Beer Criticism: Are You Doing it Wrong?
Pour a beer. Take a sip. How does it taste? Would you tell me?
This beer sucks.
It may be a muddled pilsner, or a timid saison, or a bitter IPA with no aroma, but it sucks, and the world needs to know. Dismissive words hit cyberspace, Twitter spreads the splash. The brewers snarl, then maybe they laugh.
This beer’s the shit!
It’s a juicy IPA, it’s a piercing sour or a funky farmhouse, but it’s freakin’ beautiful, and the world needs to know. Hot gushing praise shoots all over Reddit; hoarding and trading commence. The brewers react with a grunt and maybe a high five.
Hmmm, this beer’s an 84.
The number is folded into the Beer Matrix. Over time, a trend appears. Brewers grunt and tweak the boil time.
This beer is No. 26 on our list of the 125 best IPAs in western Oregon.
Faint praise, something about having fallen short of the glory, move on, and press agents copy the copy for their boss. Clicks pile up. Brewers sneer and change nothing.
What is the purpose of all this? Why do people write what they think about beer? Not just the folks who post the thousands of reviews and ratings on sites like RateBeer and BeerAdvocate, or apps like Untappd, but the pros and semipros as well. Why do we do it? Could we be doing it better?
Sometimes it’s for ourselves, to keep records of what we liked and why we liked it, which is why I started evaluating beers back in 1986. Maybe we want to get better at tasting, and that’s how you do it: Drink the beer, think about it, write down your thoughts. We keep track and thereby figure out what it is we like.
Some of us do it for others. From the earliest days of this emerging beer community, it’s been about sharing information and experience. Try this, skip that, go here; that’s worth the money; talk to this brewer.
Some of us took the lead of guys like Michael Jackson and James D. Robertson and wrote reviews for print, in books and newspapers. Now, thanks to the internet and Google, everyone’s reviews are accessible … and that presents us with the Spider-Man issue. With great power comes great responsibility! Well … some responsibility.
If you want to be a more responsible reviewer, when you share a review or a critique, ask yourself four questions.
1. Do I know enough about this type of beer to criticize or praise it?
2. Is my critique actually about the beer, as opposed to the place, or the type of beer in general, or the politics or ownership of the brewer?
3. Who is my audience: myself, the brewer, other drinkers?
4. Is my intent to be objective, helpful, amusing or badass?
The first one is self-protection. You look like a nitwit if you say something like “not hoppy enough for a festbier,” or “this lambic is infected.” You don’t have to be an expert, but get up to speed before sharing.
The second one: These are all valid, but you should present them in the proper places. So if you don’t like the bar’s atmosphere, for example, don’t slag the beer on Untappd, but diss the bar on Yelp. If you don’t like brown ales, consider sharing why you think browns are a waste of malt on Facebook or Reddit. And if it’s the politics of the brewer, that kind of thing is now done on Twitter, apparently.
Audience shapes the review. For yourself, you can keep it brief. For sharing with other drinkers, you can be more expansive and more comparative: “more malty than Beer X, and less expensive, too.” If your audience is the brewers, and you really want them to take you seriously? Write them an email.
If your intent is to be objective or helpful, you can err on the side of “I maybe didn’t get this, but you might,” which might get your review consideration that “This sucked” wouldn’t, but there’s a lot to be said for simply being honest. If you want to be amusing, or badass, or both, then don’t hold back. It ain’t funny if it ain’t over the top.
Just keep in mind that the review that brewers pay the most attention to is the monthly sales report, and the reviews that drinkers value the most are their own, and regardless of who you think your audience is, it’s most likely yourself, and maybe the brewery’s public relations agency.
Lew Bryson has been writing about beer for more than 25 years and is the author of Tasting Whiskey. On Twitter @LewBryson.