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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Reviewing Beer: Assessing

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.


  1. Jeff, I love your blog, but until you've tried, at a minimum, Avery IPA and Modus Hoperandi IPA, you don't know what you're talking about when it comes to Colorado IPAs.

    Having drank plenty of IPAs in both fine states, I would say Oregon breweries have gone further in developing more nuanced IPAs that use citrus aroma hops to great effect. And the CDA style has not made it to Colorado at all that I've seen. But in general, the IPAs here are just fine, thank you very much.

  2. Soggy,what the hell? Did you actually read the post or did you just focus in on "...write dismissively about "Colorado IPAs"..."?

  3. I'm not going to argue about IPA's... English IPA or American IPA or NW IPA's or Colorado IPA's or Pig Knuckle Artkansas IPA? Some have Cascade; some have Goldings; Some have more malt; some have less. Yes, there is a difference but who cares. You enjoy a certain beer, drink it! It's one style of beer, there are many others and most are not rated by the bails of hops added. Some actually take a closer eye to detail than just buckets of hop additions! Remember Hops were originally added to bring balance to the malt sweetness and were thought to keep the beer from spoiling, period!

    Jeff. After all our bickering about the need for STYLE and Style as a reference when evaluating beers... It seems we both agree that to evaluate a beer you need a reference style to base your tasting. Brewers need a base reference style as a basic outline but can tweak the ingredients within or outside of a style. We are in agreeance.

    Here's my angle on beer tasting vs. evaluating.

    Any putz can taste and enjoy a beer, but few understand the subtle nuances of beer styles and fewer less can identify a style within a blind tasting. ;-}

    Evaluating a beers profile, nuances, grain bill and the like are not essential to enjoy beer. I know plenty of people who couldn't tell me the difference between Toasty, Roasty or Nutty, but they enjoy the beer they're drinking. There is NO problem with this way of being. Drink and enjoy!

    It's the bickering, arguing and bullshit posturing that some of these people do that is annoying. As I've said many times... Just because you like a beer doesn't mean you know anything about beer. Drink it, enjoy it and shut up! ;-}

    "Posers!" A word I use quite frequently since I've lived in the NW. Everybody is an expert about beer, yet most don't know squat. Couldn't tell me the difference between Cascade, Centennial or Columbus!

    My advise to the beer drinking public... Just enjoy the beer! If you truly want to TALK, WRITE, BLOG or EDUCATE the public on beer and/or brewing, educate yourself first. ;-}

    Believe it or not, those of us who are educated know when you're full of shit. :-)

    Back to you Jeff... You know I've written about beer tasting and evaluating numerous times. It's like running one of those "Emergency Broadcast Alerts" on the television! Everybody looks and goes, "Oh! That again!?" Turn their head and walk away. It's just the way it is.... It's easy to pretend to have knowledge than really learn it. Shhhh....(whispering) 'posers.'

    OK... Tomorrow.... Describing Beer! Can't wait!

  4. Sure, I did read the post. I chose to focus on one aspect of the post. I have no quibbles with the rest of it.

  5. Soggy, my unreasonable bias against Colorado IPAs exactly the kind of thing readers should know if I'm discussing them. That was the point. (And of course, it's only a mild bias--reflective more of my devilish inner Doc Wort than anything.)

  6. You little devil you..... ;-}