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Monday, August 23, 2010

Philosophical Question: Can a Beer Be Perfect?

Over the weekend, I was invited, along with most of the members of the Associated Brotherhood of Portland Beer Bloggers local 503 to judge a double IPA smackdown at Blitz Ladd. Angelo has a picture of the judging panel here. (Deschutes' Hop Trip Henge took the gold; Stone Ruination rode shotgun.) Afterward, I was chatting with Bill Schneller, an avid and award-winning homebrewer--you can see him in Angelo's picture there on the left side, inhaling that sweet, sweet hop aroma. Somehow we got off onto the topic of judging homebrew, and Bill declared, boldly, that there's no such thing as a 50-point beer. A 49--theoretically possible. But no such beer exists that could not be improved upon.

This is a statement of philosophy, of course, not fact. But it goes a long way toward explaining certain differences in the way beer geeks approach beer. If you don't believe in a perfect beer, then each sniff and sip is forensic; you're looking for the imperfection. Imperfections may be objective or purely a matter of taste. (Worse, they may be imperfections only of style, which is to say, a failure to adhere to a completely artificial framework. But Bill, who is not a style Nazi, wasn't making this argument.)

I adhere to a different philosophy. I believe perfect beers exist. In our discussion, I immediately named my go-to perfect beer, Orval. If I were to sit down and make a list, I could come up with perhaps a score or two dozen. Stan once collated Michael Jackson's ratings and found that in every Pocket Guide he published, he awarded the highest score to 19 beers. That's not a bad standard.

If Bill tastes beer forensically, I taste it meditatively. I try to see what the brewer was doing. Sometimes, the quality I find offensive is intentional--recall a couple months ago when Van Havig released an IPA he described as "kind of metallic and harsh." He added, "I love that." Rather than conforming to standards, I view beer as having very few fixed points. It's almost all up for grabs. (Exceptions, obviously, exist: off-flavors, infections, indecent top-heaviness, etc.) A beer must be perfect on its own terms--the realization of the brewer's highest goals.

In Christianity, there's the concept of original sin. We are all sinners before the lord. In brewing, this would be Bill's view: we are all flawed and it is the judge's role to find the sins. But in Buddhism, there's the concept of Buddha nature. Strip away the veils of confusion and we are all enlightened. This is my view--perfection is achieved when the beer has realized its true nature. (That I am actually a Buddhist is merely coincidental.) Perhaps a more obvious explanation exists: Bill's a homebrewer and I'm a writer. Homebrewers look for flaws, writers search, like children on an Easter egg hunt, for treasures.

(I suppose I should mention the obvious: perfection isn't an absolute standard. No one is going to agree that all of those 19 beers deserve a five-star rating, never mind being perfect. Rather, the ideal of perfection must be an individual one. Thus it has ever been with art. There doesn't have to be agreement in order for there to be perfection.)

So, two approaches, one product. Which do you employ?


  1. I was sipping some Session Black this weekend and thinking "really, you couldn't do anything to this beer to make it better."

    Must be a Buddhist thing...

  2. Interesting Jeff! I've never read a correlation between religion and beer judging, although, I've had some beers that can be considered a religious experience. ;-} Since I hail to no supreme being, I may be more Buddhistic (sp) than anything else?

    It appears those who believe in a supreme being have found a perfect truth, where others SEARCH for the truth. Searching definitely has a purpose in judging, but it's more of an educated evaluation or should be.

    I don't know where camps are defined when it comes to judging beer. Personally, I always thought beer judging should be left to those who have wide knowledge of brewing and beer; i.e. Certified Judges or those who are equally capable. Media folks have always been invited to judge... I would guess primarily for the media attention and to a far less extend to educated they're palates... and that's fine. PR is PR. Education is education.

    That said, I would always avoid judging with the media. I found the hand holding and nursing to be a nuisance. I'd much prefer to compare and contrast the positive and negative subtleties of the beers quality with those who could judge at the same level. Would you expect anything less from Doc Wort? ;-}

    "Home brewers look for flaws, writers search, like children on an Easter egg hunt, for treasures." A very true statement! Although judging a beer can be subjective to the judges likes and dislikes, the judge is always judging the quality of the beer and it's brewing quality based on their vast knowledge. Judges look for flaws... They look for the positives and negatives... They don't "Search" for adventurous new flavors; They evaluate the beer that is placed in front of them. If they find a pleasant surprise, that's even better.

    Judge is an interesting word:



    - a public officer authorized to hear and decide cases in a court of law; a magistrate charged with the administration of justice.

    - a person appointed to decide in any competition, contest, or matter at issue; authorized arbiter: the judges of a beauty contest.

    - a person qualified to pass a critical judgment: a good judge of horses.

    –verb (used with object)

    -to pass legal judgment on; pass sentence on (a person): The court judged him guilty.

    - to hear evidence or legal arguments in (a case) in order to pass judgment; adjudicate; try: The Supreme Court is judging that case.

    - to form a judgment or opinion of; decide upon critically: You can't judge a book by its cover.

    - to decide or settle authoritatively; adjudge: The censor judged the book obscene and forbade its sale.

    - to infer, think, or hold as an opinion; conclude about or assess: He judged her to be correct.

    To Judge is to find an educated truth.

    To Search is to seek wonderment.

  3. My perfects:

    Imperial: Lompoc C-Note
    IPA: Terminal Grav
    Double (or mega-hopped): Tricerahops
    Stout: DuClaw Blackjack

    And if I had to pick a perfect Kolsch, that Golden Valley choice at the Brewers' Fest was as close as I could come.

  4. I do think beers can be perfect, but this to me depends as much on my mood as the beer itself.

    There have been times when The Abyss, The Dissident and Mirror Pond have been the perfect beer. Same with Terminal Gravity IPA and a fresh-hop IPA in my neck of the woods.

