Tag Archives: beer criticism

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 1/10/17

Paste Magazine has a repository of well-written beer reviews by writers who really know their beer.  Here is an example of one.  This review of the Deschutes Red Chair NWPA is clear and solidly written.  There are other examples on Paste’s website and you can find still others at All About Beer magazine.    They are all examples of what modern reviews look like across a spectrum of disciplines.  From movies to books to television to beer, good reviews in the internet age are tightly written explanations of what the reviewer liked or disliked about the object.  If it is on the higher end of the quality scale, they go on to describe why they did or didn’t like it in a quick entertaining way.

There are times I don’t think I’m meant for this age. I have little to no interest in the things most people do in today’s world.  I listened to one of my favorite podcasts yesterday as they talked about the Golden Globes ceremony from the night before.  There was a little talk about the awards themselves, but mostly it was about the gossip and the celebrity of it.  Somewhere around the talk about Tom Hiddleston and whether he really dated Taylor Swift, I realized I could not give less than two damns about that stuff.  This obsession with celebrity and fame is how we ended up with the president-elect we have.  The elevation of celebrity is a symptom of people having a superficial understanding of competence and skill.

Another symptom is how we review art and craft.  While I like reading reviews like the one for Red Chair, they seem superficial.  Now, I understand they must be for the needs of most magazines in the internet age.  A review is an attempt to express to a hurried reader whether they will like a movie or a book or a television show or a beer.  A good writer will explain quickly and clearly why or why not.  A critique is different.  It is an attempt to explain to the reader and the wider world whether this thing was successful at being what it attempts to be and why or why not.

A good beer critique will do exactly what this review of Red Chair does.  It will go over the appearance, the aroma, the flavor, and the mouthfeel/finish and tell you whether those things added up to a pleasurable experience.  Then it must go further with two questions.  First, is this beer a good example of a beer of this style according to the guidelines?  Second, does this beer achieve what the brewer set out to achieve when the recipe was created? Why or why not?

I haven’t written any reviews in a while because I got tired of writing the same thing as everyone else.  I have taken a step back the last couple of months and now I think I am ready to try to do something different with my reviews.  We’ll see if it works.

Bell’s Brewery Best Brown Ale Review

In modern American craft brewing, brown ales are often an afterthought. If you look at the core beers for most breweries, you will see the obligatory IPA, a saison, a stout/porter, a wit/wheat ale/hefeweizen, and probably a lager/pilsner/Kolsch.  That leaves the brown ale out in the cold.  Why is that?

While the brown ale is seemingly simple it is a rather difficult beer to brew well and it is a beer misunderstood by many drinkers. It along with ambers is the in between beer.  It isn’t as dark and heavy as a stout or even a porter and it isn’t as hoppy as an IPA. It is made for the lovers of malt.  So how do you define it?

For me, a good brown is the perfect session beer.  Not hoppy, with a low abv, and still a lot of taste.

One way to highlight a brown ale is to make it a seasonal.  This may seem strange for such a simple style, but it means a brewery is giving the beer the time and attention it deserves.

20161026_113350Bell’s Best Brown Ale is a chestnut colored brown ale released seasonally at the beginning of every fall. Like a good Marzen or Oktoberfeistbier, there is nothing remarkable about this beer.  It is just that Bells has taken the time to craft a good and solid brown ale.  First, as I said, it is chestnut in color and has a thin off-white head that has good retention.

Next, it has a chocolaty malt aroma and a faint hops aroma just underneath it.  The first thing you notice is that it has a light malty feel on your palate.  The taste is where it all comes together for this beer.  You get a slightly chocolate and maybe hazelnut (?) taste to with just enough of a hop bitterness reminder to highlight the malt and make you want to have another sip.

As much as people want hops and hoppy taste to their beers, without malt balancing out the hops you get a mouthful of grass clippings.  That is why black IPAs and browns are maybe my two favorite styles when well-made and balanced.  BIPAs must have enough malt to highlight the hops and browns must have enough hops to balance out the malt.

