Thursday, August 6, 2009

Beer-Wine Parallels -- is "easy to drink" an insult?

I came across an article by W. Blake Gray in the LA Times yesterday: "'Easy to drink' isn't an insult when it comes to wines." He was bemoaning the trend to rate "difficult" wines highly, while "easy to drink" had been kicked aside as a descriptor. "Easy to drink" used to mean a critic thought a wine was superbly rounded and balanced.
"These wines don't scream for attention, or tire out the palate, because they're balanced. You shouldn't notice the alcohol, acidity or sweetness because none is overpowering. If it's a red wine, it's essential that its tannins are smooth.
Yum. But now it implies that the wine is unsophisticated, not challenging enough. Essentially, if you like "easy to drink" wines, you're not up to drinking the really good wines.
"There is an American attitude that drinking wine is sort of like a wrestling match and it is not macho to get into the ring with a wimpy 'easy to drink' wine," wine importer Kermit Lynch says. "Better it is big, brawny, tough, and swallowing it should be an endeavor rather than an easy pleasure."
(The more I read Kermit Lynch, the more I like him.) Gray then observes what this means when critics get together to taste bottles at a restaurant.
Critics taste wine in groups of 50 or more, taking one or two sips of each. Bold wines get the highest scores in this format; wines that are easy to drink don't grab attention that quickly. If only ratings services used the "empty bottle test." At the end of a multi-wine meal, just see which bottles are completely drained. I have the pleasure of attending many such mini-bacchanalias, and it's amazing how often the kitchen staff gets to finish the highest-rated bottles. But nobody goes back and adjusts the ratings.
So. Do I have to belabor the obvious? I'll just tell you about the Malt Advocate staff party we had last month...well, a little about it, because too many details would be embarrassing. We still drink a lot of beer at Malt Advocate, because you can't drink whiskey all night. John's coolers and fridge were stocked with awesome beers -- tripels, DIPAs, imperial stouts -- and he had Lost Abbey Serpent's Stout and a tripel on draft. Now...the Serpent's Stout was excellent, the tripel was very good. But by the end of the night, every bottle of Deschutes Twilight Ale and Full Sail Black Session he had was empty. They were "easy to drink."

I know, I know... You always finish your bottle of Big Ass Triple Imperial Whatzit. Good for you, and you should; there are children in Somalia who are going to bed sober (thanks to Terry Sullivan for that one). But remember this the next time you "rate" a beer, either on one of the ratings sites or in your blog or for your own enjoyment: was it "easy to drink?" Was it balanced, did it lead you to another drink effortlessly, was it pleasurable and fun? Or did you have to work at it? Was it a one-trick pony -- tremendously hoppy, sour, roasted -- or did it wrap several components up in a beautiful whole?

Maybe that's why PhillyMag picked HopDevil as their Best of Philly beer this year (or maybe it's just because it's a really good beer that a lot of different kinds of beer drinkers enjoy: there's a good conversation about that building over at Suzanne Woods's I'll Have Another Stout blog; why not go join in?). It's easy to drink. Ron and Bill have been surprised from the beginning about how easy to drink people have found HopDevil. It's an IPA! It's 6.7%! But it is beautifully balanced.

21 comments:

EddieGlick said...

Fortunately, "easy to drink" and "complex" aren't mutually exclusive. Like the aforementioned HopDevil (yum), to me a truly great beer is one you can mindlessly swig while talking with acquaintances or listening to the ballgame, but is interesting enough that if you wanted you could examine and savor and enjoy each sip. For me I'd nominate Bell's Oberon, a brew that could easily be (and is) categorized as a "lawnmower beer" but has that spicy Saaz pop and fruity Bell's house yeast, plenty of complexity to make each mouthful a new experience. Unfortunately, "easy to drink" and "boring" aren't mutually exclusive, either. But I won't get into that...

Alan said...

Well put. I have been thinking about Robin Garr's wine website's use of "quality price ratio" (QPR) and craft beer again a bit lately but maybe its the "pleasure circumstance ratio" (PCR) which is just as or more important. We should ask ourselves more often about how many circumstances will a given beer give abiding pleasure.

Lew Bryson said...

Absolutely, EddieG. Beers that are easy to drink and complex are rare prizes.

Stan Hieronymus said...

If you want to read more Kermit Lynch I recommend "Adventures on the Wine Route: A Wine Buyer's Tour of France" . . . and not to accumulate a list of wines you must buy.

Lew Bryson said...

Already ordered it on Amazon, Stan. But what do you mean about the list of wines? Are they all gone now? Or is that (please...) not the point of the book?

Tom E said...

I think that this discussion is even more relevant when it comes to beer. I've always thought that the big difference between beer and wine is that you drink beer and you sip wine. Don't get me wrong, wine and sipping beers have their place, and there are many that I love. But I'm a beer guy and I believe that the hallmark of a great beer is a great, thirst quenching quality that makes you want to take the next sip.

I can't stand it when I hear people talk about "complexity" without any further definition. The assumption being that complexity is synonymous with quality.

Stan Hieronymus said...

If you were a "wine ticker" (sure there is a beer parallel) then you'd be pretty frustrated looking for those wines in New Mexico. Once in a while I might get a little more out of one of his essays if I was familiar with the specific wine but I find it no big deal. I didn't buy it for recommendations.

Steven said...

"...was it 'easy to drink?'"

There's a big furor over the "drinkability" category in the BeerAdvocate reviews, members think it's given too many points -- which to my mind means they really don't understand the concept.

