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Oakes WheneverI GetAroundToIt- August 10, 2006
August 10, 2006
Written by Oakes
Boy, I had a quality rant session written up for this week’s Oakes Whenever I Get Around to It. I had some great points, and strung them together in fine fashion. But then I thought about what I said last time, about getting into silly beer geek quarrels that ultimately don’t have much if any bearing on the actual enjoyment of a good pint of beer, nor do they have much bearing on the success or failure of the industry. I know, it’s shocking, but even the loudest grumbling beer geek can’t bring a good biz down.
But I was taking one basic fact and making two totally different points, so I’m going to run with the second one.
It starts off with a simple observation. Beer tasting is subjective. Period. We aren’t working in a lab here. We do not follow the scientific method, not even the truly geeked out among us. People aren’t machines, which means we all perceive things differently from one another. And from ourselves, at various points in the day, in various environments. We could taste beer in a lab, but who the hell wants to drink in a lab? Nobody. So nobody does. They drink in all kinds of other situations, but not labs. Really, to taste beer in laboratory conditions is pretty much the best way to get an inaccurate assessment of the product.
So if everything is subjective, we can adhere to loose criteria regarding what a beer in a given style should have, and what we should expect from beers that aren’t in any given style (or are in a style that we don’t know enough about, which for me might mean a Steam and for a newcomer to the beer world that could be a Brown Ale). But what I’ve seen from the ratings, my own personal experience and from discussions on various beer enthusiast forums is that some styles are brewed to a very high standard these days. Ever wonder why you don’t see more English bitters in the Top 50? Forget about North American tastes for a minute, because we have enough British people here to put these beers up there. But seldom do they agree on any one particular beer. There are other factors involved (the vagaries of cask-conditioning, the inability to trade a great beer and get the word out to name a couple) but a big one is that Bitter is a very crowded style over there. Dozens of breweries make excellent examples. You see the same in the US with imperial stouts and barley wines, in California with Imperial IPAs and in the Pacific Northwest with regular IPAs. In Germany with weizenbier, in Bohemia with Pilsner, and even amongst the handful of existing traditional lambic producers.
You could line up a flight of the finest twenty examples and taste them blind. You’d notice that few if any examples would have any discernable flaws. The days of village brewers engaged in constant QC battles and unpredictable ingredients are almost entirely behind us (almost, because we’ve all been to brewpubs that somehow make an exception for themselves) and the dissemination of brewing knowledge and opportunities for training and experience are such that there isn’t really any excuse for a brewer to lack the talent to make flawless beer.
So ultimately, the quality of beer and the standard of brewing are very high these days. Which renders the only remaining argument of “this beer is better than that beer” a subjective one. We all have certain preferences. I find that crystal malt does not work well with intense hoppiness. Thus, I prefer clean pale malts as the feature backdrop to my IPAs and IIPAs. Some folks don’t agree with my assessment and absolutely love beers that I have a tough time finishing. You could make the same case with diacetyl in either English bitter or Czech pilsner. Or with bitter you could also debate the merits of various hop varieties, the level of hoppiness (the classic north-south debate) and so on.
In some cases, you see certain other factors creep in to the equation. One is the question of local patriotism. Another is the “newbie effect”, where the boldest widely available beers are overrated because they’re the virgin brews for novice drinkers who will eventually go on to taste better examples but won’t adjust that original rating. A combination of the two comes when a new trend sweeps the land. Is that highly rated local brewpub bourbon-barrel Imperial Stout really a world classic? Are four of them all world classics, or are they all being rated by local raters who haven’t had any of the other ones…the rating is honest but the comparative sample group is lacking in depth.
Then what happens when you have local preferences. I learned about beer in both Canada and the Pacific Northwest. So I have an appreciation for a really good session beer but at the same time I have come to loathe bland, seemingly pointless me-too beers, of which I feel we have a few too many. I have also come to have a different sense of balance in my hoppy beers than other folks have. Out-of-region people come to Seattle and find the beers out of balance, which seems strange to me. But I have problems with the chewiness of Californian IPAs and IIPAs, again because I’m just not used to that much dark malt in those styles. What you’re used to often becomes what you prefer, even if you don’t recognize it right away.
At a competition where the flavour and aroma profiles are laid out specifically, that becomes a measuring stick over subjectivity simply because it’s there. Competitions need this sort of structure in the interests of creating a fair and level playing field. But most real world brewers and drinkers don’t follow those guidelines. They just go on combinations of flavours and aromas and textures. The brewing part may be technical but the enjoyment part really isn’t. That’s subjectivity in action. The element of objectivity is there for the serious enthusiasts who have taken the time to understand the process and do comparative tastings, but it’s not the key part to determining what is great and what is good. I think we’re reached a point with many types of beer where subjectivity is almighty.
That might mean a bit less control over public opinion for some of the brewers, but it also means that the entire brewing community is doing their jobs very well. As for helping the public form better opinions, I have lots of thoughts on that, but I’ll save them for another day.
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