You love the blog, so subscribe to the Beervana Podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud today!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Beer Writing Made Easy

As I labor to put Astoria to (digital) ink, I see that Bill from It's Pub Night has made my job a lot easier. Or rather, put a spotlight on an issue beer bloggers and writers suffer every time they sit down to describe a beer.

In one of the more clever posts I've seen in recent memory, he's put together a little engine that spits out generic descriptions of beer you could apply without modification to just about any beer. One example:
Pours a translucent dark chocolate color with a thin head. A tiny bit of lacing. Beautiful tart aroma, with overtones of grapefruit and lilac. Intense hoppy taste, with notes of apple and circus peanut. Thick and chewy mouthfeel and dry finish. Score: 4.15/5.
He has really gone to some effort to create some nicely satirical language, and the point is made. So many beer reviews say a lot but tell you nothing. (I particularly like that some of his parameters don't require you to choose whether the beer is good or bad, or even what style it is. It's true: sometimes you read a review festooned with adjectives and you have no idea whether they're intended to praise or excoriate the beer.)

But also: pity the poor reviewer. The bell-curve reality of beers dictates that most are average. They are indistinct. They have generic qualities of malt and hop. These are the worst beers to have to describe, but, proud reviewer that you are, you give it a shot. Pretty soon you're inventing adjectives ("hint of old cloves," "musty maple leaf") to try to inject a bit of pizazz into your description. Even very good beers may not offer you a lot to hang your hat on; what distinguishes them is not their distinct elements, but a totally vague quality of harmony produced when all those elements come together. How do you describe that?

I miss the mark more often than I hit it, but this post reminds me of a directive I try to use when writing about beer. Don't write to impress, write to communicate. How would I tell a friend about a beer so that she would get what I was trying to say? It's useful to include adjectives, but they should reveal the beer, not conceal the reviewer's inability to describe it. When I was drinking an Old Peculier, I held it up to the light to get a good look (knowing I'd have to somehow have to describe it later), and my friend Shawn said, "it looks like iced tea." Perfect. "Mahogany" doesn't tell you anything, but iced tea instantly brings to mind an image we can all relate to.

Another element often overlooked is to give some sense of the experience of the beer. Indians have a philosophy of art in which every artistic expression can be categorized by the emotional mood ("rasa") it delivers. This is perhaps an unnecessary idiosyncracy of mine, but I strongly relate to the experience of the beer, not just its characteristics. I drink beer to accommodate or augment a mood. I don't identify this quality in every beer, but the very good ones seem to suggest a rasa.

But anyway, enough of my babbling. Go check out Bill's post--it's a must read.


  1. It's true, and I'm guilty of them. After writing almost 3k of them it pains me to write another, they all sound the same Then again most of them share a lot of the same features. How many different reviews can you write up for ambers and IPAs without repeating caramel or citrus. Sensory can be very hard to communicate and using outside comparisons like "Ice Tea" are just as arbitrary, what shade of ice tea? who made it? Snapple or Lipton? diluted with lemon?
    Reviewing was a great exercise to get me thinking about beer more and to keep track of beers I've had and enjoyed or hated, but alas my reviews are so damn redundant and boring, not only to read but to write.

  2. I think the salient point is that some adjectives are generic, almost to the point of obfuscation. You may not get a clear idea from "iced tea," but at least you've seen it. "Mahagony" doesn't tell you anything--it just seems like it sounds cool.

    Incidentally, the very best at this was Michael Jackson. Reading his reviews does make you feel like you can actually taste the beer. RIP, MJ--

  3. Jeff,

    You've never seen mahogany? It's a pretty common wood.
    I agree about MJ, there are a few people that write really stellar reviews, the rest of us just rate and describe what we see.

  4. We may have stumbled across an additional difficulty. For me, iced tea is less a leap of imagination because it's a liquid. You have only to call to mind the image. Using a more poetic metaphor means you have further distance between the thing and the adjective. But perhaps this demonstrates the variability in interpretation--yet another barrier to clarity.

    Ah hell, why don't we just give up?

  5. Whoa.....!

    ""Mahogany" doesn't tell you anything..."

