We all want good beer to drink. But have you thought about how your beery world would look if you decided to drink nothing but the very best beer? What does that mean? How would you find such exquisite gems in a crowded marketplace? Whose evaluation could you trust? How would you reconcile your personal preferences to those of the experts? Can there even be such a thing as the best beer?
It’s a surprisingly complicated quest, and it turns mainly on this: according to whom? You might think science would be a good place to start, but you’ll be disappointed. As an artistic and cultural product, any value judgment is way beyond the realm of the rational. Science can provide testing methodologies and give us insights into the murky realm of the senses and how our brains turn chemical and electrical signals into thoughts and deep feelings, but it’s strictly an analytical tool and must view pleasure from the outside. Science cannot experience a beer or make qualitative decision about what is good or bad. And even if it could choose, it would probably be just as happy with a relatively sterile mass-market product. Science is unable to empathize with the irrational thrill we have when encountering something luminously beautiful, enchantingly aromatic or flat-out delicious. So science is not much help in choosing the best beer.
So what about an expert opinion? Like most high-profile beer geeks, I get the “What’s your favorite beer?” query a lot. It always feels like people are looking for a little insider information, like a stock tip, and to confirm their own choices. I often disappoint, emphasizing how personal a matter preference really is. But honestly, trying every beer these days is an impossible task. While the Cicerone program and other groups are making headway in getting trained and certified beer experts into more and more situations, most of us rely on a few people in their circle of friends that have a bit more experience, just like my wife asks of me, “What beer do I want?”
A casual recommendation can’t really get at our best beer question, though. For that you need a lot of experts, their opinions tallied systematically. You have a couple of choices: one is a rating platform, of which Beer Advocate and RateBeer are the largest and most visible; the other is a blind competition, such as the Great American Beer Festival or the World Beer Championship featured in this publication. Rating and judging are quite different. In one, raters just sign up and start offering their opinions on beers they’ve bought or traded on the open market. Competitions invite trained experts and/or brewing professionals to judge their peers, usually in a blind format where judges are totally clueless about whose beer is in the cup.
The two systems give very different results. Knowing the identity of the beer you’re rating allows you to bring all your biases and preconceptions into play. No matter our experience level, we are incapable of really being objective and ignoring these prejudices. Name, packaging, reputation, description, price, rarity and other characteristics all affect our appreciation of things like beer. It’s not an illusion. Neuroscience has consistently shown, for example, that the same wine will fire up pleasure neurons in the brain to a greater degree when it’s assigned a higher price than a cheaper one, so perception creates reality. Rarity stokes the passion of desire like nothing else. A marketer of beer, I’m happy to have this kind of power in my hands, but it’s a scary component of those rating sites and systems: “Yeah, I used to love this beer when I couldn’t get it.”
Competitions try to reduce these biases as much as possible. Most go to great lengths to eliminate the possibility of identity tipoffs to the judges, intentional or otherwise. Most competitions judge to style guidelines, much as a dog show seeks a perfect poodle. This focuses the judges on specifics, but still leaves room for finding wonderfulness beyond the guidelines. The style-based system isn’t perfect, as a lot of perfectly delicious beers fall between the cracks. Almost every session has a sad story of an excellent beer that doesn’t make the cut because it’s too light or dark, strong or weak, or in some other way not a textbook example of the style.
Ratings sites have their own weaknesses. Most troublesome is their nonblind nature. Beers build up reputations, deserved or not, and those adding to the ratings are often loath to go against the grain. While many self-taught raters eventually acquire the proper skills and vocabulary, there are always many inexperienced ones whose votes count just as much as those with years of experience, although you can take this into account when reading their notes. Another is the apple and orange problem—I should say pilsners and double IPAs. When you lump all beer styles together, the biggest and baddest tend to dominate, and the subtler, more drinkable styles tend to fall behind. This is exaggerated by our American mindset: muscle cars, rock ’n’ roll cranked to 11, our wines black as ink and our highly ranked beers blindingly strong and remorselessly bitter. A bit of one-upmanship may also fuel the fires of cult-beer worship. The ratings sites often represent a bit of a fantasy bubble whose rules are very different from life in the nonvirtual world and don’t always reflect what people actually drink and enjoy.
Drinkability is something that tends to get lost in the shuffle of all ratings systems. While there certainly is a place for intense specialties that serve, like the Italians say about some big wines, as “beer for meditation,” drinkability is an important aspect of beer of any strength. In most situations, we want a beer we can enjoy two or three of without serious impairment to tongue or mind. Structured judging usually relies on a few sips per beer. Experienced judges have no trouble picking out flaws or deciding if it fits the style, but with just an ounce at a time it’s really hard to get a taste for the subtleties that make a great Kölsch or English bitter something very special. I always joke that those should be judged by how good the third pint tastes, but I’m not really joking.
So, all published ratings and competition results have their drawbacks. This should encourage you to trust your own opinions about what you actually like. You can use medals and ratings as a starting point, using them to identify breweries whose beers are worthy of your attention. Chances are if they have one medal or high rating, they have a bunch of great beers, as these things are rarely flukes. Read between the lines a little as well. In the ratings sites, the pilsners will never score the same as the imperial stouts, but the top-scoring beers in any category are still winners and are well worth seeking out. Try to ignore the numbers and focus on the written descriptions, especially of raters you have come to trust. As you are probably doing in one form or another, develop a list of breweries whose beers generally thrill you and just keep adding to that.
If you want to develop greater skills in beer evaluation, I encourage you to get some training or self-study and spend some time judging the homebrewing competitions that are likely happening around your area. No matter how much time you may spend hanging around bars or bottle-sharing parties making notes, nothing sharpens the mind like working your way through a flight of first-round beers in a structured way. Practice is essential, as is the presence of those who probably have more experience and a better vocabulary than you do. If you’re an online rater, you owe it to the brewers to educate your palate and post reviews that are thoughtful, informed and as descriptive as you can make them.
In the end, no matter how appealing it is to be able to select a beer according to a simple ratings number, you must realize what an absurd and artificial construct this notion is. Beer is a vast, complex and ancient art, and to reduce it to a couple of digits does an immense disservice to the beverage and to the men and women who pour their hearts and souls into it. They deserve better, and so do you.
Randy Mosher is the author of Tasting Beer and is a senior instructor at the Siebel Institute.