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Friday, June 11, 2010

Reviewing Beer: Describing

Describing food and beverages is brutal business. It makes the tasting and assessing look like child's play by comparison. Every beer drinker knows why this is. Try to describe a beer to a friend. The conversation goes something like this:

"Tried the new Hopworks strong ale?"

"No, what's it taste like?"

"It's pretty hoppy, citrusy. It's boozy. It's good."

If the friend trusts your palate, he may try the beer, but he certainly has no idea what to expect. Language often fails us when we're trying to communicate the experience of certain flavors and tastes. We have to come at it sideways, by simile, or are reduced to using bland, general terms. Everyone who has written more than a few reviews has written bad ones. Sometimes we just can't find the words. But those of us who have read Michael Jackson know it can be done. I'm not sure how other reviewers do it, but when I pull off a good review, this is how I do it.

It's easy to fall back onto vague adjectives. Here's what I wrote about MacTarnahan's Grifter: "It has that characteristic MacTarnahan's clarity, the light fruitiness, and the gentle, unassuming hopping." This could describe half the beers on the market right now. Not so hot. Now, here's Double Mountain Kolsch: "They have overhopped it for style, but selected hops that draw out a lemongrass note, complementing the tartness." In the Grifter review, my adjectives are too general, and don't communicate anything that would help the reader imagine the experience. The Kolsch sentence is better--adjectives like "lemongrass" and "tartness" tell a fuller story.

It is a fascinating quirk of the English language that most of the adjectives we use to describe flavors and aromas are other flavors and aromas. We say a beer is "nutty" or "piney." Well, how else can you describe something that smell of pine? Although I don't often hit the mark, it is possible to do better. Rather than just say "nutty" and leave it at that, why not get a little closer with "roast almonds," say, or "hazelnuts." Wine reviews have given a bad name to this kind of specificity. So often useless and pretentious (I saw a pinot gris described as "linen"), they are mock-ready. But, going back to the tasting section, if I had the presence of mind to investigate the "nutty" malt, perhaps I saw something that would take it out of the bland and uninformative and give it a more vibrant clarity.

In India, there's a theory of art known as rasa, which is the mood of a piece. Music is grouped by rasa--romantic, melancholy, joyful, etc. Many beer reviewers don't like to evoke a sense of the feeling of drinking a beer--perhaps they feel this is an ornamentation that intrudes rather than clarifies--but I think it's useful. Beer, like haiku, is associated with season; this is one dimension. In the toolkit of the reviewer, we find only words. The more evocative ones, that help point to the experience of drinking a beer, I find most useful. I was pretty happy with my description of Duvel, a beer that inspires me:
The instructions on the bottle say "pour unhurredly," but unless you've got a large glass, you can't pour slowly enough to stop the massive head from rushing to the rim. You pour in increments, steadily building the pure white froth up like a vanilla cone. The beer is pilsner pale (made in fact with pilsner malt) and roils with bubbles. Still, it's not at all viscous, evidence of ample added sugar that gives the Devil its juice.
Avoid Beerspeak Wherever Possible
Perhaps most controversially, I hate the language of the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) which has come to dominate beer reviews. It goes like this:
Flavor: Moderate to high hop flavor from American hop varieties, which often but not always has a citrusy quality. Malt flavors are moderate to strong, and usually show an initial malty sweetness followed by a moderate caramel flavor (and sometimes other character malts in lesser amounts). Malt and hop bitterness are usually balanced and mutually supportive. Fruity esters can be moderate to none. Caramel sweetness and hop flavor/bitterness can linger somewhat into the medium to full finish. No diacetyl.
These technical outlines may be useful in trying to determine whether a beer has been brewed to a style or not, but they violate the two earlier rules. Brewers like them because they map to methods and ingredients familiar to him. But I don't write beer reviews for brewers. For a non brewer, this language is useless. It may tell what's in a beer and how it's brewed, but not what makes it distinct from other examples or whether it's any good or not. I don't like to read reviews written in beerspeak, and I try to avoid them.


So there you have it. If I manage to write a successful review, what appears on the page will have been the result of a careful tasting, reflective assessment, and evocative, specific descriptions. I hope readers walk away with a good sense the beer's context, style, and brewing process as well as my experience of drinking the beer--and clues to how their own experience may differ. I probably succeed half the time or less. (You be the judge.) Beer writers are a minor player in the ecosystem of brewing, but I like to think we can be useful. The world of beer unfolded for me by virtue of reading Jackson as I started drinking micros. Without his research and descriptions, I would have spent a lot longer wandering the wilderness. So, with luck, we bloggers and beer writers do contribute something.

Thanks to blogs and the ratings sites, many of you also review lots of beers. Feel free to throw in your two cents in comments.


  1. Jeff, great series. And to add, even with all the due diligence put into the review there can still be the disconnect with the tastes of others which can render the whole thing fruitless anyway. While you may taste lemongrass and find it outstanding, I may taste lemon dish soap and find it revolting.

