, we're going to see if there isn't some kind of "sane middle" that we can agree on.  Because if there's one thing I know, it's this: "beer yoga" is really stupid.

I'll admit that some of us take beer too seriously - me included, probably, since I actually pay money to produce a beer blog that generates virtually no revenue.  But at the same time, I don't think it's out of line to suggest that maybe people shouldn't use craft beer as some kind of artisanal prop, either.

You're Taking It Too Seriously

When I saw an April Fool's joke that suggested Cantillon was soon going to begin distributing in cans, I laughed my ass off - which is a massive warning light that one might be a bit too "into" a certain hobby.  That's a seriously esoteric and geeky joke.  But geekiness, in and of itself, isn't really something to be too concerned about.  If anything, it's a natural pendulum-swing away from a postmodern society that's "so over" almost everything, and where enthusiasm is almost something to be ashamed of.  

That's not what I'm talking about here.

I'm talking about the people who feel the need to treat beer as an almost theological enterprise.  We've talked before about the dogmatists among us (and thanks for the "you're not insane" support from Brulosophy on that one).  Beer, brewing, homebrewing, beer judging, and other cognate/tangential sectors of the beer world are lousy with martinets, sticklers, and pedants and purists who sound off on normative absolutes and generally suck the fun out of this whole thing.  We've talked about them before, and at length, as being great personifications of "aleholes."  These are often people who start from a position of taking beer too seriously.  

When your approach and attitude to beer start to spill over into a desire to dictate to others how or what or when they should be drinking, then you need to take a hard look at what you're asserting to ask if it's reasonable.  

Am I a hypocrite for saying that drinking beer while doing yoga is dumb?  Maybe.  But I think I can defend it reasonably, so I'm still OK with doing it.  Yoga requires significant effort and concentration, so drinking while doing it makes as much sense to me as holding a footrace over an icy parking lot.  I'm not telling you not to do it - I'm saying I think it's a really inconvenient way to drink beer (if that's what you want to do) and a poor way to do yoga (if that's what you want to do).  Why not just go to a yoga class and then go drink beer afterward?

But, for example, if I say that if you're drinking a beer that's a few degrees above or below its optimum serving temperature that therefore you're doing it wrong, then I'm now entering a different arena - that's not just sharing an opinion, it's imposing a standard and actively judging people that don't hew to it.  That's wrong, and when I do it I hope people point it out.

You're Not Taking It Seriously Enough

OK, so what about the people who don't take it seriously enough?  They're out there, too.  Our "beer yoga" people are probably in that category.  

Here's the thing: making good beer is a challenging endeavor undertaken by people who (usually) care a lot about what they do, and they do it knowing that it's almost certainly not going to make them rich.  The Jim Koch's of the world are rare.  Most people in brewing know that the way to make a small fortune in the beer world is simple: start with a large fortune (rimshot).  

When you treat their work as a trendy prop, they might be grateful you bought it in the first place, but it's still kinda disrespectful.  Craft beer has fought long and hard to get to where it is, often against competitors that use ethically (and, sometimes, legally) questionable practices to fend off legitimate competition.  I'm not saying that you shouldn't have a craft beer-themed fundraiser for your nonprofit or host a "beer tasting party" for your non-beery friends - I'm saying that you shouldn't be doing it so that you can make fun of the "hipster in the work shirt and beard" that is your stereotypical image of a craft brewer/drinker.

I used to joke about yoga, that it was just stretching and laying (hell, there's a yoga pose that's literally called corpse pose where you lay flat on your back).  Then I tried it, and it kicked my ass for a little while.  It made me realize that I was being a bit of a dick about it, even if I wasn't making fun of people who did yoga, maliciously and mercilessly mocking their efforts.  I was just being dismissive and (mentally) treating them like dilettantes who were just engaging in a trendy hobby - and while, almost certainly, some were, a lot weren't, and what they're doing deserves our respect even if we don't share their enthusiasm.

The Balance Point

So where's the balance point?  After all, we're talking beer and yoga, both of which care about balance.  