    You can't visualize Mahogany, but can visualize "ICE TEA?"

    I wish I knew how to put images in my comments... Instead, I have to ask you to go to:

    This shows you a SRM beer color chart, albeit limited.

    I'm too tired to lecture, but if I'm hoping you understand the basics of the Lovibond scale and Standard Reference Method (SRM). These are the basics on Beer Color and visual identification, used to describe beer to the general public. Please educate, don't dumb down your readers or friends.

    Jeff... I can't believe you use words like "obfuscation" and have basic beer drinkers understand what you are talking about... but have a problem with "Mahogany." Spend a little less time with flashy words and try reading up on some basic socially excepted beer colors! Your writing is very eloquent, but you lose BEER validity when you use $25 dollar words and can't use basic beer descriptors... ;-}

    Please look up this info.... It can be EASILY found of the Internet.

    According to the current SRM color scale, there are BASIC color descriptors for beer... Although, if you saw the color chart link above there are many different color descriptors used.

    Straw 2-3
    Yellow 3-4
    Gold 5-6
    Amber 6-9
    Deep amber/light copper 10-14
    Copper 14-17
    Deep copper/light brown 17-18
    Brown 19-22
    Dark Brown 22-30
    Very Dark Brown 30-35
    Black 30+
    Black, opaque 40+

    *Note: These color descriptors have been made simplistic.

    For more detail.... You will find that MBAA (Master Brewers Association of the Americas) use the term "Mahogany." It has a SRM of about 30 SRM give or take. It falls under Dark Brown. I use the term "Mahogany" to describe a beer that is Dark Brown with a deep Red Hue. To help you out with a visual... one that's liquid.... I'll say it's close to Root Beer in Color.

    Unfortunately, Jeff, I haven't seen the color term "ICE TEA" used to describe a beer color. ;-}

    Maybe, I should give a class in basic Beer evaluation for bloggers and the media? Seriously.

  6. Doc, you are gracious to offer a course to teach us poor bloggers what "mahagony" means, but I think I have a vague idea. You might be surprised to learn that some of us have even heard of the Lovibond scale.

  7. Jeremy in SE PDX7:22 PM, March 30, 2009

    It's a deeper problem with language and reality. Ultimately words are only signs; they point to experiences which are more or less shared. When the experience isn't shared, the sign is meaningless. (viz. "mahogany" vs. "iced tea" -- iced tea was much more meaningful to me as a color reference).

    We can only describe a thing to a reader who has not experienced it for himself by comparing it to something (or set of things) else which is (are) not the the thing itself but will evoke in the reader the same sensation that the original thing evoked in us.

    But the system breaks down when the associations and experiences we have with the things used to explain the original thing are different than the associations our audience has with them -- as they are absolutely certain to be, to a greater or lesser degree.

    Asking students to write about food is a famous writing-teacher torture; it's the writer's equivalent of the Kobayashi Maru test -- there isn't any way to win; it's a useful exercise only in what it teaches you about failure and the limits of your powers.

    But the effort, when made in good faith, is still noble and even meaningful.

    And if you think writing about beer is hard, pity the poor poet. How to describe love? or grief?

    Anyway I think the best thing is to face the situation with Hemingway-esque resolve, not hide behind the fake objectivity of quasi-mathematical "language." Objectivity is a dream.


  8. Thanks for the blurb, Jeff. I think you hit the nail on the head when you wrote "Don't write to impress, write to communicate." To be honest, I don't have a problem with people writing to impress; but I think the "head-lacing-nose-flavor-mouthfeel" reviews don't communicate much useful information about the beer.

  9. "You might be surprised to learn that some of us have even heard of the Lovibond scale."

    You're right..... :-O

    I know some people understand the Lovibond scale and SRM... it's why they don't use the knowledge that scares me...

    I'm a little lost on the this "Communicate" vs. Head - Aroma - Flavor - Finish for evaluating???

    This is how beer is evaluated in beer and brewing magazines, judging, professional beer evaluations, beer community and even on the Beer menu's at pubs.... This is the language of beer description.

    I don't believe we should dumb it all a advertisers beer add! 'Light and crisp with an enjoyable flavor." What the hell does that mean?? What are we tasting a lemon.. a potato chip!?