Best Brown achieves this balance and provides fans of malty beers another great fall seasonal option.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 10/26/16

A couple of days after the GABF awards came out, I saw a thread on Reddit or Beer Advocate where commenters talked about the awards.  Many believed the awards were rigged.  That goes with the territory.  Your favorite whatever doesn’t win a subjective award, the awards were rigged.  What was more telling or annoying or both to me was the number of commenters who said that they would rather look at the ratings on Untappd, RateBeer, Beer Advocate, or other such sites then the results of a judged contest.  I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding of a) what judging a contest with guidelines is and b) what reviews are supposed to do.

First, judges notes and beer criticism are not the same as comments made on Untappd or RateBeer or other sites.  On those sites, you do have commenters who are thoughtful and interesting in what they write, especially on Beer Advocate.  However, those sites are mostly to say, “I like this beer” or “I dislike this beer.”

Judging a beer contest that adheres to BJCP or GABF guidelines doesn’t necessarily tell you the beers that everyone will like the most.  They tell you the beers that are the most technically proficient and well made.

A review also should not necessarily concern itself with whether the reviewer likes the beer.  It should be an inquiry into how all the parts of the beer work together to give an overall impression.  If at the end the reviewer does or does not like it, you must explain why or why not and explore the highlights and/or deficiencies.  Whether the reviewer personally likes it or not, it is that last part that is important because it is what will tell the reader whether they will like it or not.

It also tells the brewer what they have done right or wrong.  Judging and properly done critical reviews are more for brewers than they are for regular consumers.  I think critics should be in conversation with the brewer with the drinkers eavesdropping.

This article is the perfect example as to how this is supposed to work.  The writer wrote a critical, but fair review.  The brewer read the review.  Here is the critical point, the brewer had enough self-awareness to look at the review and say, “what do we need to do better?” The brewer fixed the problems and the brewery has taken off.

Like many creatives, brewers cannot always separate themselves from their creations enough to see them clearly or let others criticize them fairly.  The successful ones, like successful artists, have the ability to step back and accept criticism.  The very best can self-critique in a way that is harsher than anyone else can. They see the I love this beer or I hate this beer comments as nice, but not helpful.  I have sold lots of beer that customers say they love but isn’t good.  The wisdom of crowds will tell you what’s popular, not necessarily what is quality work.

An Argument For Beer Criticism

We live in a time when everyone can be a critic. Anyone can go on Rotten Tomatoes and rate the last movie they saw.  Anyone can go on Yelp and review the last restaurant they went to.  Anyone can go on Untappd, RateBeer, or Beer Advocate and rate the last beer they drank.  Anyone can start a blog and write about whatever movie, album, or book they just enjoyed or hated.

It is the democratization of criticism.  However, is it criticism worth listening to?  I recently read AO Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism.  It is an interesting book for anyone involved in any type of creative endeavor. He wrote the book as an argument for the need of the professional critical class.  He explains the origins of criticism, how it is practiced by professionals, and the goal of good criticism.  The book also serves as a for users of Rotten Tomatoes, Good Reads, and RateBeer to criticize better.  So from Mr. Scott’s general thoughts on criticism to a more specific area of criticism:  What is a beer critic?

Let’s start with is the point of the existence of critics.

A critic is a “professional appreciator.” The best critics have the ability to be moved emotionally by a piece while at the same time explaining to you why they were moved.  A critic should be able to take the component parts of a work apart, examine them, and tell you why they work or don’t.  Yet, at the same time the critic should be able to convey the emotion conveyed when those parts are assembled.  In other words, tell you why a certain camera angle at a precise moment can move you to fear or happiness or tears.

While telling you why something does or doesn’t work or is or isn’t beautiful is important in some sense, what exactly is the need for critics?  Is a critic someone who defends the traditional, champions the unknown/underappreciated, or are they cheerleaders for what’s popular at this very moment?  To answer that, lets break it down into 4 sections: How do creators see critics; How does the public see critics; What do critics think they are doing; How does all that effect what the modern critic actually does.

Series and rigorous critics consider themselves part of the creative process.  A slightly removed part, but a part nonetheless. Most critics began their critical lives as creators.  Most movie critics studied screenwriting or directing.  Most book reviewers have a manuscript or two tucked away somewhere.  Most beer writers have sat in garages on Saturday morning boiling wort.

