If you’ve been around for some of my Beer Fiction Fridays it’s not exactly breaking news worthy of auto-tune treatment that I don’t write traditional beer reviews. Sure, I’ve written quite a few nonfiction, more review-ish reviews, but even those tend to fall more on the side of narrative story than they do classic, “here’s what I think and why,” no-frills review.
An article from Focus on the Beer had me doing a Ctrl+F on my soul this weekend, delving deep in my psyche and emotional past for the reasons I write beer reviews at all. I think the obvious reasons are because I like beer and because I like to write. The rest just seems inconsequential, the unimportant details that seem to work themselves out without much extra thought.
But I’ve never been the type to actually read reviews of food and drink with an air of seriousness, never acted like the opinion of the critic or reviewer or dude in his basement somehow matters. I do often find my browser landing on Beer Advocate because, hey, checking out what the collective hive-mind thinks can be fun and a hands-on lesson in collective sociology. But I’m pretty sure I’ve never consciously recalled any of those reviews in the liquor store, saying to myself, “beerstud1991 only gave it a 2.63, no way I’m buying that junk.“ I can say with confidence that I’ve never let a beer’s “score” influence whether I’m going to purchase it or not.
Because taste is subjective. More so, I’d argue, than any other sense. We can pretty much agree (short of color interpretation) that we all see the same things. Aside from the thickness of different ear drums slightly adjusting incoming MHz, we all hear the same things. We can also agree that week-old cat litter smells bad and a freshly baked apple pie smells good. We can even agree that 300 thread count sheets are soft, 60 grit sand paper is rough, and a baby’s butt is the unequivocal standard unit of smoothness against which all other smoothness should be measured.
But taste has few standards; it is permeable, water soluble, in constant flux. Some people out there legitimately don’t like cupcakes. Others legitimately do like tripe. Every late-to-work scalding coffee burn, every jalapeno charged capsaicin rush, every chewing-too-fast-bit-the-side-of-your-tongue is part of the formula that always equals how you go about tasting, no matter what variables are added or changed. Your tongue, like a gross pink snake, sheds its skin and taste buds often, reacting to all kinds of things you put in your mouth, making it so you can’t even trust your own opinions over the course of your life.
And because taste is flawed, the classic beer review is flawed. Just because you liked a sextuple dry-hopped Imperial IPA, doesn’t mean everyone else will. Just because your palette isn’t as open to bitters and coffee malts, doesn’t mean that a coffee stout is bad. Reviews will always be biased and tainted by the reviewer’s in-born, unavoidable subjectivity and thus can’t logically be universally valid. There is no basis against which the goodness of a beer can be measured (although the BJCP is certainly trying to establish one) and as a result, what another person thinks about a beer will remain forever nebulous, floating in a foamy, lacey, off-white head of doubt.
I sound like I’m about to give up on the beer review. Far from it. Actually the opposite. The beer review is still a great thing, still has a place in our writing and beer worlds, but maybe not in the traditional Appearance+Smell+Taste+Mouthfeel form.
When you drink a beer, you’re doing a lot more than just putting some water, malt, hops, and alcohol into your body. You’re doing a lot more than just tasting a drink and reporting your findings. You’re becoming part of an ancient tradition that dates back ~10,000 years. You’re joining a enthusiastic community of like-minded brewers, maltsters, yeast-biologists, and hop-farmers who toil away to bring life to a beverage, a drink that has shaped and supported mankind’s rise to greatness like a pint glass supports an ale. You’re raising a glass to salute the infinite muse of alcohol, and sharing good times with your family and friends. Beer is more than the sum of its ingredients, it’s a glorious gateway, a cultural connection.
When you write a review, you’re telling the story of how you made that connection. You’re filling your reader’s head with the same warm, spinning buzz that filled yours, via a story or anecdote or worded snapshot of life. You’re not just telling them about the beer, you’re taking them with you on the experience you had drinking the beer. Write your reviews to show us the truth that was hard-brewed into the beer, the connection to that timeless tradition that inspired you to take bottle-opener to cap in the first place.