    It's all about beer, the language of tasting. It's not fancy or pretty, it should b simple descriptions used in order of how a beer in evaluated. Visual, Aroma, Taste, Body and Finish. It can't be dumbed down anymore without being disrespectful.

    It's not about IMPRESSING someone, it's about describing what one tastes.....

    I knew a guy who was an old brewing and evaluating mentor. He's now internationally known.... He once said, "If you can't describe it, you don't know what your tasting." It's a simple statement, but it's true.

    I think DA Beers does a good job with his descriptions. He's applying everyday visuals and flavors and applies it to beer nuances. If the reader doesn't know what a "MANGO" tastes like, maybe it's time they taste a mango.

    If someone can't get the description from a basic evaluation (Aroma, visual, taste, finish) the descriptor isn't using the correct adjectives or the receiver needs a better imagination. ;-}

    I think Jeremy says it best:

    ".... the system breaks down when the associations and experiences we have with the things used to explain the original thing are different than the associations our audience has with them -- as they are absolutely certain to be, to a greater or lesser degree."

  10. Here is an interesting thought, the new Miller Light commercials that talk about "triple hopped Miller Light". Now they are clearly using confusion and lack of knowledge to build up the identity of their beer. Should they dumb it down for their audience and go back to something like "smooth taste, big flavor", or should they continue on and talk about "our yeast are hand picked one by one to bring you that great flavor".

    With Smooth flavor big taste they are probably getting the point across better to their market, but really not saying anything. With triple hop brewed they are maybe spouting of more facts (maybe), but their market probably couldn't even tell you what hops taste like.

    Sure the second method might get some Miller drinkers to go out and try something with hops, but until then we have to listen to a bunch of Miller drinkers talk about how they like the taste of triple hopped beer and cringe.

    Sorry for the rant. Hope that made sense. Oh, and thanks for the compliment Doc, I think that was the first!

  11. DA: No, I've given you about 4 compliments.... ;-} Usually on your own sight.

    In regard to Miller Commercial - I've seen that! Triple hopping! I laughed like hell! 'We hop our beer more than just once!'

    No shit!? 99% of all beers are hopped more than once! MOST ARE HOPPED THREE TIMES! Bittering, Flavor and Aroma... possibly Dry Hopping.

    Yea, it's an advertisment for the Budmilloors crowd. I think anyone who has drank at ANY Brewpub and can read a napkin has read that beers are hopped more than once.

    I guess you're waiting for a nasty comment about Miller from me? Nope! Outside my scope of reality! I find it funny, but I know there are people out there who believe anything they read and are easy targets for the advertising world. Of course, more than likely they are drinking Budmilleroors too...

    Before someone jumps on my ass about this statement... I don't think all Budmilloors drinkers are brainless boobs, although national average of the Moral Majority is about 80%! It's all about conditioning and interest. Obama drinks Colt 45 or some shit like that and I would never call him an unintelligent man (I'm sure that opened a door for some people).

    It's a choice. Some make a personal choice to drink those beers and others think they have too for some dumb ass reason.

    They stay in they're realm and I stay in mine, but if you cross over to my world, you better be ready for me to try and teach ya something about beer, and for God Sake you better not talk about shit you don't know about.... ;-}

    So... I'm going back to Seattle in a week or two. Trying to figure out how I should evaluate the beers I taste! It appears the traditional method isn't descriptive effort for some.... Any suggestions on how I can "Communicate" my beer descriptions better? ;-}

  12. I'm someone that doesn't write reviews but uses them to inform purchases. The key to me is the credibility of the writer's advice over time.

    I trust Jeff's palate because I've gone out and tried beers he's recomended. I don't agree all the time, but I do enough times to take his advice. He's taken some of the mystery out of buying beer and pushed me to places I wouldn't have been otherwise. (I can say that about all the bloggers posted here as well, it's just Jeff's blog so his ass gets kissed right now.)

    I couldn't care less about some of the descriptors used in beer reviews. The key is do I trust the reviewer, have I liked things recomended in the past and have I been given enough info to at least understand what the hell it is I'm drinking?