Before I get into what I wanted to write about today, I wanted to say something. I’ve been gone for a while from this space. I am an obsessive workaholic with trust issues. That means I sometimes throw myself into my work to the point of physical or mental collapse and ineffectiveness. That is what happened last week. Through my own stubbornness and issues, I managed to simultaneously work too much and fuck up almost everything I touched while doing so. It was a nice trick. Anyway, last week has passed and now onto whatever the future holds.
The one thing managed to do successfully this past week was read. I’m reading a couple of books right now, but the one I that has the most to do with my beer writing is Better Living Through Criticism by AO Scott. Scott is the chief film critic for The New York Times. He is a good read as well as a good reviewer. What he attempts with this book is explain what a critic’s role in art is and how you can use that to make your enjoyment of art better.
I have long considered good craft beer and good craft brewing to akin to art. At its best, it is an expression of the skill and creativity of brewers as they find ways to express themselves within the boundaries of what brewing is. If it isn’t then we should all just drink Budweiser. The best thing and most damning thing about Budweiser is that you can drink a Bud from any of its breweries around the world and it will taste the exact same as one from another brewery.
This is way of viewing brewing that many if not most, even in the craft beer community, do not have. Beer is a product. A commodity to be manufactured, sold, and consumed. When your job is to sell beer, it can be hard to remember how creative a brewer can be and should be.
Recently, I tasted a beer from a brewer who I respect more than most others because of the creativity and risks that brewer always takes with his beer. I hated this beer. It was an attempt that was unsuccessful as a commercially viable beer. As a person tasked with selling beer to bar patrons, I was annoyed that this expensive beer was bad and unsellable.
As a writer who aspires to be a beer critic, I am fascinated by this beer. Tasting it, I saw exactly what the brewer was trying to do and I could also see why it was not successful. I struggled with how to define what was wrong with the beer in a different context then, “this is bad.” What was bad about it; why did it turn out wrong; what was the brewer attempting; was he successful with that attempt; if he was successful, why didn’t the beer work.
I’ve always gravitated to reviews of beer and other acts of art that were more than just is this good or bad. I want more than some star rating or whatever. I want more than this sucks. That is all that most consumers and bar owners care about, however if we are to grow as a beer drinking community there has to be more than that. We have to ask the next logical question after a beer is declared to suck: why does it suck?
In his book AO Scott lays out three questions at the base of what a critic does. I am paraphrasing here to gear the questions more towards beer, but here they are:
- Did you taste and feel that?
- Did you like it?
- Be honest.
To me, the most important part of that is, Be honest. As a critic, you must be honest about what you taste, what you feel, and how it affects you.
To do that a critic must develop the skills to identify what he is tasting and the vocabulary to describe it. They must also have the skill to do that in an effective and clear manner. Again, above all else the critic must be ruthlessly honest with himself first and foremost. That means understanding your predilections but not letting them define you or your criticism.
As humans, I think one of our jobs is to accept our mistakes and the bad things that happen to us and use them to grow and keep ourselves in the life we want to live. For me, weeks like last week, remind me of the things I hold important to the life I want to lead. I am reminded to remember every decision I make has to be with purpose, and that I must live consciously and stop coasting. Trying to understand beer and place in a context of our shared humanity is how I choose not to coast.