I think it's here: don't let your attitude about beer (or just about anything, really) be either a cudgel or a punchline.  If you're browbeating people with it, you're taking it too seriously.  If you're (even passively) mocking people with it, you're not taking it seriously enough.  

And for those who are (inevitably) going to criticize this as being "obvious," I just have to say that I don't think it is.  Most often, people say something like, "yeah, duh - we know 'too far' when we see it."  Years of experience in/around this world have shown me that those on either side of this divide very, very often do NOT know "too far" when they see it.  

A modest suggestion: be a little more self-critical.  Err to the middle.  We'll all be a bit better off for it, I think.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm literally going to go do yoga before writing an article about becoming a certified beer judge.

Namaste (which is Sanskrit for "Keep it Simple").

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).

 


Don't Order Tasters: Samples, Pints, and "Drinking 'Til You're Happy"

"Can I have a taste of that beer, please?"

God, I hate that question on so, so many levels...

The First Taste

First, your initial sip of almost any beer is a very, very poor predictor of what you'll ultimately think of that beer.  

If it's your first beer of the night (or day, if you're lucky), then your palate is reacting to the initial hit of alcohol, which (alcohol being what it is) is going to get numbed down pretty quickly.

Even if it isn't, flavor perception is an additive process.  What tastes good might not taste good after more of it.  A fingertip in the sugar bowl tastes good; eating spoonful after spoonful of it is disgusting.  And something that tastes not-great initially might grow on you.  But you won't know that, because you ordered a thimbleful of it and tried to make a prediction.

Palate Deafness

Second, as you drink more of something, the experience of it changes.  Your palate will adapt to what it's tasting, and things that are unpleasant at first can fade away or mutate into something pleasant or even transcendental.

That 120-IBU monster might seem too intense for you if you just drink one ounce.  But eight or 16 ounces later your palate has gone a bit deaf to it the bitterness and instead you may be tasting something very, very different thanks to that high IBU burn-in.  

And we're not only tasting - we're feeling.  That sharp sourness will seem much less so after a few sips, but the puckering tightness will still be there, and that might be something that changes your evaluation.

You'll never experience that, though, because you took one sip and moved on.  

Volatility

Third, beer is volatile.  It changes.  Some flavors will come right out of solution and dissipate in seconds - if you reject the beer because your little taster had that flavor and you didn't like it, you're walking out of a movie five minutes into it.

What if the beer is overcarbonated?  As it sits and approaches the "right" carbonation level, it will change, and its flavor will change.  You'll never know, because you passed after two sips or your sample.

Use the Right Tools

Your taster probably came in a completely different glass than your beer would have.  You probably aren't getting much of a sense of the aroma.  Any fault from a not-beer-clean glass is hugely magnified because of the surface-area-to-beer ratio in that tiny glass.  CO2 is being released differently on that lip.

In other words, you're not even tasting the beer you'd be getting by the pint.

Pouring These Sucks

It sucks for the bartender, but it also sucks for you.  Beer service off of a tap into a 2-ounce glass isn't the same as the same pour into a pint.  The system isn't designed for tiny pours.

And it's a pain in the ass for the bartender - have a heart.

Drink for the experience

I don't order a sample of anything.  What's the worst case scenario?  I drink it fast or give it away?

When I order a beer, I want the full experience.  I want several sips of it.  I want steadily declining carbonation.  I want all of the palate sensations.  I want to work through what I might consider "off-flavors" and maybe come to appreciate or understand or learn to ignore them.  

And I want to be a considerate patron, because a) I used to tend bar, and b) it gets me my next beer faster because they know I'm not going to ask them to pour three or four or seventeen tiny samples, and c) I'm only human and want people to like me.

So please, don't order a taste of anything.  

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).


What Brewers Wish You Knew: Giving Them Feedback

Feedback is good.  Feedback in the beer world is particularly good, since brewers are making a consumable product that they want you to like and keep buying.  

But beer feedback can be...not great.  Some is mean-spirited.  Some is oddly global, blaming the brewer for things like carbonation level or serving temperature at a bar.  And a lot of it is simply, empirically, and even aggressively wrong.  Did you know that brown ales shouldn't have coffee flavor?  That all sour beers have fruit in them?  That all lagers are under 6% ABV?  Yeah - me neither.  

