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Friday, March 15, 2013

The Troublesome Gray Area of Evaluation

Source: xkcd
It looks like I'm going to push this around for one more day.  Yesterday, following a conversation from Wednesday, I wondered aloud about what "good" beer is.  I invited comments and even the responses illustrate how difficult it is to consider the question. We can't discuss "good" until we agree about what the term means.  But let's step back even further--can we agree on what beer is?

The theory of criticism is not new to beer.  One of the more entertaining literary critics is Terry Eagleton, who gets existential on the nature of his subject of inquiry, literature:
There is no such thing as a literary work or tradition which is valuable in itself, regardless of what anyone might have said or come to say about it.  "Value" is a transitive term: it means whatever is valued by certain people in specific situations, according to particular criteria and in the light of given purposes.  It is thus quite possible that, given a deep enough transformation of our history, we may in the future produce a society which is unable to get anything at all out of Shakespeare.  [Literary Theory, 1983]
The idea of "literature" is like "good beer"--fiction exists, but literature, "good" fiction, is a subjective, collective construct.  Eagleton goes into an extremely detailed unpacking of this idea, reflecting on how deeply human experience and belief color our subjective evaluations.  He risks sliding into a theory of complete subjectivity--as did some of the "good beer" commenters--but pulls up short (and for the purposes of our discussion, substitute in your mind the words "good beer" when he writes "literature"):
If it will not do to see literature as an "objective" descriptive category, neither will it do to say that literature is just what people choose to call literature. 
Why?  Eagleton acknowledges that literature doesn't exist "in the sense that insects do," but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.  We are plunged into a gray area where meaning cannot be measured by empirical means but not dismissed as purely subjective.  The meaning comes in our collective understanding and agreements about what good is.  Because our understanding and agreements (not to mention conditions) change, meaning changes.  What was good in 1962 may not be good now or in 2062.

I don't think this is actually as hard as some of the commenters believe.  We have a number of benchmarks that help us feel our way.  We don't judge beer in a vacuum--we judge it in context.  Style is a huge aid here--it's fine for a stout to be roasty but not a pilsner.  "Good" is relative to expectation.  We have agreements about what should and should not be in a beer based on style.  (Phenols, diacetyl, oxidation--off flavors--are wrong in every case except those in which they're not.)  Once you agree on the general broad contours, then you come to the gray area of aesthetics.  Is this beer "good" relative to style, expectation, and other beers?  Now we're diving into the deep waters of subjectivity.

In 1975, "good beer" did not exist in the United States.  We had bad beer and beer, but no one would have spent ten seconds defending a theory of aesthetics as it related to a can of Schlitz.  After craft brewing, we invented the idea of good.  All the momentum behind craft brewing rested on the idea that there was such a thing as good beer.  We talk about beer, spend $20 on a bottle of beer, write blogs and books about beer, and argue about beer because we all tacitly agree that "good beer" exists.  So to walk up to that line and say, "it's whatever you think it is" is, well, chicken. 

Until the past five years, when turnip-and-beet beers started to be greeted not with derisive laughter but serious interest and consideration, I felt I had a pretty good theory of "good beer."  I could tell you what it was and defend it.  But now we have, as a culture, begun to value beer differently.  When someone hands me a glass of beer brewed not to a standard style that has weird, unfamiliar ingredients in it, I find my theory bereft.  There is a way to evaluate the beer, but we haven't yet gotten to Eagleton's definition--"value means whatever is valued by certain people in specific situations, according to particular criteria and in the light of given purposes."

We don't actually have to write down the theory.  Literature does fine with out literary theory, and "good beer" will thrive without a blogger building the beautiful architecture of an aesthetic model.  I'm having more a crisis of confidence.  Presented with a weird beer, I wonder: is "liking" it enough?  Surely there's more to it.  But what?

But what?


  1. I believe "liking" is enough. It doesn't matter how much energy, time and words we spend fetishising, intellectualising, dissecting and debating beer. It doesn't matter how many books are written about it and how many blogs open or close, the fact is that beer, any beer, is really nothing more than a beverage and drinking it will result in a sensory experience that you may or may not find pleasant, which will, of course, depend on a number of factors.

    Some people may add certain extraneous values to some beers, but, if you think of it, even taken those added values into consideration, everything will come down to "I like it/I don't like it/I don't quite like it, but don't quite mind drinking it".

  2. Ok, I see what you're driving at now. The thing is, yesterday you asked us what we would select for an individual seeking a beer in a style that we did not enjoy ourselves. I would say anyone commenting on this blog is of substantial knowledge, or at least enough to make an educated recommendation. I think what people such as ourselves DON'T want is to become tastemakers; to shape someone's opinion of what is good based on our own idea of what is good. It's no different from people thinking imperial stouts are the best beers because of Beeradvocate groupthink.

    So what is good, then? I don't think you can do it relative to style. That enables you to say "I made this awful beer, but I made it awful on purpose. It's a good beer relative to the awful beer style."

    Hmm.... I'll have to ponder a bit more.

