Here is another great post by Bryan D. Roth who continues to do good and interesting work around what craft beer really is and not what we want to think of it. Each year he researches the ratings of beers by regular drinkers and experts to see what trends have developed and to give a good accounting of what is considered the “best.” Today’s post takes that research a step further and shows how abv and rarity/uniqueness affects the perceived quality (and price) of beer.
Craft had been open for a few months and I was behind the bar on a Friday or a Saturday night. A customer could not decide what to drink, so he asked me what my favorite beer on the wall was. On tap at that moment was the Mystery Ballantrae, a wonderfully malty 3.8% Scottish ale that I love. So, that is what I told him. He looked at me with either confusion or disgust and said, “It’s not even 4%.” That is one of the interactions that told me two things early on that I always remember. First, people just want you to confirm their opinion. They know what they want to drink and they just want you to tell them it is OK. Second, people honestly believe higher abv is a sign of quality.
Now after a few more experiences like that, when asked what my favorite beer on the wall is, I pick the lightest abv and weirdest possible beer as my favorite. I have recommended many grisettes, Scottish ales, schwarzbiers, dry Irish stouts, and ESBs to unsuspecting customers who want me to tell them how great the 10% abv barrel-aged Russian Imperial Stout is. If I tell you I like it, I really do like it, but I’m trying in a small and somewhat petty way to get people to see that great beer comes in all shapes and colors not just IPA and imperial stouts.
I’m beginning to think that there are two separate craft beer worlds. There is the one where people look for good beer and eschew macro beer. They just want to drink something that is good and interesting. The other world is the world of the Whale. In this world buying and drinking beer is a performative act. You are not just buying the beer to drink it, you are buying it to show others how cool and connected you are. “Wow, you got this bottle of Cantillon Grand Cru? You must be cool and really know your beer.”
Roth’s post shows the effect of this way of thinking and acting. If you can get enough of the right tastemakers to say they like one of your beers, your whole brewery can become a star. I’m often asked if I think the awards at GABF are done fairly. This article explains why the rare whales everyone votes to the top of RateBeer, Beer Advocate, and Untappd don’t win. Your perception of them is colored by things that have little to do with the actual liquid in the glass and that is what it should always come down to.