So as we return to the "What Brewers Wish You Knew" series, I thought a good topic might be built around the feedback we give to brewers and breweries.  What's helpful to them?  What isn't?  To what extent (and how) does our feedback inform their future brewing behaviors and choices?  I went back to my ramshackle panel of brewers, meadmakers, cider.....what the hell do you call someone who makes cider?  A ciderer?  Anyway, I went back to my network of brewing friends and acquaintances to see what would make our feedback more useful, because if we're going to give feedback (and we should), then it's not a bad idea to give brewers what they want and can use.

Vague Isn't Bad

"Honestly, just tell me if you like it or not."  

This was probably the most common response.  A rough understanding of whether you like a beer enough to buy another one was deemed the most valuable kind of feedback out there.  In fact, going further than that can end up undermining the input.

One brewer notes that when a customer explains why they do/don't like a beer, they can show a relative lack of technical knowledge that (the brewer admitted) could lead him/her to dismiss the feedback entirely.  This brewer, though, knows that that's a poor reason to do so: "If you're telling me you don't like it, but for a reason that doesn't make any sense, you still don't like it.  WTF do I care what the reason is?  You're not going to buy it.  That's what I should care about."

This is a pretty introspective panel, in case you couldn't tell.  

But at the end of the day, a quick note to the brewer of the thumbs up/down variety is a pretty good tool.  Keep it simple (right?).

The Power of Aggregation

A brewer probably isn't going to give too much weight to your one opinion - but you should still give it, because if they hear similar things from enough customers, they might begin to take note of it.

"If you're not someone we 'know' [as in, a very regular customer and/or someone with a demonstrated level of beer expertise] then I'm not going to change anything because of something you think is a problem.  I still want to know what you think the problems are, though."

This seeming contradiction exists in part because of something that we in the political communications world refer to as the Receive-Accept phenomenon.  Not every message you receive (hear/read) is actually incorporated into your considerations.  We're much more likely to accept messages that are consistent with our pre-existing beliefs, which creates something called informational ballast.  Just like ballast on a ship, it makes us resistant to flipping, and we usually reject contrary messages.  But if enough contrary messages reach us, it can overcome that ballast and we'll change (or at least moderate) our positions.  So if I'm a brewer and I hear from one person that a beer is too bitter, I'll probably dismiss it.  But if I hear it from five people in a week, I'll start thinking about recipe adjustments. [BTW, keep this in mind the next time you talk politics on social media: even if that person refuses to accept new information, hit them with it anyway.  If enough people do, then the recipient will likely start to shift!  PSA over.]

Tell Me About Your Problems...

"I want to hear about every problem you have, and I tell the staff to listen to every criticism respectfully."

Brewers seemed (despite isolated personal experiences to the contrary) to be generally-to-enthusiastically open to hearing critiques.  This has limits, though.

"I probably drink more of our beer than anyone on the planet, so I've got a good idea of whether it's hitting what I want it to hit."  Artists.  Am I right?

Seriously, though, it's not surprising that many brewers are committed to their vision for their beer.  But I was also told by several that even though they "make the beer they want, not the beer the public says they want," they still want to know what you think of it, especially if it's not related to the flavor profile of the beer.  

Which brings us to...

I Can't Fix It, But I Still Care

If you tell a brewer to switch to NZ hops rather than Australian hops, you're probably not going to make much of a dent.

But if you get a massively dented can that has leaked out all of its beer, they do want to know about it.

Feedback on how beer was served, an empty can in a six pack, or an overly-aged beer might tell the brewer something about the people they're doing business with.  "We do our best to find the best distributors and retailers we can so the beer tastes like it does when it leaves the brewery, but it's not perfect."  If a particular problem keeps cropping up, then a brewery might learn of a problem with how their beer is being handled.  So let them know.

But maybe stop short of "blaming" them for it.  "A customer bought a case and one of the cans was empty.  We explained to him that a pin hole had probably opened up sometime after it left the brewery, since we can't seam an empty can." Apparently the customer was highly impressed by this bit of knowledge, and immediately turned right around on blaming the brewery - which is a good thing.  If breweries can help you, they generally (seem to) want to - and when they can't, they want to make sure you understand how it might have happened.