Don’t be so caught up in what people expect from a review. If you want to write about the hop characteristics because that’s just your thing, go for it. If you want to write about a memory that this beer brought surging back to the front of your brain, by all means. If you’re like me, and you want to write a story based on the taste and appearance of the beer, don’t let anyone stop you.
Drink what calls to you. Write what the beer inspires you to write.
Tagged: beer, beer review, beer reviews, brewing, craft beer, craftbeer, fiction, homebrewing, hops, malt, nonfiction, senses, subjective, subjectivity, taste, writing, yeast
Well put, Oliver!
“You’re not just telling them about the beer, you’re taking them with you on the experience you had drinking the beer.”
That, to me, is the key to a good review. There are so many external factors, as you mentioned, that influence how we feel about something. If I’m forced to eat a bowl of cookie dough ice cream while having my fingernails pulled out slowly, I’m not going to have fond memories of that meal (hmm, future torture scene there..). But if I’m enjoying a bowl with my wife while we’re sitting on a beach in Kauai, that’s probably the best ice cream I’ve ever had.
I think it comes down to story telling (doesn’t everything?). Even something as perfunctory as a review needs to have a story, otherwise, why are we reading it?
When I write beer reviews, I usually just try to give the reader an idea of what they may expect from the beer. It’s hard to judge what someone else will think of a certain beer, unless you are highly attuned to that person’s palate, and even then they may surprise you!
I also understand some reviews may seem monotonous and drove, which is why I enjoy reading your unique and creative beer reviews and beer fiction, Oliver!
That’s a good point, Ryan. There is definitely a place for “primer” reviews, as a guide for new drinkers.
It’s also a good way for an individual to track what they’ve tried.
I think this is a really good point. I think that taste can be highly subjective–which is actually why I like a review to touch on certain standard points, like bitterness, etc. But I think all reviewers–book bloggers like myself included–should be open to creativity and to describing a beer or a book or a work of art in how they strike you, the critic, and not how you think they might appeal to some idealized reader.
Yea, I think this echoes Ryan’s point above; a good, thorough review of the basic characteristics can be really helpful. We just don’t need 9,000 of the same review for each beer 🙂
I couldn’t agree more and that’s exactly why my “beer reviews” are anything but. Sure, I eventually get around to describing the flavors and other traits I percieve and well executed I think the brew is overall, but that’s always a minor component to the stories within which, the particular beer plays a supporting role. I prefer to write about the “Quest for the Holy Ale” and tie all sorts of past experiences and associations into the thread, usually resulting in a loosely organized patchwork quilt of hopefully humorous nonsequiturs. Life is but a series of interconnected tangents and digressions. For me, a beer review is a fleeting perusal, a microscopic slice, of one of them.
I think those last two sentences really nail it. In pure, “in media res” form, the beer review is a continuation of your drinking experience, sandwiched firmly between your last pint and your next one, your last jaunt on the keyboard and your next foray into the written world. Thanks for reading!
Or, if you’re like me, two-thirds of the review is spent discussing important topics like hermaphroditic mermaids. The actual beer review is then clouded in the haze of the preceding nonsense.
And that’s exactly why I read your posts the second they go live, work/life/responsibilities be damned.
Nice post. Definitely makes me think a little more about what I want to offer via a beer review. I’ve gone the formulaic method, but I’ve never felt very strongly about those posts. Maybe, now I know why.
I’m not trying to say that a traditional beer review is useless, especially if the reviewer/drinker has a unique angle, like no tongue or a raging hop allgergy or Dysgeusia. Could make for a very interesting review.
I will say though, that we’ve probably reached market saturation on A.S.T.M.O. reviews, mainly through/because of BeerAdvocate and RateBeer. To me, if you’re going to write, write something awesome.