I write beer reviews. I am not alone in this. The web brimming with beer bloggers writing beer reviews. Some video blogs even invite you to watch the blogger as he/she reviews a beer. The core mission of at least two websites, Ratebeer and Beer Advocate, is to provide space for beer fans of every experience level to write beer reviews. New magazines devoted to beer, on-line and print, are springing up at a rate of a couple every year. These magazines all include beer reviews. Beer reviews are everywhere and anyone and everyone can find a space to state their view. And it’s not just beer. There are at least as many outlets for wine reviews, as well as cheese, restaurant fare, spirits, and just about any other comestible one can imagine. Hundreds of thousands of words are written daily, but how much can you really rely on any of it?
As a disclaimer, let me state that I seldom read other reviewers. For one thing I am so busy generating my own piles of opinions that I have precious little time to peruse the prose of others. I never visit the above mentioned beer rating sites as those visits often become needle-in-the-haystack experiences searching for reviewers with enough beer knowledge to actually know what it is they’re tasting. I’ve read too many reviews in which a beer is slammed for the very qualities that a beer of its style should possess.
And this leads me to my first question about the reliability of reviews. How do you judge the competence of the reviewer? What knowledge does the reviewer have of beer styles? Can they identify common off-flavors in beer? Do they have a sufficient understanding of brewing process and ingredients to accurately assess what they taste, smell, or feel? This is not to say that people shouldn’t say what they think. Indeed, a central focus of my beer tasting events is helping people identify and articulate what they like or don’t like in a particular beer. But if someone is publishing a review, I for one want to know that they know what they are talking about.
One way to judge this is to look for Cicerone™ or BJCP certification. While not a guarantee, accreditation by one of these independent organizations means that the reviewer has demonstrated at least some level of competence through rigorous testing. You could also look for experience working in the beer industry. Is the person the beer buyer at a quality bottle shop, a rep for a beer distributor, or even a brewer? These things are all indicators of competence. But again, they are not guarantees. I have listened to many a distributor rep who clearly knew little about the beers they were pouring. And I know plenty of people with no industry experience who are very qualified to write reviews.
The intention of the reviewer can also call their reliability into question. I know of reviewers on the beer rating sites who systematically praise the product of one brewery while trashing others. Their stated opinions have less to do with the quality of the beers than their own personal agenda. And of course distributor reps want to encourage you to buy their brands, which can make their views something less than objective.
Another reason for my skepticism about the reliability of reviews is that beer tasting, indeed tasting in general, is highly subjective. It is influenced by the physiology of the taster and the context in which the beer is tasted. The human tongue has receptors for five flavors; salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami. Every individual tongue is different, with more or fewer receptors for any particular flavor. This creates real, physiological, unalterable differences in an individual’s ability to perceive certain flavors. For instance, I know from testing that I have a very high threshold for the chemical diacetyl. Diacetyl is the source of buttery or butterscotch flavors in beer, seen as a flaw in most styles. For some people, minute traces of diacetyl cause intense negative reactions. But I can’t detect it except in concentrations that one would be unlikely to find in any but the most serious cases of bacterial infection. It is not a failure or lack of experience on my part. It is an actual physiological inability to detect this one particular flavor. We all have such blind spots or special sensitivities. If our ability to perceive flavors differs how can we trust reviews?
The reviewer’s mood further complicates this subjectivity. Was the reviewer in a bad mood when tasting a particular beer? Their impression of that beer is likely to be less favorable than it would be if they were in a celebratory mood. Or perhaps the reviewer was yearning for a hoppy double IPA but drank a malty-sweet Scotch ale instead. I recently ordered a LaTrappe Isid’or in a bar. I gave this beer a glowing review in this blog and still think it an outstanding beer. That night though, it wasn’t the beer I was in the mood for. My review would have read very differently had I written it based on that experience. Unless explicitly stated, you can never know the mood of the writer when the tasting was conducted and the review composed.
The context of the tasting also matters. Was the reviewer with other drinkers whose views may have colored his or her perception? Did the tasting occur in a neutral setting or was the reviewer in a dark, smoky bar surrounded by the smells of stale cigarettes, grilling meat, and fryer grease? That would certainly influence the sensory experience of a beer. For the past couple of years I have judged beers at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival. The beers are judged in an open sided tent next to a food court. It’s amazing how many of the beers entered in that competition smell and taste of turkey leg. A recent study showed that lighting has a profound effect on drinkers’ perception of wine flavor, with wines being rated higher in blue or red ambient lighting as opposed to green or white. It is commonly known that food pairings can change the flavor of beer. Was the reviewer eating? Even a previous beer can alter perception of the next. I once followed a glass of Ommegang Rouge, a fruity, sour Flemish ale, with Wet, the fresh-hop beer from Surly Brewing. The tartness of the Rouge diminished the bitterness of the Wet and made its malt base seem like syrup. I later tried Wet with a fresh palate. It was a very different beer. If you aren’t privy to the context of the tasting, how can you judge the reliability of the review?
So what’s the take-away from all of this? Should one stop reading reviews altogether? Goodness no! I intend to keep writing them. I hope that you will keep reading them. I only mean to suggest that given the subjective nature of our sensory perception and our inability to assess the experience of the reviewer or the context in which the review was conducted, one should read reviews as just one person’s perception at a given place and time. Perhaps they are best viewed as guides to point you in the direction of what might be a great beer. What is really important in the end is for you to pay attention to your own perceptions and to articulate what you like or don’t like when tasting beer.
Blogger’s Note: For the information of my readers, I post two types of beer notes. Reviews, found only on the proper Perfect Pint website, are conducted in the most formal way possible with attention to glassware, a neutral setting, and with my full attention given to the beer. Tasting notes, found on the blog, are less formal. I may be drinking beer at a bar with friends. I might be doing a formal tasting. I could even be in my kitchen making dinner.
Tags: beer reviews