And many make good on it anyway.  More than one brewer said that if you bring them a legitimate complaint, they're more than happy to square it with you.  One gives standing orders to the bar staff that if anyone stops by with a concern to "buy them a beer and talk about it, and come get me if I'm around.  I'll spill that much beer in two minutes anyway, and this way we build some trust and goodwill with our community.  If they're there in person, they obviously care."  

Stick to Simple Descriptions

When I asked about the most useful feedback breweries get, a majority answered that they want more "relative" advice.  "Tell me you want more hop flavor, or less alcohol, or more banana, or the same bitterness."  That kind of advice can tell a brewer about what you like to drink, and maybe it won't change this beer/recipe, but it does "give me ideas about what to brew next if a few people ask for it."

The worst advice?  "Telling me about how a beer doesn't do what you think it should."  This can apply to people who say that a beer is "too [whatever] for this style."  When a lot of brewers hear that (or compare it to a previous year or another beer in the market), they seem to be immediately suspicious.  "I love it when I hear that someone thinks 'this year's [name redacted] is worse than last year's' - especially since we don't brew that beer once a year, we brew it all the time.  It just tells me that they're acting like an expert, and they don't really know our beer at all." 

Another said something similar: "I really doubt you remember what our beer tasted like last year."

And please, please, please - don't lecture brewers.  "Short and sweet.  That's what I want.  What you liked and didn't like."  If you have deeper opinions, "go start a blog!"  [I really hope that wasn't a dig on me...]

Don't Overreach

The biggest roadblock, it seems, is a relatively low beer-knowledge base in the marketplace.  That's not terribly surprising, given that most aren't the kind of beer super-nerds that I routinely associate with.  What is surprising is that it isn't getting better.  Craft beer isn't new anymore.  It's everywhere.  It's on airplanes, in stadiums, and in corner dive bars.  So is the level of knowledge increasing?

"If anything, it's getting worse."  The panel seemed to agree that given the growth of the craft beer market, new consumers are flooding in faster than they used to, which is great for sales but also means a huge glut of relative neophytes that (unfortunately) are also prone to parroting conventional wisdom or half-baked notions of what beers are or should be.  

And while most said "it's our job to make sure people know what our beer should be," they also said that they wished people would just stick to what they know, not what's fashionable to say.  "I really do want to know what you think, but more about what you liked/didn't like, not what I should do about it."  

Rules of Thumb

So when you're giving feedback, here's the short version to make a bigger impact:

1. Start with a simple yes/no proposition - would you buy it again?
2. Don't hold back just because you're one voice, because you don't know what else that brewer is hearing!
3. Tell them everything so they know where the trouble spots are, but recognize that it might not be their fault or responsibility.
4. Stay within your realm of expertise and say what you want more/less of rather than critiquing the beer: "Too bitter for me" is great, while "your IBUs are too high" is potentially alehole-ish.

This should be a decent feedback strategy and should also reduce the likelihood of surly reactions from bartenders/brewers!

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).

[NB: Quotes may have been altered for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to grammatical adjustment, elaboration of acronyms, removal of profanity, and use of overly-jargonistic language.  In some places I also use language that is a composite or approximation of what multiple brewers wrote/told me.  The gist is theirs, but the tone and specific words may be mine, so feel free to blame me for anything written here!  The positions noted represent the views of a small sample of 30-35 brewers and owners, with a moderate Mid-Atlantic or Northeastern bias, though the sample includes brewers from all over the US and one Canadian.]

 


Certifiable: Beer Classification, Evaluation, and Certification

You may not know this, but you're wearing a beer and brewing straitjacket.  It has one purpose: to make your beer, whether brewed or purchased, boring and common.  It goes by many names.  It's called beer classification, or a style guide, or a defined historical beer style - but you know what I call it?  Being in league with the anti-creative beer devil.  ABV 6.66%.  Beerelzebub.  A dark force that makes you brew over and over again with the world's least creative yeast (Saccharomyces Luciferensis).  Its minions command a legion of beer snobs and uptight beer demons branded with the mark of their master: a beer glass and four cryptic letters (B...J...C...P...chills), or a disembodied hand bearing a soulless flute of dead ale and the name of what is probably a necropolis buried deep beneath the Vatican (it's something like....Cicerone?).

