Thursday, April 23, 2009

Angsting about Tasting

Saw these two posts about "tasting notes" and "beer reviews" at Beervana, and the one Jeff references in that post, at It's Pub Night. It seemed fitting to notice and comment on them before I post a small flurry of tasting notes.

Jeff's concerned about accuracy in beer reviews. He looks at some of the verbiage sprayed about on beer rating sites (and magazine reviews, and blog reviews, and judging slips...) and is -- rightly -- concerned that it's sometimes conflated for pizzazz. Me too. Then he references Bill's genius invention at IPN: a random beer review generator. Hilarious. Go ahead, go play with it. I did, it's funny. (Hint: if you don't think it's at least faintly amusing, if you think it's insulting...start drinking more water. And stop writing reviews for a while.)

But then Jeff drops one of the best things I've seen written about this whole business:
Even very good beers may not offer you a lot to hang your hat on; what distinguishes them is not their distinct elements, but a totally vague quality of harmony produced when all those elements come together. How do you describe that? I miss the mark more often than I hit it, but this post reminds me of a directive I try to use when writing about beer. Don't write to impress, write to communicate. How would I tell a friend about a beer so that she would get what I was trying to say? It's useful to include adjectives, but they should reveal the beer, not conceal the reviewer's inability to describe it.
Jeff, first off, what's wrong with saying "This beer has a totally vague quality of harmony produced when all those elements come together." I kinda like that, and I'd write it. I don't trust "hints of wet smoke, teaberry, DAP putty, and demerara sugar mingle with a strong intimation of the late addition of Chinook hops." Even if the reviewer does get that -- much like my deeply-questioned remarking of tasting carrots in PBC's Rowhouse Red -- that's their mouth. It's not mine, or yours, or Sweet Fanny Adam's mouth. So how much is that worth?

But "Don't write to impress, write to communicate" is good stuff. I can't believe that one of his commenters -- "Dr. Wort" -- actually advises him to use the Lovibond scale to make more accurate descriptions of color. Great, let's just all do it by the damned numbers. Useful.

Beer tasting is subjective. There's no way to get around that. Period. Never will. That's why medals are usually awarded by blind judging and concensus, by panels. Best you can do. I don't present my "reviews" as anything but my opinions. I don't say you're right or wrong if you agree or disagree; frankly, I don't care, in the end. If you find them useful, and I hope you do, that's great; if you don't, I can understand that, too. They're descriptive, not prescriptive.

I hope you find the following reviews useful. I'm not going to worry about it, though, and neither should you.


Adam said...

Damn straight!

Bill said...

Devil's advocate: you yourself, and the Alstroms, and John Hansell, and Robert Parker/James Laube/Anthony Dias Blue/etc. _aren't _ offering simply one person's opinion when each of you reviews. You're professionals. You're critics. People look to you as authorities. Your role is to help folks decide what is worth drinking, experiencing, spending money on. To suggest otherwise isn't merely disingenuous, it's dishonest. People pick up publications to read what you (and the others) have to say. And once that's established, you can't say "these are just my personal opinions" -- that ship has sailed. Even the stuff you do here -- and you've said here that you have this site in part to drum up business -- it isn't just personal opinion. In part because you can't say "I'm not wearing my reviewer hat here even as I review this beer"... but in part because you _should_ be trying to give a sense of what a drinker should experience. That's why there are reviews. That's why there are critics. And you're a professional critic. If you can't get across how something tastes, you shouldn't review as part of your job, and if you think no one can, you should argue against reviews period.

I think people can. I think the wine folks have developed decent language for getting across tastes/aromas/mouthfeel, and i think their language translates well to ales, less so for lagers. I trust James Laube on California wines. I trusted Michael Jackson on beer. There were amateur reviewers on Beer Advocate when I was on it back in the day that I trusted, and got what they described.

In a very real sense, your descriptions (and those of Todd/Jason, John, Anthony et al.) are prescriptive. That's why there are scores and rankings. You're providing a service. You're not just offering an opinion, one that weighs the same as anybody else's.

Philip Neuweiler said...

We made it fairly simple on our POS items: "for tavern and home use." I think that says it all. (But then again, we were talking down to the dutchies in the lehigh valley).

Bill said...

[Bill from It's Pub Night here, not the earlier commenter Bill.]

Thanks for the plug, Lew!

I truly enjoy reading the current style of beer reviews. They're fun. But I have my doubts as to how much information they impart to the reader about the beer.

What I would like to see more of is to compare the beer under review to one or more well-known, widely-available standards.

Lew Bryson said...

No sweat, Bill: it was brilliant!

I can see your comparison thing as a component...but I'm not going to use it if it's forced. I try hard not to be formulaic in the notes I do here on the blog, if only because part of this is for my enjoyment. Gotta be fun, too!

Anonymous said...

As someone who has been drinking craft beer since the late 80's I tend to skim, at best, most of the reviews I come across. Not to dismiss those who put a lot of time and care into their reviews, but I often cannot get through many of them and I am someone who loves to read. I find many beer descriptions and whether it has "faint hints of caramel or new mowed grass" superfluous and self-indulgent and generally find myself skimmin through them.

Bottom line is what I find useful-- is it good-- why or why not and is it true to style. That's all I need or want.

I realize I may be running the risk of offending some but I am offering the viewpoint of a casual reader and craft beer lover.

Steven said...

My latest review at RealBeer -- hope it's helpful and descriptive.

"...and whether it has "faint hints of caramel or new mowed grass" superfluous and self-indulgent..."Anonymous -- I've been enjoying good beer as long as you have, and while I believe many "descriptors" can get superfluous, most of them (caramel and mowed grass among them) are pretty legit.

Since we both started enjoying (understanding?) good beer around the same time, I'm sure Jackson was as much an influence to you as he was me -- take a look at some of his reviews (beer and whiskey alike), and you'll see that he uses many different characteristics that really can be found in fermented beverages.

Steven said...

Oh -- and not at all offended, it's just beer talk!

Anonymous said...

Definitely agree about Jackson. I enjoyed Jackson's writings. He was about all there was back then and I still read his books almost like novels. Whether it was his legitimacy (he was in print, pre-internet) or his manner or his journalistic background, I liked his descriptions.

I think at this point with regards to reviews/descriptions I'm in the last quarter hour of a 4 hour beer fest... my palate is spent and I cant focus. That's how I feel about many of the descriptions I read online now... the adjectives and comparisons have flattened me. In other words, I've read it all and I'm really just interested in whether it was good or great and true to style.

That having been said I'm sure there are many more who appreciate the intense descriptions.

Now, it's purt near time to go out and conduct my own reviews...

Steven said...

"I still read his books almost like novels."Nice analogy -- I know just what you mean. His books were new adventures to me back then.

Anonymous said...

i just wanna know who sweet fanny adams is ???

Lew Bryson said...

Fanny Adams:

I wasn't actually aware until finding this Wikipedia reference that "Fanny Adams" was a real person; tragically real. I knew it as a euphemism for "fu*k all," or nothing, particularly in the sense of receiving or perceiving nothing where something of substance was expected or customary. My bro-in-law Curt used to be a chef in Minneapolis, told me the Canadians that came through would order a "cheeseburger FA," which meant a bun, meat, and a slice of cheese; a cheeseburger with nothing.

In this mouth, your mouth, or nobody's mouth. Just playing around.

Anonymous said...

I give you beer writer folks credit... To me it's just - take a sip and decide if I like it - I don't worry much about WHAT it tastes like, just that I like the taste of it. Besides, I'm only ever to pull out 1 or 2 distinctive flavors, and they're the same flavors my mom would pull out, nothing remarkable about that.