    My mom with her degree in psychology likes to do this test/game with people. She hands them an object and asks them to describe it. Take a wooden block for example, some will carry on about it's proportions, finely sanded finish, and sharp edges, while others will smell the block and start into a story about remembering the smell of the burning logs in the fireplace during the cold New England winters.

  2. DA,

    That's the fun part about tasting and evaluating beers with others, even the novice... To see what different people GET out of a beer. Will it be Pine Forrest or Pine-sol or Pine Forrest Fire or a Pine Cone laying on top of a heap of sheep dung? It's interesting to see what others can find in a beer. Albeit a palate with good mental reference and imagination make it far more fun..

    I had a beer guy tell me to try a "Great" beer. I'll ask for a description. If I get, "Ugh... It's Dark Brown, chewy, hoppy and alcoholic," I'll dive right in. It's a KISS description (Keep it Simple Stupid) It's not the best beer description I've ever heard, but it hits the basic palatial senses. Color (visual), texture which could refers to malt (taste), aroma and strength. You can say a lot in a few words....or you can say nothing. Light and crisp. Dark and thick. Amber and hoppy. Alcoholic and thin. These don't really help me hone in on a mental picture. ;-}

    One year at the OBF a man was asked, "So what are you liking?" He looked up and said (and I paraphrase), 'It's hard to say... I've had three Hop Monsters in a row and my palate is blown out for the rest of the day. It's really a shame, there's so many other beers I'd like to try but the Hop Monsters ruin your palate.' Funny thing is when he said, "Hop Monster" most people around him knew exactly the profile of the beers he had tasted. Another fellow beer drinker asked, "So what are you going to do now?" He said, "Well, I can hang out here and just get drunk with the locals or I can go to lunch and see if I can clear my palate." They all went off for a nice lunch and didn't return to the OBF.

    What does this say about describing beer, the beers and those who participated?

  3. When I went on my tirade last year about the futility of wine-guy beer reviews, I realized that I'd like to see beers compared to other beers someone might have had. That can communicate the beer's flavor and relative quality to someone much more quickly than pine, lemongrass, chocolate, etc.

    Of course, it's not always possible to make those comparisons -- what does Gilgamesh Black Mamba remind you of? Another weakness of my idea is that, with so many new things to try, maybe it's been 5 years since I had a Chimay White or a Bass Ale, and I can barely remember what it was like.

  4. Reviewing beers is the trickiest thing beer bloggers do, I think. It's easy to sound ridiculous. I struggle most with reviewing very average beers. I can always think of something to say about an imperial stout or a imperial IPA. But what to say about an undistinguished American-style amber ale, for example?

  5. Guys,

    I agree. It's hard to review/describe a run-of-the-mill beer. Try describing a Mactarnahan without using the word 'simple.' ;-}

    The less in the beer; The harder it is to describe.


    Comparing one beer to another is useful, but like you said... Some are unique. That's when you have to pull out all your tasting and evaluating skills to pull out recognizable flavor profiles. Yea, sometimes they do sound ridiculous. ;-} Mango, Coconut and Cinnamon French Toast are not ingredients usually found in a beer, but you can find these nuances in some beers. Rum Raisin, Burnt Almonds, Dishwater soap, olives, cardboard, bandaids and fingernail polish are all weird things that can be detected too.

    Go to a homebrew shop and chomp on the grains to get an idea of which grains brings WHAT to a beer. There are a bunch of Trouble Shooting web pages for evaluating beer. Check those out. It helps to know what a wrong flavor from a good one. I had a guy tell me his beer tasted like Green olives. He thought was weird, but that's it. I tasted it and told him it's a classic infected beer. That flavor is NOT wanted in a beer.

    How would you guys describe a Bud or a PABST? Be interesting to see those descriptions. Sorry, I'd have to go from memory.. neither of those beers have touched my lips in decades! ;-}

  6. There are several beers - Stone Ruination, Great Divide Hoss and Belgica - that taste to me of the pink, powdered soap I recall from school bathrooms.

    Dr. Wort, is this the same "dish soap" taste you sometimes detect? What causes it? Some specific type of hops?

    I find it revolting.

  7. DA, thanks. I think the example or your Mom's block of wood is great, too. I want to read reviews with lots of character. What I don't want is, "eh, it's some kind of wood, sort of squarish."

    Bill, I agree, though your point of common experiences is tough. In Portland, using, say Hopworks IPA as a reference is a good one. But it has no meaning to someone even as close as Portland.

  8. @Soggy

    Without tasting the beer it's hard for me to say what you're tasting, but if you are tasting a soapy flavor, here's John Palmer's textbook answer:

    "Soapy - Soapy flavors can caused by not washing your glass very well, but they can also be produced by the fermentation conditions. If you leave the beer in the primary fermentor for a relatively long period of time after primary fermentation is over ("long" depends on the style and other fermentation factors), soapy flavors can result from the breakdown of fatty acids in the trub. Soap is, by definition, the salt of a fatty acid; so you are literally tasting soap."

    I couldn't have really stated it any better...