And these people are out to ruin your beer fun and slap those brewing cuffs on you.  Want to add some fennel to that Saison?  Hell no, chief - let's just put down the fragrant flowering plant bulb and back away.  Considering fermenting that Pilsner with a traditional ale strain? Pitch it and die.  Go ahead - make my day...  Pondering an imperial Berliner Weisse?  That's it, crazy eyes - into the back of the Style Guide patrol car.  As they lead you away, no doubt quoting the Reinheitsgebot and/or humming "Deutschland uber Alles," you'll realize that you never should have even considered such a travesty.

Right.  Or not.

If you believe half of what you read on the internet about the organizations that try to define and classify beer, you'd believe what I just wrote.  But the reality is that this fear of beer classification (and those who seek to - dare we say it - judge beer) is both deeply irrational and in no way a threat to beer's diversity or creativity.  And if you stare into the depths of the BA style guidelines, your face isn't going to melt off like that Nazi at the end of Raiders - you'll just shrug, walk away, and continue to brew what you want, taking what you just read into account, or not.

Classification is helpful and useful as an informational shortcut for brewers and drinkers.  Evaluation of beer is simple if you want it to be, and can be done by anyone.  Certification isn't some path to an exalted plane of beer nirvana, it's just a way to demonstrate a minimum level of competence in a certain brewing-related activity.  And all of this does nothing to limit brewing creativity.  So let's talk about it.

A Rose by Any Other Name...

I spent about an hour the other day trying to nail down someone's objection to beer guidelines.  The thrust of the argument was that because guidelines provide definitions for beer and beer styles, it hampers creativity.  How?  Well...I don't know, but one day, because we have these guidelines, breweries might want actual LAWS passed that protect certain style names and require they be brewed in a specific way, or in a specific place, or with a specific ingredient, and pretty soon all you have is a few styles of beer that never change and are held in place by hidebound LAWS that never let us be creative - or so it was argued.

That, my friends, is the very definition of a "slippery slope" fallacy.  The individual in question was irate because this was his/her interpretation of what happened in France with wine, and that it was inevitable that the same would happen in the US  and elsewhere with beer.  See, I like to think that we're smarter than that.  I don't envision the day ever coming when a brewery can't make an English Pale Ale with German hops, because a law was passed that says English-style beers must be brewed with English hops. But let's say we're dumb.  And that law has been passed.  So what?  The brewer calls it something else and continues to brew it.  Done.

In the meantime, we get to take advantage of the good that guidelines do.  They make it more likely you're satisfied by your beer choices.  They make it possible to at least attempt to objectively compare and evaluate beers.  And they educate you on the history of beer styles, which ingredients often lead to the flavors, and probably even inspire you to brew or drink something new (to you).

Classification isn't there to inhibit you - it's there to help you.  And it's unavoidable, by the way.

We name things.  We group things.  Once we do, we create expectations about what that group label means.  And we do that because we're trying, maybe without appreciating why, to create efficiency in our lives.  If you don't believe me, ask yourself how long it would take you to order a beer if the tap list didn't say things like "IPA" or "Stout" next to the beer name, and instead every one had a paragraph-long description.  And imagine how you'd respond if you ordered "John Smith's White IPA" and got something that looked and tasted like Sinebrychoff Porter - would you say, "my goodness, this is exactly what I expected and wanted when I ordered my White IPA!"  No, you'd have a few obvious questions for the bartender - specifically, whether someone had mislabeled a tap or if they had recently been blinded by someone throwing quicklime in their eyes because this clearly isn't a WHITE IPA.  

The same logic would apply to shopping at your favorite bottle shop or beer store.  You scan the shelves and look at the offerings, and you're reading traditional style identifiers - Pils, Stout, IPA, Kolsch, Sour - sometimes with modifiers (imperial, cherry, dark, etc.).  Those exist to help you get what you want, not to put handcuffs on brewers.  