To the detractors (at BA and elsewhere), that Big Ass Triple Imperial Whatzit is drinkable, no matter what you try to explain to them. It's all back to that need for a wrestling match that was mentioned.

I'm glad that I discovered good beer before I had to be so tough and macho.

Jonny Rashid said...

Great post. I love the perspective; I'm not a fan of beers that are too extreme. In the United States, we tend to thing malt bombs or hop rockets are really the end-all, be-all. Sometimes, among the higher-class breweries, the idea is that the more sour, the better. There is a time and a place for that. But it doesn't always end in a good beer.

And I appreciate the distinction between complex and huge. Overhopping a beer won't always deliver a complex flavor profile. In fact, it's the subtleties and the mysteries of a well hopped beer that never cease to amaze.

In my mind, here's the test of a truly marvelous beer. It's well-balanced, easy-to-drink, and complex. I want to drink it, and drink it fast, because it's that good, and that drinkable. But I resist doing so, because it's so good, I want to savor the moment and live in it. I end up drinking a beer like the Chiswick Bitter too fast, and sometimes I really want to drink Petrus or Cantillon really fast too.

But taking a minute, soaking it in, and turning what ends up being a well-balanced, easy-to-drink beverage into more than that--an experience--is what drinking beer is all about.

Lew Bryson said...

Nicely said, Jonny!

And Steven...don't you wish some brewer would actually call a beer Big Ass Triple Imperial Whatzit? And wouldn't it be awesome if it was 9% and drinkable? Mmmm...kinda like Don de Dieu, my favorite drinkable big beer...

Marc said...

Couldn't agree more. Although its fun to sample the big or hopped up beers, the best beers are the ones that make you want just one more glass or bottle. The ones that you can easily have more than one at a BBQ, ball game, or during family visits over the holidays. Lew I think you quoted one of the better brewers in PA in your book stating that anyone can keep adding hops to a beer.

W. Blake Gray said...

Lew, thanks so much for this post. American beer and wine culture have evolved in tandem toward more difficult drinking. It's a symptom of the same thinking that leads to hot sauces which are advertised as inedible right on the bottle. Kermit Lynch nailed it: Some people would rather fight their food. Me, I'm more a lover than a fighter.

Lew Bryson said...

Blake, thank YOU for stopping by. I've noted the hot sauce conundrum myself, and compared it to hoppiness in over-the-top beers. I love the Kermit line, and yours here. Cheers!

Steven said...

"And wouldn't it be awesome if it was 9% and drinkable?"

Well, that's somewhat contradictory in my book, though I've sampled beers that can be dangerously drinkable -- does it hold the definition if you can only down one and not remember the rest of the evening?

I guess my definition of drinkability also includes keeping my wits about me. ;-)

Lew Bryson said...

I do make a distinction between "drinkable" and "sessionable." I've put away a 750 of Don de Dieu on occasion, and it slips down pretty easy, and is pleasant as it does...but it's one and done. Yeah, big beers can be drinkable; the danger, as you put it, is in the lure to keep drinking them.

Russ said...

I often make the comparison to music. Is a crazy, complicated 12-minute prog-rock anthem by Yes inherently better than a three-chord acoustic song by Johnny Cash? Of course not. Now there are some people who indeed prefer Yes to Cash, and that's fine. Likewise, there are people who will always prefer a 12%, spiced American wild ale to a Bavarian lager, and those people gravitate to sites such as BeerAdvocate. There's nothing wrong with preferring "difficult" music or beer or whatever, but the problem comes when you start recognizing that preference as inherently better. I've had plenty of complex beers I've enjoyed in small quantities; in fact, I'll be doing plenty of such enjoying this weekend at the Great Taste of the Midwest. But when I come home from work, I'm much more likely to pour myself a half-liter of Helles or Hefeweizen, and I might even throw on some Johnny Cash while I'm at it. ;-)

Jeff Frane said...

Reading this, I thought, "Lew's never been a beer judge." This particular phenomenon has been a plague on competitions for decades and is always at its worst during Best of Show panels. To some extent, it's a product of palate fatigue but also simple logic: subtle does not stand out. If it did, it wouldn't be subtle.

Then again, I'm still puzzling over your remark about not being able to drink whiskey all night. You just getting old, Lew?

Lew Bryson said...

Yeah, I have been a judge, and I fight this tendency. I always champion the subtle -- except when there's an awesome big beer in the BOS pool. See my recent tasting note on the Yards Cape of Good Hope IPA; very nicely hopped without being wicked bitter.

The problem with drinking whiskey all night is when you've had enough beer to put you over the pacing threshold. That's when it gets ugly.

Kelly said...

I have the 1:6 rule. While there are exception (it is a rule after all) a great beer is one that I am happy to have just a single measure of and can contemplate it's many facets but I'd be equally happy necking six measures of over the courses of a proper session while sorting out all of the world's problems with my friends.

Rich said...

Back in April, your buddy Eric Asimov in the NY Times and subsequently I, in my blog, pretty much talked about the same thing. Perception is turning in the wine world too: http://theomnivorenow.blogspot.com/2009/04/session-wine.html

blah said...

agree on easy to drink. been enjoying Prosecco this summer and it's wonderful to drink.

also, like the hopdevil. pulled together reviews, articles etc. from kosmix on hopdevil for anyone looking for more. http://www.kosmix.com/search/hopdevil?

enjoy