    But, hell, a Coors Original I had on a hot day last week seemed just about perfect, too.

  5. oh.... Yes, a beer can be perfect. Perfect within style or should I say... Best represents a style in time and space. I, too, believe a great beer doesn't need to be "IN" style, but if judging a beer within a style... perfection does exists. Of course, the Doc's perfect 50 might be others 40 or 35. Some beers are universally excepted as perfect or WERE perfect at one time.

    I still consider Westmalle Tripel the perfect Tripel. Duval is still the perfect Strong Golden Belgian. Ayinger Celebrator may no longer be the perfect Dobbelbock... Allgauer Carbonator (sp) might be closer. When it comes to American Craft Beers... things evolve.. Come and Go.... perfection is a fleeting existence.

  6. FYI - It was the Hop Henge (batch 8, brewed by Cam O'Connor at the Portland Pub) that was poured, not the Hop Trip (their late summer fresh hop beer).

  7. Anon, of course it was. Corrected. Thanks!

  8. That's odd. I was sure Hop Stoopid was third.

  9. The beer in my hand is always a perfect beer.

  10. OK, I need to jump in here to clarify a few things. For the record, I don't think I intrisincally "look for flaws." Frankly, I hate people who do that and it goes counter to everything I believe about judging and, moreover, about enjoying beer (since beer is ultimately about enjoyment). I like to think I judge holistically and try to take the sum total of a beer. At competitions, I'm the guy who comes up with an overall score for the beer first and then figures out how to make the total break down to the five categories (a trait shared by Fred Eckhardt actually). I'm very against the idea of thinking of each beer as perfect and then deducting points for each "flaw" I pick up. It's really much more about the impression the beer makes overall. I've always marvelled at folks who sniff the beer and then can put down 8 out of 12 for aroma on a score sheet before they even taste the beer. I can't give you a number for aroma until I've had the entire taste experience, as bizarre as that may seem to them. The overall impression always alters each aspect of the beer (flaovr, aroma, mouthfeel, etc.) for me.

    But I also think that "perfection" at a judging table is a goal and not something that's necessarilly attainable. Maybe it is sort of a quasi-Platonic ideal and you can extrapolate that out into a philosophy about a "fallen" or imperfect world or some such thing, but that's a little more than I'm conciously thinking about when I'm judging beer.

    There are times when I've drunk a beer and I think it's perfect, but as we discussed, a lot more of that has to do with who you're with, what you're doing, where you are, etc. Like Don Younger says, it's not about the beer, it's about the beer. But in the more clinical setting of judging, you're job is essentially to compare a beer to some sort of ideal benchmark. I think the actual nature of judging (or evaluating, as I prefer, since judging seems to imply a little more doom and gloom) pushes most of us into a mindset where we're almost required to find how a beer misses an ideal that we have.

    Ultimately, that's my problem with judging. It's clinical. The more objective it tries to become, the less human it is. Enjoyment is human, quantifying enjoyment isn't. Maybe that's why I really don't like "judging" beer. I love tasting beer, talking about beer, reading about beer, teaching about beer, brewing beer, shopping for beer, but I really dislike judging beer. (There I said it). The idea that evaluating a beer intrinsically changes how you perceive a beer is actually more post modern than Christian vs Buddhist (or West vs East). But I think it does and ultimately, I think that's an unfortunate reality.

    There's also the whole nature of how memory affects a beer. We've all had a beer that is legendary or perfect in our mind, but in the experience of retasting it, it never compares to our memory of it.

    But in a judging type of setting I'll still say that 50 is an ideal and not realy attainable. In a drinking type of setting, I've had a lot of beers that are a 50 (PBR at a Derby bout when your team is winning is perfect). But judging in itself is kind of a flawed setting, because it can never evaluate what's really important: enjoyment.

    For the record, the only beverage I ever had in a judging type of setting that would rank as perfect was a 1990 Vosne Romanee Les Beauxmonts from Domaine Leroy. It was truly godlike.

  11. Bill, thanks for commenting. I did speculate, profligately, on your approach based on that one comment. My goal was to provoke thought and discussion, not let it stand as your view--I should have been careful to say so.

    I wonder why judging should mean no 50-point beers while in drinking, they are possible. Intriguing.

  12. Posts like this--and the comments that follow--are what make your blog the best around, Jeff. Cheers!

  13. Jeff, no worries; I never felt like you were putting words in my mouth.

    Yeah, I agree it's kind of an odd situation, but it just seems like the act of judging puts perfection out of range. You're judging to idealized guidelines. So you're kind of forced into a situation where you have to evaluate a beer against a written "ideal."

    On another note, you list Orval as a 50 point beer. Classic beer, no argument. But would you give it 50 points everytime in every situation? That's a much tougher call and I fear that many (probably most, maybe all) of us can't be objective enough to say that with any real certainty. Does you mood or fancy alter that score, even when you're trying to be objective? My own experience is a resounding "yes" but I don't think every judge would admit that.

    But good food for thought.

  14. Perfect would infer flawlessness. I have found only a few to exhibit anything close to flawlessness, but those few I will list:

    Amber Ale: Bell's Amber Ale
    Pale Ale: Stone Pale Ale
    Oktoberfest: Bell's Oktoberfest
    Lager: Great Lakes Brewery Dortmunder Gold
    Bock: Sierra Nevada Glissade
    Porter: Great Lakes Brewery Edmund Fitzgerald
    India Pale Ale: Bell's Two-Hearted Ale

    Heavy on Bell's? Possibly. But every time I compare one of their beers to another brewery's similar beer, the competition seems to pale in comparison.

    Heavy on Great Lakes? Possibly - I live in Cleveland. But those two beers are extremely hard to beat in their class.