And let's talk about those handcuffs for a second.  Yes, you can reasonably make the case that assigning parameters to beer might inherently limit brewers.  Maybe they brew within the guidelines to make their beer easier to sell.  Maybe they brew to your expectations instead of their imaginations.  Maybe they follow the herd.  But that's THEIR decision.  It isn't imposed on them by the guidelines.  And I think we can all agree that there's enough of a non-traditionalist vibe among craft beer people that we'll still get plenty of brewers who aren't so prosaic and plenty of drinkers to reward them for it.

Finally, let's talk about whether those handcuffs are handcuffs at all.  Most of the people I know who rail against the BA or BJCP guidelines have never really read them, or are reading WAY too much into them.  Take a look - they're broad as hell, both in terms of the diversity of styles and the way the parameters within this styles are drawn.  And if you've somehow managed to create something that matches no beer that ANYONE has ever made - that's what the open/specialty/experimental categories are for (and some of those have literally NO style parameters).  So if they're handcuffs, they're handcuffs that are so loose that they can be slipped at will.

I'm not willing to eliminate the profoundly useful informational shortcut/heuristic that beer style names/descriptions provide just to avoid a potential slippery-slope towards legal restriction some years down the road.  Let's have that discussion when the issue actually arises, OK?

Simple Beer Evaluation - Know What You Want, and Get It

We've covered this to some extent here before, but as a quick contextual recap, there's a difference between "evaluation" and "judging."  "Judging" is about sensory analysis to a known (and hopefully objective) standard - in other words, comparing what a beer says it is to what we generally expect or know similarly-identified beers to be.  In a perfect world it's a systematic process that allows us to quantify a beer's "fit" with developed norms and (to a lesser extent) its overall quality by identifying any "faults."  And in that context, published guidelines aren't just handy, they're essential, to be sure that we're doing everything we can to judge beer fairly.

But you don't need to judge beer to evaluate it.  You just need to decide what goal you're serving in your evaluation.  Do you want to know whether this is an historically-accurate Gose?  Do you want to decide whether a beer is "too bitter" for your palate?  Are you trying to evaluate a brewery's brewing skill?  Do you just want to know whether you'll order another one?  Because those are all evaluative goals.

You're probably also doing it whether you know it or not.  At a basic level, unless you're drinking just to get drunk, you're evaluating whether the beer is "good" or not.

So if we're talking about consciously evaluating beer, there's a few simple steps you can follow to do it more effectively - whether you use published guidelines to do so or not.

1. Decide what you're trying to ascertain.  It's totally your call.  What do you want to know?  

2. Gather any information you'll need.  At a minimum, I recommend doing a quick read of the brewery's description of the beer, so you have some idea what to expect.  It's exceptionally challenging to pick out flavor elements "blind" - prime your sensory system with a little information and you'll have an easier time working out how well the beer works for you.

3. Drink consciously.  In other words, don't just chug (unless the evaluation is whether you can chug a beer quickly or not).  I always tell people to spend more time sniffing than sipping, since it's easier (to me) to "reset" your nose/olfactory system to keep getting more perceptions - one quick sniff of your own sleeve, and you can jump back in.  You should also, when you get around to sipping, do it with a purpose: one sip for initial/dominant flavor, a second for bittering levels, a third for esters/phenols, a fourth for finish, a fifth for lingering aftertastes, etc.  Trying to sense it all in one gulp is really challenging - by looking for particular elements with each taste, you can pull more out of your sensory experience and increase the odds of meeting your evaluation goals.

4. ALWAYS ask whether you like the beer.  Forget the style, the description, your expectations - did you like drinking it?  Because at the end of the day that shouldn't be overridden by whether it "fit" the style.  Maybe it is too light for a Russian Imperial Stout - but was it "good" in terms of your enjoyment?  If so, that's always worth noting!

None of this requires style guidelines.  None of this is inhibited by it.  You're free to come up with your own rules - you're evaluating, not judging.

But let's talk about those who do...