The critic stands between the creators and the public fostering a conversation between not only those two groups but for creators and for the public to have among themselves.  To me the critics job isn’t to tell anyone whether a movie, album, book, or beer is bad.  It is to tell you whether it is successful in attempting to do what it attempts to do.  Good or bad are value judgements that can only be made by individuals.

Creators see critics as meddling know-it-alls.  Dilatants sitting outside the creative process throwing stones and making assessments about things they know nothing about.  When faced with a bad review, creators will often fall into, “They just didn’t understand what I was trying to do.” Here is the critic’s defense: Good reviewers usually have an excellent idea about what the creator was trying to do.  In a world where the critic and the creators are in a dialogue, the critic is free to tell the creator I know what you were trying, but you failed and here is why.

The difference between a critic and a website reviewer is the Untappd user will give a beer 1 star and put the comment “this sucks” with it.  A critic explains that the beer was an attempt at something new and creative and then why the beer failed.  Unfortunately, creators often lump both of those reactions together.

The public sees the critic as a utility. The reason people love rating websites is that they point them in a direction.  Critics help cut through all the clutter and noise to find the stuff worth enjoying.  There is a finite amount of time in the world and too much of everything.  Around the world, almost 3000 movies come out every year. In the US alone, somewhere around 300,000 books come out every year.  There are over 4000 breweries in the US and if you say they each produce around 7 beers each, you are looking at almost 30,000 different beers.  The critic in part should strive to make the average consumer’s life a little bit easier.

So, combining those points of view, what is it the critic actually does in a modern world?  The critic has no job if the public doesn’t read him. So, a job of the critic is to find the worthwhile and present it to the public in a clear and concise way. A good review should get across the basics of a beer and whether it is worth your while to seek it out and drink it as quickly and as entertainingly as possible.

A critic should also write the review so that the creator can get something out of it.  By saying what worked and what didn’t with as little judgement as possible, makes the review more palatable for a creator if it is a “bad” one.

The critic and the creator should also engage in a continuous conversation about what they are doing and where their creations stand with respect to the past, present, and future.

That is an important conversation.  In beer, annotated styles are snap shots in fixed point in time.  Styles shift and change as the public’s appetites change, ingredients become more or less available, and as the brewers (who are creative people) take chances with their creations.  Take the ubiquitous IPA. Just in the last 10 years the American IPA has shifted and changed.  If you consider what we call an IPA with the first IPAs shipped from England to India, those beers only have a passing resemblance to each other.  In my mind, it is important for critics and creators to talk about what was, what is, and what the future may hold.

So, what is it I want to do as a beer critic.  First, I want to explain why a beer is successful or isn’t successful.  Meaning, did the brewer do what they set out to do?  I want to tell you that so you can make the decision as to whether you like it or not.  I never want to use the words good or bad or any of their synonyms in a review.  I can only tell you what it tastes like. I can only explain whether I think it is a successful interpretation of the current style guidelines, a return to the original intent of the first brewers of that beer, or whether it is the herald of a shift in the style.

Second, I want to think about where beer is going.  What will affect who, what, where, and how beer is made in the future.  We are at an interesting time in beer.  Two things are occurring simultaneously: Consolidation is creating ever larger beer companies as beer drinkers are getting more localized in the beer they want.  I think the growth we have had for the last five years will slow.  Urban areas are getting saturated with breweries and those breweries will start to close and consolidate with each other.  However, it is the smaller towns and more rural areas where growth will continue with breweries opening up in 15,000 people towns away from urban centers allowing everyone to have a beer to call their own.  While at the same time the big beer companies are no longer going to build breweries pumping out the same beer all over the country.  Instead they are buying regional breweries and helping them flood their local markets.

I’m making my life harder.  I started off, just wanting to drink and write about beer.  Now, I’ve elevated myself to the role of critic and all that I put into the meaning of that word.  God, this will be fun.

What Kind of Week It Has Been, 3/20/16

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:

  1. Did you taste and feel that?
  2. Did you like it?
  3. 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.