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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Open Thread: What's "Good" Beer?

Last night, the estimable Brian Yaeger opened the inner sanctum of his vast collection of aging beers for 3/13/13 and we sampled from those north of 13% ABV--and one that was only 11% but which was a 13th anniversary celebration beer.  Now, you fill the bellies of beer fans with enough 13% beer, and pretty soon the conversation turns philosophical.  In our case, we discussed the nature of beer criticism and what's useful and not, but came to a thorny issue: what's "good" beer?

We were trying a bottle of five-year-old Epic Ale from long-dead Roots at the time, and it was a glorious mess.  Over-carbonated, unbalanced, some odd flavors, perhaps a bit sweet.  But it was intense and had much good about it, too.  Definitely fun to drink.  Was it good?  How about a beer made to hit perfect perfect sweet-spot of saleability: a 6% IPA with 50 IBUs of flavorful but generic hopping, filtered bright as a glacier spring.  Sells tons but gets no geek love.  Good?  Let's say you're sitting down in front of a turnip-and-beet beer.  How do you assess "good?"

No answer is wrong, but some are more right than others.  Your thoughts?

Update.  Let's try this again.  In comments, Max the beer philosopher says that good beer is the beer he likes.  This is the purely subjective view.  No beer has objective standards, and therefore we have the ease of making a pure sensory evaluation.  That's a short and uninteresting discussion.  Instead, imagine a scenario in which your non-beery friend (spouse, father, brother-in-law) asks you to recommend a beer in a style you don't admire.  He trusts your wise counsel, beer geek that you are.  You understand that he's making a request for you to evaluate beers you explicitly do not like in order to make a recommendation.  Subjectivity is off the table.  How do you determine which beer is best?

You could extend this to the point where you are imagining what your critical method for critiquing beer is--that's what I'm driving at.


Pivní Filosof said...

You like it = good (for you, at the very least). Can't get any simpler than that.

Velky Al said...

I have one very simple criterion - will I drink it again willingly? If so, it is good beer.

Pete Dunlop said...

I've had beer made from beets and it was not good. Turnip beer is next. Can't wait.

Jeff Alworth said...

Al and Max, see my update and elaborate.

BenP said...

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beer Holder! Famous words from someone, but I can't remember who.

It's like getting a recommendation at a taproom/bar from a waiter/waitress that doesn't know enough about beer–I always ask what the most popular beer is. I guess the same could go with your friends asking about a beer style you aren't that into. Beer geeks could probably guess what is a great representation of the style at the very least.

Christopher Grzan said...

In response to the update, I would take what information I have of that person's taste and then infer as to what the best recommendation would be. Rather than stick to any flimsy notion of what I might consider "good," I would rather identify attributes of beers I know and then pair them to the particular palate of interest.

Pivní Filosof said...

I'm with Christopher, too. I would choose something according to how well I know that person's tastes. All I can say about beers I do not like is whether I believe they are well made or not, but I don't think I could ever recommend a beer I don't like drinking myself.

As for which beer is best, I would take into account two very important factors (and this applies to all beers, regardless of personal taste): price and availability. When all other things are comparable, the cheaper/more available beer will always be better. (there's objectivity for you:)

Velky Al said...

Let me give you a practical example, I work in the Starr Hill tasting room most weekends. Pretty much once a weekend a couple will walk in and start the tasting and at some point the lady will stop because she 'doesn't like beer' or drinks 'wine not beer', so I talk to her about her wine preferences. If she drinks dry whites, then I hand her a sample of our pils, sweet whites, our weizen, if she is red drinker I'll go with our dry stout. More often than not she will finish her sample, and if they stay longer she'll get a pint of whatever I gave her and drink it very, very, slowly.

Another example, I have a friend who is a dedicated Bud Light drinker, but whenever he is in Virginia we go to Devils Backbone and he drinks their Gold Leaf, all the while wishing it was available in England. It would be wrong of me to foist their 8 Point IPA on him because hoppy pale ale is not his definition of 'good' beer, but watching him rage about Gold Leaf is far more gratifying because he is enjoying the beer I recommended based on my knowledge of him as a person.

I don't think you can take the subjective out of our definitions of 'good' beer, but a knowledgeable beer geek is like a good barman, not hop-bombastic but garnering greater pleasure from people enjoying the beer they are drinker, even if it isn't what I would choose.

Alan said...

I would give my best friend a beer I do not think is good if I knew it would give him pleasure. Is your question not what would I give you or make or the Velky one if they were to pop over?

Anonymous said...

Seems to me I would recommend a beer based on how good it is relative to the style they asked about. Now if I don't think they know beer styles then I would recommend something to teach them what a good beer is, i.e., a beer they like. It all gets back to liking to drink it without expecting it to be something you've had before.

py0 said...

Perhaps flat out distinguishing good and bad beer is both an impossible task and not even particularly helpful. Perhaps it would be better to think subjectively in terms of styles you like, and then beers that can objectively be said to be good and bad examples of that style.

Gary Gillman said...

I feel it is a combination of subjective and objective elements. A beer can be good in my book, e.g. fresh Urquell, yet I know an experienced taster (in fact a few) who can't stand it, he likes some pretty extreme tastes, but not Pilsner Urquell. Urquell objectively surely is a great lager - a classic, decoction-brewed, all-Saaz, etc., but some beer fans don't like it. It isn't good to him but it is to me. Yet I am challenged by lambic and certain other styles. Same thing in reverse.

I think in the end something is not good only in the sense that it doesn't meet the "standard" for the style, i.e., contains a fault, clearly inferior ingredients, is light-struck, or that kind of thing. After that it's up for grabs though.



brewolero said...

I like Velky Al's answer. Another thing you might take into account is some kind of context. Because "good" is so subjective, you face difficulty in narrowing down something that might count, so why not find out what they value in food or culinary experiences. Local ethos? particular palettes? ridiculous novelties?

I live in Bolivia and sat down with some friends to do a tasting of 11 Bolivian beers that are locally available in our city, mostly just tropical lagers. It was good to try them together, because it allowed us to isolate the "better" among them (1-2 pilsners stood out above the rest), but you might also consider "interesting" as a value to judge with. In that case, there was a Munich lager that was miles away from everything else in that tasting in depth of flavor and uniqueness. So if that were my context, I'd inevitably either recommend the Munich lager or one of the better pilsners.

Jonathan said...

While the definition of "good" beer can possibly be theorized in a general, objective sense, the application of the term "good" to any particular matter (a specific beer) of the senses must remain subjective as there is no other way to perceive it but through one's own experience. In terms of "good" beer in general, there are just so many variables that need to be included or disregarded from the start in order to make a clear definition; i.e. style, cultural context, brewer's intention, etc.

While I am very much interested in the subject of what is "good" beer, I am also weary of creating a set, rigid definition of what that is. I think it is extremely important to accept the fluidity, evolution, and endlessness of what "good" beer is. The wine world showed us what happens when you have a few people with to big a say of what "good" wine is, you end up getting wineries all around the world striving to make the same product essentially, and by doing so you lose what makes wine good, its terroir, its uniqueness. Thankfully there has been a rebellion to that movement, and I am not saying that beer is in that process of moving towards suiting the palette of a few, but I think we need to be wary of it. Sites like BeerAdvocate and RateBeer can be big influencers in that way, and I hope they remain collectives of individual palettes and opinions and not hive minds that only want Hill Farmstead beer (this is not to say they don't make great beer, they do, I can't wait to go to their anniversary party). End of rant.

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