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Friday, May 21, 2010

Book Review: The Beer Trials

The Beer Trials
Seamus Campbell and Robin Goldstein
Fearless Critic Media, $14.95

It always feels like I'm the last to learn about cool beer events that happen around town (of the Associated Brotherhood of Portland Beer Bloggers local 503, I am the designated hermit), so it's no surprise that I didn't know Seamus Campbell and Robin Goldstein were quietly putting together a book based on a series of blind tastings conducted right here in River City. The idea sprang from The Wine Trials, a successful book Goldstein put out a couple years ago, wherein wines were subjected to blind taste tests by a panel of judges and then rated on a ten-point scale. In the Beer Trials,
Each beer was tasted by a rotating subset of the larger tasting panel. At each tasting, we had a steward who was responsible for selecting beers for each of the evening's panel of three to six tasters.... Beers were grouped with other beers of the same family--and the same style when possible--and served in flights of three, six, or (occasionally) nine beers.
Niki Harrison Ganong (aka Suds Sister) was one of the tasters, and she expanded on the experience:
Though the beers were roughly grouped by style, we did not know anything about them (including the style). They were poured in another room and brought out on trays and were numbered. We had a form and a space to write comments for each beer. We also rated them numerically in categories ranging from hoppiness to mouthfeel to bitterness. No table talk until everyone was done writing.
The goal was pretty obvious: separated from their label, fame, and our memory of them, how would these beers stack up when tasted blindly? The results of the tasting "trials" form the main substance of the book.

Let's start with what worked, first. The book includes ratings for 250 beers (which, since most of them came from Belmont Station, are available in Portland!), and they're rated within categories. I generally find the scores credible, and therefore surprising. The panels gave Rodenbach a 7 and Rodenbach Grand Cru a 9. Good! A number of world classics received their highest score: Saison Dupont, Paulaner Hefe-Weizen, Pliny the Elder. A number of well-regarded beers got middling scores (Full Sail Pale, Widmer Hefeweizen, Rochefort 8) while some poorly-regarded or lower-profile beers scored highly (Singha, 7)--exactly what you expect in a blind tasting. Broken Halo was awarded the highest score in the IPA category, which given its competitiveness, was an eyebrow raiser. To the extent you can find overlooked-beers that scored well, it's quite handy.

Now to what didn't work. One big problem are the ratings, which aren't scaled. So while you read in the front matter that it's a ten-point scale, it's really only seven, with no beer getting a 1, 2, or 10. Worse, the median score is a 7, meaning that half the sample is bunched up at the top end (but not very top!). I would really have liked to see a weighted sample that did spread out over the full scale. Even better, it would have been nice to see the weighting applied to each "family" of beers (the book doesn't divide them up by style), so you don't end up with the problem they faced in the pale ale category, where the highest score was an 8, and where 28 of the 44 beers gets a seven or eight rating.

Another problem is the pale lager category, which contains everything from Czechvar and Prima Pils to Pabst and Keystone light. It's the largest category, with 81 entries--most of them industrial lagers. While there's something vaguely interesting in seeing Pabst (6) beat out Miller High Life (5) and Bud (4), it hardly bears giving each of these beers a one-page treatment. And when you devote 81 of your 250 slots to crap beer, that leaves fewer slots for the beer we really care about. Finally, there is the age-old problem of rating beers within categories. While it's true that Pabst may well be a "6" in terms of light lager, how are we supposed to compare it to other sixes like Lindemans Framboise, Full Sail Pale, or Samuel Smith's Oatmeal Stout? The casual reader may not know.

And this is really where I begin to wonder: who's the audience for this book? The Wine Trials made a lot of sense. When you stand in front of a wall of wines at the grocery store, you see some for $8, some for $25, and some for $60. These prices may not reflect actual quality--a well-regarded vintner may have had an off-year, while an obscure Chilean vintner had a stellar one. Unless you drink a huge amount of wine, you can't know which vintages and wineries to choose. Beer is different. If you've had a sixer of Deschutes Mirror Pond (Beer Trials rating: 7), you know what it tastes like. You don't have to wonder if it still tastes the same. And even if you're standing there looking at a beer you haven't tried, say Boddington's Cream Ale (Beer Trials rating: 4), you figure that at three bucks a can, you're not really out anything if you try it. And is anyone standing there in front of the 36-packs of Icehouse thinking, "Gee, I wonder what this got in Beer Trials?"

I hope the book sells, because I hope all beer books sell. I would like to write a few, and it would be cool to see a robust market developing. But I'm not sure who will pick up this book and decide they need it in their collection. It's a worthy experiment, but the execution strikes me as having a few beta-version bugs. My suggestions: weight the beers, ditch the macros, and expand the whole selection to include a thousand beers or more. That's a book I want.

8 comments:

Geoff said...

Nice review, Jeff. I completely agree with your thoughts. I would think their audience of people who would actually shell out $ for the book would already be fairly educated about beer, and would have no interest in the pale lagers they put such an emphasis on.

Another point is the overemphasis on analyzing the label of each beer. Their comments seemed all over the place, and it's not useful information.

That said, not a bad book...just would have done things a bit differently.

Tyce said...

Hi Jeff, thanks for the thoughtful comments and kind words. I'm an editor at Fearless Critic, and always love to hear how people are feeling about the book.

As far as the book's audience, we were hoping to serve the everyday beer drinker as well as the passionate aficionado. Our hope is that plenty of drinkers who do usually drink Bud or Miller - with maybe the occasional detour to Stella or Magic Hat - will pick up the book and use it to expand their knowledge. We've been pleasantly surprised by how many people who have never really explored beer are picking up the book and reporting it a useful road map to trying new brews. After all, it's easy to forget how daunting terms like IPA, White Belgian, hops, etc. can be to someone who rarely ventures outside the three or four usual beers. And if some readers merely end up with a new favorite pale lager - well, that's ok too.

Anyway, thanks so much for the thoughts, and please keep in touch.

Jeff Alworth said...

Tyce, thanks for the insight. I still stick with my recommendations, even knowing more about your audience. You could pare the light lagers back to say 25 or 30, including examples of familiar industrial brands (for the newbies) alongside some interesting micro and foreigns (which you have).

This of course assumes you get into subsequent printings--and I hope you do. Good luck--

Jeff Alworth said...

Oh, one other comment, which I didn't think needed to be in main review. The writers also show their hand a bit with regard to the Portland location. I had just reviewed Racer 5 when I got this review copy, and I was amused by this Portland-centric tell:

"The California Republic, or "Bear Republic," was an attempt at secession by the people of Sonoma in the mid-19th century. There's something about norther California that has inspired many attempts to from a separate state. As long as we can still import their beers, we don't mind."

Matthew D. said...

Great review Jeff. You touched on many concerns that popped into my head about the book.

Soggy Coaster said...

Another problem with beer books is they become outdated almost as soon as they're printed. I'm thinking of a book Rogue used to sell at the brewery because it named Shakespeare Stout the third-best beer in the world.

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a beer snob you are! American Lagers are "crap"? I disagree. They are not crap. I don't drink them all the time, but there are times that I really appreciate them. They are refreshing and tasty. I love Long Trail Double Bag, but I can't drink two of them.

When you dismiss an entire category as "crap" I have trouble giving the rest of your review any credibility.

Jeff Alworth said...

Wow, what a beer snob you are! American Lagers are "crap"?

American industrial lagers like the various (but unvarying) light beers. And yes, they are crap. Industrial light lagers don't have to be flavorless, as many international commercial examples demonstrate. I enjoy a great many American lagers, but none from the big American and Belgo-American breweries.

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