Unlike ever before, the internet is proliferated with reviews of beer. As if Beer Advocate and Rate Beer had not provided the interwebs with enough paradoxical opinions and love stories for that hopmonster of an ale you hold in your hand, there has sprung up a glut of beer blogs that are dying to tell you that they tasted roasted pine nuts and grapefruit in said beer.
Before you dismiss this as a jaded libel loaded rant, keep in mind that the site authoring this article fits into the aforementioned category; blog that occasionally reviews beer. Yes, we will occasionally pour a brew into a goofy looking glass, swish the sweet brew around, dig our nose into the aroma, savor the flavor in our mouths, and then tell you what we think about it. One thing we try to avoid is the pitfall of esoteric-ism; a subtle trap that lies in any niche, whether it be beer, artisan cheeses, or wine.
With wine in mind, a recent article was pointed out by a fellow beer blogger that served as the springboard for this piece of faux journalism you now read. The article titled A Hint of Hype, A Tasted of Illusion, in the Wall Street Journal blew the lid on irresponsible wine ratings. Even more so than in the craft beer world, in the wine world, a review can make or break a product or a brand and the earning potential of the vinter.
In the WSJ article, the author brings to light a study that demonstrates that a particular win could win one competition, but bomb another. Worst, the study revealed that a wine judge would inconsistently rate the same wine. Even worse, a “cheap” wine placed in an empty bottle of high end wine fetched severely higher ratings than when poured from its original humble vessel.
Taste buds cannot be trusted, but image can. So how does this apply to the world of craft beer reviews?
In the opinion of this beer guy, the aristocracy of wine is swapped out for the esoteric in the craft beer world. Don’t get me wrong, quality is king, but there is an appeal for beers that push the boundaries. Just contemplate the Dog Fish Head slogan, “Off Centered Ales for Off Centered People.” The slogan from one of my favorite breweries not only recognizes the desire for the unusual, but that the consumer himself/herself desires to be considered cryptically enlightened (off centered people).
Why wouldn’t this appeal shine through in beer reviews?
I recall Charlie Papazian making a statement in The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, in regard to abstract homebrew ingredients, something to the effect of that there is no ingredient that has not been tried in beer (this is not a quote, just an “in essence” recollection.) I would posit that in this day of instant expert beer rating, that there is no perceived taste or smell that has not been attributed to a particular beer. Such a statement would be false, and I am reminded of it each day as I read far fetching reviews in which otherworldly flavors are said to be tasted in a particular beer.
The point is, that just as a wine judge in the Wall Street Journal article might subconsciously–or quite consciously–stretch the truth based off the label on a bottle, a beer reviewer just might, in attempt to attain credibility or notoriety for possessing the most refined palate, stretch the truth as he/she claims to taste braised Cornish hen, palm hearts, and Ecuadorean llapingachos in that off-centered ale. Now, in order to avoid the term “hypocrite,” let me point out that at times I taste unique flavors in beer. In fact, Flying Dog’s Raging Bitch tastes like rubber bands to me. But, if a delicious beer tastes simply like caramel and bitter lemony hops, I will not tell you it tastes like raw oysters, but will tell you it tastes like caramel and bitter lemony hops.
I wonder if beer reviewers would REALLY be able to drink a few sips of any given India Pale Ale, rinse their palate, and after tasting the same IPAs again, correctly identify the brands? Taking it a step further, I wonder if the beer reviewer could taste a few IPAs, identify the unique (and oh so abstract flavors) and repeat the same result?
What do you think?
When you read a beer review, especially the really mystical variety, do you believe the author actually tastes the flavors that correspond to foods/tastes you’ve never even heard of, or do you smell something a bit more foul than pungent hops?