Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson with Tony Gomes, a brewer at the now-defunct Saxer Brewing in Portland, in 1998. (Photo courtesy Jeff Alworth)

Last week, social media burbled for a little while over an article in the New Yorker about the debased state of wine reviewing.

Read any wine review or bottle label today and you will likely empathize with their confusion. Swallowing a substance that tastes of “strawberry bubble gum with tar” sounds like punishment, yet somehow [wine critic James] Suckling extols this Montalcino as “delicious”; a drink with flavors of “graphite” mixed with “pâte de fruit, hoisin sauce, warm ganache, and well-roasted applewood” calls to mind a dinner party gone wrong, not a Wine Spectator Pick of the Year.

Beery types wonder if the same thing hasn’t come to infect our own descriptions—and certainly, there is evidence to be found if you look hard enough. I’d like to argue the opposite, though: 20 years ago, when I was really getting into good beer, it was the written word that inspired me to dig deeper. I had begun to discover the beers of Europe, and a vast landscape yawned in front of me too oceanic to fully grasp. I turned to writers to point the way. Michael Jackson was my first stop, and if you’ve ever wondered why we graybeards continue to invoke his work, it’s because of passages like this:

“Lambic of less than one summer in the cask may be served as ‘young’ or vos (“foxy”), the latter term indicating its hazy, rusty color. It can be quite sharp and lactic. ‘Old’ lambic, of two or three summers or more, becomes clearer, pinkish, and more complex.”

Jackson’s is beautiful, effortless writing, and within two sentences, he hints at a dense tradition in which age is measured in summers, beer is aged in cask, and a drinking culture old enough to throw up obscure descriptions like “foxy.” (Surely that’s better than “graphite.”) It illustrates that you can do a lot more in a short space than run off a laundry list of adjectives. One of the best in the business right now is Prague-based Evan Rail, who has learned this lesson well. In Good Beer Prague, he describes Budweiser Budvar as “a blend of clear gold malt and fragrant Saaz hop scent that approaches orange blossom.” He continues:

“Despite its status as national property, many Czechs might tell you it is not their favourite. Because of its deeper fermentation, it is known to cause headaches and worse in the uninitiated. But as a Czech doctor once advised: ‘If Budvar makes you ill, just drink one Budvar every day for two weeks, and then you’ll be cured forever.’ Na zdraví.”

You might say, “but you’re cheating—this is just an interesting anecdote, not a review.” Okay, I am cheating, but that’s a feature, not a bug. Good beer reviews do talk about the brewery; they talk about the way the beer is made (“deeper fermentation”) and the way it is consumed. Beer stripped of everything but its sensory elements is a lesser thing.

But, okay, you have a point. Let’s compare apples to apples. One of my favorite beer reviewers calls himself The Beer Nut (he’s one of about 317 of them, but the only Nut I read daily) and writes from Dublin. With only his nose, eyes, and tongue, he is able to discern quite a bit about a beer:

“At 5.3% ABV I thought it would at least look like a quality lager. Any fears over lack of substance are banished by the texture: the malt gives it a beautiful rounded and filling feel, plus that classic Dortmunder breadiness, shading towards the sweeter end of the spectrum with a hint of candyfloss. The promised hops are present but aren’t at all overdone. There’s the classic waxy, almost plasticky, noble hop bitterness then a mouthwatering cut-grass and pine effect, finishing quickly and cleanly, the way good lager should.”

(He’s describing Firestone Walker’s Pivo Pils.) I have no idea what candyfloss is, but I love the word. It made me want to buy a six-pack and see if I could match some flavor to what I think candyfloss might be.

This magazine is one of the champions of the review, and it has a few master-level describers on hand. John Holl, All About Beer’s editor, gets my vote for virtuosity for the way in which he uses evocative, unexpected language to draw his portraits. Here he is on Sun King’s Afternoon Delight (a doppelbock):

“Yes, yes, but where to direct your attention first? How the bock still stands strong despite a sharp elbow from the booze? The fudge, vanilla, oaky aromas, along with milled grain? Or the gem-quality garnet color? This beer is an example of why America’s leading the modern beer revolution.”

Charlie Finkel’s reviews suggest the mind of a professor (“ecru head”), but many of us read his reviews for their incredibly specific food pairings, which make us feel like the unwashed hoi polloi we probably are:

“Delicious with lobster bisque, sole meunière, onions braised in the hefeweizen, and apple pie topped with vanilla gelato.”

“Accompanied with flavorful foods like Indonesian nasi goring, Sichuan Hot Pot, or Hatch chili rellenos.”

“Marries well with rich dishes like smoked pork belly. Add cannellini beans prepared in a Rainmaker, heirloom tomato and shallot sauce.”

And then there’s Lisa Morrison, whose prose reminds me that we need more women’s voices. Her gracious word selection shows a different way to describe beer. This is pFriem Pilsner:

“She’s a beauty, with a tall, white head that sits atop a crystal-clear, light golden body. A slightly floral, honeyed aroma lifts to the nose as you take the first sip. A nimble effervescence prickles the tongue and keeps the beer lively on the palate.”

I read a fair amount about beer, and by my lights, the art of beer descriptions is in full flower. Not every review is equally good, true, but the best do more than just run off a series of adjectives. They can be sensual, detailed, technical, narrative—and in so many different ways make us think about our beer. Good reviews can educate and illuminate, particularly if the reviewer has had a chance to learn about the way a beer was brewed, the tradition it emerged from, or the approach of the brewer. Perhaps the answer for wine reviewers is simple: read more beer reviews.

Read more posts from The Beer Bible Blog.

Jeff Alworth is the author of the forthcoming book, The Beer Bible (Workman, 2015). Follow him on Twitter or find him at his blog, Beervana.