Certifiable

Becoming a certified beer judge, Cicerone, sommelier or any other such person doesn't make you an expert.  It makes you a certified "whatever."  

It also doesn't necessarily mean you have a superior palate (our friends over at Brulosophy recently weighed in with some data on that), though you might.  It doesn't mean you have the answers on what's "right" or "wrong" about a beer or beer in general, though you might.  It doesn't mean those without the credential are morons, though it might.  What it does mean, usually, is that you passed some series of academic and/or practical assessments and you are now minimally qualified to do whatever that organization says its members can do.  

For BJCP-certified beer judges, that means you're qualified to evaluate beer in a competition setting, communicate your perceptions in writing to the entrant, and assign a score consistent with what other certified judges are likely to produce.  For Cicerones, it means you have knowledge of beer service and quality issues and should be able to address them appropriately.  Other organizations have other goals.  But none of them are seeking to establish global domination and mandate that you brew or drink only what they say.  When they have specific guidelines, they exist to systematize the evaluations they're expecting their members to be able to make, not to limit your brewing or drinking options.  In fact, those guidelines aren't even for you.  They're there to let the organization evaluate, train, and educate their own members.

But since we're on the subject, let's talk about the elephant in the room: yes, some certified beer judges/professionals are certified aleholes.  Sometimes aggressively so.  I still remember my very first turn as a Steward at a brewing competition - it was awful.  I was looking after a table with two of the biggest aleholes you'd ever met.  I was convinced that I wouldn't EVER want to be a beer judge if it meant hanging around people like that - one literally barked "STOP!" at a steward because she removed a bottle cap from the table.   

And these certified aleholes can certainly be unbearable in other situations.  They might tell you that you shouldn't like a beer because "it's clearly riddled with diacetyl - you can feel it, like a slickness on your tongue, and it tastes like movie popcorn butter." Yeah - thanks, d**k.  You know what a lot of people love eating?  MOVIE POPCORN BUTTER.  Let me enjoy my beer.  "You know, you shouldn't pair that beer with sushi because the hop bitterness might overcome the subtle flavor of the amberjack."  Great - I'm just eating here, guy.  I'm not a judge on Top Chef.  

As time went on, though, I found that such people were exceptions, not the rule.  Most, in fact, were very much the opposite - they appreciated beer more because of the work they put into becoming certified.  They were understanding of the challenges of making great beer and worked hard to help people fix it.  They make the beer world a better place because they help brewers identify shortcomings in their process and suggest ways to fix them.  Even when they're overbearing it's because they love beer, and they're trying to help others love beer.

We shouldn't (fittingly or ironically, depending on your experience) judge them too harshly.

The Comforting Embrace of the Straitjacket

Speaking for myself, I like that there are guidelines for beer.  I have my complaints about them - as I'm sure we all do - but those are practical or organizational concerns, not a wholesale anxiety about this notion of classifying beer in the first place.

Published guidelines for beer codify our norms and provide support and guidance.  They aren't constraining - you can always just ignore them.  And for those who worry that it prevents brewers from freely experimenting and stifles them, I'd counter that I brewed a lot of my beers because I read about them in a set of style guidelines first, so that saw can really cut both ways.  

And adding an element of organization and objectivity to beer evaluation is much the same.  You don't need to adhere to it - evaluate your own way, for your own reasons - but isn't it nice to know that we're at least trying to find ways to take the subjectivity out of beer when that's the goal?   

But if you're one of us - and you're certified to judge beer, or identify what are considered faults or mismatches, or recommend corrections or food pairings - then recognize your own limitations, both practically and socially.  Not every scenario calls for your skills.  Your experience in tasting/judging in a systematic way may not mean that you've developed any greater palate sensitivity or sensory skill.  Know your limitations.  Be humble.  

Now, if you're one of those that think we're headed to a new era of beer intolerance and homogeneity, maybe just take a step back and ignore those guidelines entirely.  Don't disparage them (or those who use them) because you're afraid of where they might lead.  In other words, be as tolerant of them as you want them to be of you.  Can't we all just get along?

And when the time comes to fight the New Beer Purity laws, you better believe I'll be right there with you.

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).