  3. Anyone ever had a beer and thought "Well I don't like it personally but I bet a lot of people would"?

    I have. What's going on there? Is that good beer or not?

    Seeing as craft beer is beer liked by people who like craft beer, perhaps good beer is beer liked by people who like good beer.

  4. I'm struck by this notion:

    "value means whatever is valued by certain people in specific situations, according to particular criteria and in the light of given purposes."

    I know a number of people where the value of a beer is in getting of it and posting the unopened bottle on Facebook. I'm pretty sure the value is diminished when it's opened with 10 other people and placed on a table of 15 paprazzi beers.

    Those kinds of values didn't exist in 1975.

  5. With respect, I think this is all over reaching the question, not a matter of people finding it hard or not.

    The values of squirreling away rare drinks did exist in 1975 and 1935 and most other points in time. And beer is no different from the other consumed things that are valued in that it goes in and out of style. People have prized good beer in the past. See what Hornsey says about the role of grades of beer in the governance of Ancient Egypt. We are at a certain point in this cycle of appreciation that has aspects of a bubble which like all bubbles internally validates. So, we cannot and have no interest in fixing what is externally "the good" - especially given the aspect of valuing the novel that is rabid within this particular bubble.

    Like novelty, style is another recent internal construct of the bubble that aids in no way in the determination whether something is or is not good. It only determines if something is compliant with the construct of style. As long as you understand and take some enjoyment from the measuring system of the internal construct, you will be able to determine if something represents a good based on excelling in compliance.

    See, beer is not like literature. Literature conveys meaning about existence. Beer is just a pervasive tasty drink. Lots of people talk about good beer because it is easy, pleasurable and relatively accessible. I am also interested in the governance aspects of Parliamentary constitutional law which is not easy nor accessible even if it is a bit pleasurable once you get a bit of experience with it. But it is also arbitrary in that it depends on history and the implications and tensions of culture.

    In law, there is a division between natural law and positive law. Positivism states the law is what it asserts itself to be. It does not require goodness. The natural law folk find this lacking, seeking underlying goodness towards which the law directs. So, you need to create justification that beer is a subject capable of having its own good. And then align the discussion in accordance with a structural aspiration towards that goodness. Otherwise good is just compliance with the arbitrary or it is just another way of saying tasty to the individual. Which is really all there is to it. Which is quite enough.

  6. I just find this question puzzling because, no matter how hard I try, I can't imagine myself isolating variables in a way that would make me say "Beer that has X, Y and Z is good, and beer that does not have X, Y and Z is not good." Yes, there are certain compounds and undesirables that can be forged through the brewing process, and these are things that, over time, have been identified as such. But now we're relegating the notion of "good" to one that is purely technical. And even a beer that is technically flawless does not automatically make it "good," it just conforms to the standards of the industry that have been devised and accepted over time.

    I do know what you're driving at here, but the notion of "good" can be applied to any medium and be met with the same criticism. How do you define good music? Paintings? Literature?

    My answer, in terms of beer, is the same as it is for music, paintings and literature. Good beer is beer that resonates with me in an enjoyable, challenging or interesting way.

  7. Good, thoughtful comments.

    Alan, I used Eagleton because I'm familiar with his work. The argument he makes is pretty easily importable from the ideas about literature--that is, we bring things to beer no less than we do to literature. You reveal it when you write "Literature conveys meaning about existence." That's not big-t truth, that's your imputation. And both differ from law, which is not about aesthetics, but of course we're probably not in disagreement there.

    Christopher, in your second comment, you travel down the same road I do, but I can't quite arrive at your destination. The quality of "good" is hardly objective, but neither is it entirely subjective. Good beer does exist, just in the collective agreement of the people who drink it. It's connected to personal interest, but not limited to it.

    I keep driving down the road...

  8. Well, you will have to spare me the "you reveal it" stuff, Jeff. With respect, me thinks you need some time away from beer if you have fallen in love with your idea to the point no one really has a clue what you are on about.

  9. "Literature does fine with out literary theory, and "good beer" will thrive without a blogger building the beautiful architecture of an aesthetic model."

    Just wondering: would you say the same thing about physics or construction or even speeding laws?

  10. Alan, that didn't seem so respectful. Sometimes you seem to get peeved for reasons I can't understand. On one's on blog, "going on about" things is sort of the point. I'm not sure why it should be so offensive.

    WWD: no, I'm talking about theories of aesthetics, not everything. We wouldn't have been able to discover the Higgs Boson if someone hadn't theorized it.

  11. I think the trouble is distinguishing between "good to me" and "good quality." BMC's are good quality but boring to most craft beer palates. Here is a somewhat related blog post (not by me) from Beer Sensory Science discussing quality vs liking.

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  13. I think I know what you mean.

    'The Canon' might be another useful idea to borrow from literature -- a sort of collective understanding, with fuzzy edges, of what's 'in' and what's 'out'.

    Having said that, the literary canon is full of books few people actually enjoy reading very much.

    'Good beer' as worthy and significant, but not always enjoyable to drink? That can't be right.