On the way to a review, the reviewer (or this one, anyway) has to not only taste a beer, but assess it. Assessing a beer is a process that involves drawing information number of external sources and synthesizing everything to try to give meaning to your review.
What Were They Shooting For?
I don't know where I read it, but someone once recounted the story that Michael Jackson used to ask breweries, "What were you shooting for with this beer?" This is important, because a commercial brewery won't necessarily be trying to brew to style. If I don't have the brewer handy to consult, I start by reading what the brewery says about it. The virtues of the internet age--something MJ didn't have. Knowing what the brewery was trying to accomplish makes it a lot easier to assess how well they did.
What Ingredients and Methods Were Used?
I generally try to taste a beer with as little information as possible. It's nice to see what you can pick up from your senses alone. But afterward, it's critical to find out how a beer was brewed and what ingredients were used. I may well pick up a lot of information in the tasting, but the details are important. Bourbon-barrel aging is usually obvious, to take one example, but it's useful to also know how much of the final product had been barrel-aged and for how long. Most breweries do something interesting to their beer, and a reviewer must have that info.
What Else is Out There?
I suppose if you were judging a beer in competition, it would be possible to ignore the larger landscape. I had the very good fortune to sample three of Allagash's spontaneously-fermented beers on Tuesday (a gueuze, kriek, and framboise). It would have been inconceivable to try to write about these beers without reference to the Belgian inspirations. Regional variation can be important--is the IPA brewed to the West Coast style, or a more general American style? Or is it an English IPA? This is useful not just for the reviewer, but for the reader. It also helps establish my bias. To use the IPA example, if I were to write dismissively about "Colorado IPAs" (which I would never, ever do), you could judge my bias accordingly.
Did it Work?
Once I have gathered together this information, I think back to the tasting and ask whether the whole thing came together or not. Every time a brewery makes a new beer, their goal is the same: excellence. No one brews a beer thinking, "You know, I think that just may be adequate." But only a few new releases ever actually achieve greatness. I look back at the goal, the ingredients and methods, and other similar beers and make a judgment about how well the beer succeeded. In my mind, I hope that after I've shown all my work, a brewery will admit, happily or grudgingly, that I've made a reasonable assessment.
Did I like It?
My own opinion about the beer is easily the least important assessment, but I think readers deserve to know. For what it's worth, only about half the time is my own opinion about a beer consistent with my assessment of it. Like anyone, I have my preferences.
Tomorrow: Describing the beer.