Those of us who have attained a certain—well, let’s call it maturity—recall early days in the American craft era when we were confronted by bizarre “beer” that came by names like Kölsch and ESB. We were desperate to learn what all these oddities were, so we turned to experts like Michael Jackson.
“Kölsch seems to have the capacity to settle the stomach in advance, like those aperitifs based on white wine that the French favor. A brewer was once telling me that his Kölsch was good for the digestion, and I mentioned that I could see no reason why it should perform this task better than many other beers. ‘I don’t know why, either,’ he replied, ‘but you can feel it.’ He was right.”
Now we carry little computers in our pockets, and if we want to know about a beer, we just ask Siri, who tells us, “Kölsch is a local specialty beer brewed in Cologne, Germany.” In the event that you want an opinion about a particular beer—a Gaffel, say—you don’t need to dig around in your old Jacksons. Just go to BeerAdvocate, where raters agree that it is “good” (83%), and has a “straw smell with a peppery undertone” and is “a touch on the bitter side.” You can take this information in at a glance. (Jackson: “The Gaffel Kölsch is one of the driest, with a very light start, developing to dryness, then a quick spritzy finish. The dryness, almost nutty, seems to derive especially from the yeast, which is a mixed culture.”)
Two things got me thinking about this. First, the arrival last year of the latest edition of the Pocket Beer Guide 2015 by Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb. It is actually a continuation of a series started by Jackson himself back in the 1980s, in which Jackson attempted to catalog and rate the major beers from around the world. We’ll come to the second point in due time, but let’s consider the Pocket Guide for a moment. Before the Internet, there was no way to know which beers you’d find in a foreign country—or even in a distant state. Not only was Jackson’s work titanically comprehensive, but it also had the mark of expert authority: Gaffel Kölsch★★★ is very dry, almost nutty. (That’s from the ’94 edition, which Jackson called Pocket Guide to Beer.) It was better than Sion—two stars—but inferior to Päffgen, at three and a half.
But what to make of the current Pocket Guide? Webb and Beaumont rate even more beers—but far fewer than are available on BeerAdvocate and RateBeer. And they offer their opinions as well—along with Jackson’s old star rating system, with a white star standing in as a half star. (“Gaffel Kölsch★★☆ is oft-derided as too-commercial a brand … but its hop-forward, aromatic and only marginally fruity character make it worth a visit.”) But why should we care what they think? The only reason is if you value expert opinion. Everyone’s got an opinion, though—Beaumont and Webb often disagree with Jackson—so why not just go to RateBeer?
This brings us to the second thing. A local beer educator in Oregon, Bill Schneller, recently posted this to Facebook:
“Found a beer today from Burton Bridge Brewery called Olde Expensive Ale. Did some research on it and saw a bunch of people complaining that it’s over carbonated, sour, ‘off,’ etc. Yet, none of the ‘geniuses’ on Beer Advocate or Rate Beer mention the overwhelming Brett in the aroma. Yes, it’s a traditional Olde Ale with Brett (and nicely done at that), but read the popular beer sites and no one picks it up. As a beer educator, it’s irksome to see such popular sites with their supposed resident beer ‘geniuses’ who still can’t pick up basic flavors. Sigh …”
It is characteristic of this moment in American history that we hold experts in contempt and valorize the global hive mind. Critics are vanishing faster than tropical reefs, and we now rely on sites like Yelp and Good Reads and Amazon to tell us what to buy or read or patronize. There are many reasons why these sites have made us better consumers and, in some cases, better-educated. But the hive mind has a tendency to elevate mass opinion and codify conventional wisdom (even when that “wisdom” is grossly errant). The phenomenon is so pernicious it can even infect non-crowd-sourced information. If you trusted BeerAdvocate with the authority to decide on Burton Bridge’s Olde Expensive, you’d have been sent down a blind alley.
There are people who know a lot more about beer than you. I’ve been writing about beer for nearly two decades, but learned humility when I started intensively interviewing brewers for my forthcoming book. I had the pleasure of sitting in on tasting panels at breweries and watch as trained tasters rattled off compounds so subtle I couldn’t locate them even when I knew they were there. I spoke to brewers who can identify the fingerprints of process on beer like decoction mashing or secondary fermentations or even lagering times. I read the work of historians who have, over the past decade, studied brewing logs and historical sources and rewritten the history of brewing. All these people knew and still know a lot more than I, but in my exposure, I’ve learned a lot, too.
Not every expert will have spent the time to absorb all this information, but some have. A good expert opinion will draw on several threads of information—science, process, history and culture—and bring all of that knowledge to the discussion of a beer. But because we now have 900 reviews of a beer on a ratings site, it seems superfluous. It looks like we haven’t lost anything by trading in a Michael Jackson for a RateBeer; both bird-dog the good beers to seek. But experts have a more complete picture. They instantly recognize the aroma of Brettanomcyes and recognize its effect on a beer. They know the history of beer and understand why a brewery would put it in an old ale. Writing or teaching about it, an expert would explain this and point out the telltale sensory signals—and the novice would walk away with a template for understanding what she was tasting.
Why should you bother seeking out an expert? Because beer experts do some things even 900 laymen together can’t. It’s alluring to just click a couple of buttons on your phone and have an apparently authoritative rating appear (I read BeerAdvocate, too!), but it’s also critical to recognize what that number can’t tell you.
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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.