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Beer by the numbers: Bad idea

Cheers to Don Russell, who this week asks why we need a score to choose a beer. The headline: 100-point scale for beer ratings a rank idea.

Specifically, he writes about Pislner Urquell hanging an advertisement on its bottle necks declaring it the world’s “highest-rated pilsner.” That according to the Beverage Tasting Institute, the same guys who sparked the Anheuser-Busch vs. Capital Brewery silliness.)

Russell doesn’t like ratings based on a 100-point scale taken from wine, because:

– They’re unneeded.
– They’re inflationary.
– They’re anti-beer.

On the last count he writes:

The mere process of rating wine, in which a few experts – whose standards do not reflect the masses – influence the marketplace, is elitist and autocratic.

Beer is democratic by nature and should reject any high-handed incursion by taste-makers who insist they know better.

Russell gives Jerald O’Kennard, who runs the Beverage Tasting Institute, a chance to speak up for using the 100-point scale. And I know first hand that consumers like the ratings. They are one of the most popular features in All About Beer magazine, which I write for regularly.

No arguing that people like numbers and use them. So they good or bad for small breweries?

This is an area where we can look to wine, because the 100-point scale has been debated far longer. And since I’m biased I suggest you check out an essay by W.R. Tish: Ten Reasons We All Lose When Numbers Dominate the Marketplace.

Most of the time you could just plug in beer when he writes wine and the sentences make perfect sense.

Try it with his final point: “We are living in the Golden Age of wine; quality and selection of bottlings available in the US are both unprecedented. If we all stop slinging numbers around so frequently, more people would be able to enjoy this Golden Age.”

11 Responses to Beer by the numbers: Bad idea

  1. Matt July 21, 2007 at 2:04 am #

    Hey Stan,

    It’s always a great debate, the old points system. There is no way to really resolve it and no right answer. Many people do find ratings valuable. The trouble is when these people become enslaved by the ratings and won’t venture beyond what an expert tells them is good.

    I enjoyed Don Russell’s article but don’t know that the (what I saw as) sneering references to wine using a points sysem is really relevant in a discusson about beer and points. Let’s face it, the same debate exists in the wine world. NY Times wine writer Eric Asimov (thepour.blogs.nytimes.com/2006/04/18/do-ratings-rate/) carried a thorough discussion about points on his blog – and interestingly made the point that “for $100 a bottle, or $40, or even $20, people want to increase the odds that they are going to like what they pay for, and that’s why ratings are useful.”

    This is where Don Russell does make a good point and that is beer is cheap enough that you can try plenty without wasting too much money if you buy the odd bad one – or at least one that you don’t like.

    For me, I wouldn’t use ratings for beer because I love beer and I love trying new ones. I prefer to make my own decisions about what I like and therefore what I think is “good”. That said I do use points and ratings for wine because I drink so little of it that if I’m going out and want to have a reasonable bet of buying a decent one, I’ll go with a rating wine. And I honestly don’t care if that makes me an ignorant wine ratings slave – I don’t care enough about wine to learn more about it.

    And to me that’s the point of points – they are a handy guide if you want to use them as a point of reference. But if you only rely on them, you’re not really a wine (or beer) drinker – you’re a wine buyer.

    Matt

  2. Eric Trimmer July 21, 2007 at 7:32 am #

    Here’s my problem with number ratings for wine:

    Some critics are wine evangelists and will score a wine highly because it’s big, fruity and accessible.

    Other critics are a little more traditional and wouldn’t rate that bottle so highly because it wasn’t complex enough or didn’t taste the way they thought it should.

    So if I see a card in front of a rack of wine touting a score of 93, I don’t know if I’m about to buy a high-octane fruit bomb or a more complex wine my ice-cube-in-the-glass-mother-in-law will probably hate.

    But I’m pretty sure I’ll like it, either way.

  3. Jeff Alworth July 21, 2007 at 11:56 am #

    On my own blog, I do rate beers. There’s a marginal benefit for this, particularly in beer-rich locations where you almost have to skip a few choices. Beers fall into three categories that are useful to people to know about: worth trying, worth avoiding, or sublime. Any rating that tries to do more than that probably misses the point. But as Nick Hornby observed, men like to make lists, so it’s inevitable.

    For me, the biggest bane of ratings is this: beer styles are far too diverse for beers to be rated against each other, so all beers are rated for style. Well, that means beers like Bud Light can sport a 91 (in the light, unhopped, corn-and-rice post-industrial, pilsner-inspired beer category), while Cantillon Kriek gets a 90. And this means what to the uninitiated drinker? And guess which beers are most likely to use them in their advertising (Pilsner Urquell excepted)?

  4. Boak July 22, 2007 at 2:18 am #

    I like rating most things in my life, but not beer. I just find that so much depends on the time, the place, and of course the condition of the beer that I’d feel it was unfair to make a snap judgement.

    I even struggle to have a top ten…

  5. Loren July 25, 2007 at 5:26 am #

    Words, not numbers, speak volumes. But would you rather trust the Bev Institute or the collective scores and reads at BA and RB dot coms?

    Maybe someone IS watching?

  6. SteveH July 25, 2007 at 6:56 am #

    My reviews at RealBeer are mere opinion, based on BJCP style guides and my own appreciation, of course. I’d like to think others there are similar, they seem to be and I enjoy them greatly.

    However, BeerAdvocate’s rating is so wide and varied with what their readers think they should be tasting and how they should be reviewing (few seem to follow the Alstrøm directions), I often take them with huge grains of salt.

    Does this trump the Bev Institute altogether? One thing that is helpful at RealBeer is familiarity with its members, you know their likes and dislikes and how that may sway an opinion. I still haven’t joined in adding to the RateBeer database, I actually feel that would become my overkill.

  7. Stan Hieronymus July 25, 2007 at 9:08 am #

    Back to Matt, first. A key difference is that beer is cheaper and experimenting doesn’t have the potential financial fallout.

    The difference between an excellent bottle of wine and a great one can be literally hundreds of dollars. In beer it is only dollars.

    Also, a lot of people invest in wine – and may never drink it. They want to own numbers. (And eventually sell them.)

    While I don’t like the idea of discussing wine versus beer (one thing that I think bothered you about Don Russell’s comment) wine does have a lot more investors than beer. However, I think most wine drinkers are in it for the drinking first. And I know most beer drinkers are.

  8. Stan Hieronymus July 25, 2007 at 9:17 am #

    Jeff – You mention which breweries are most likely to use numbers in their ads, meaning the big guys (who can afford to advertise). But around here several distributors print out the shelf talkers from Beer Advocate and Rate Beer and paste them below bottles from small breweries.

    I’ve considered archiving the notes I do for various publications here and even adding some sort of rating since that might provide context and answer the question Did you like it?

    I still haven’t, but I see value in individual ratings (just so they don’t turn into shelf talkers). They are an important part of the beer enthusiast sites, and those sites have been vital in the ongoing beer revolution. I question their meaning meaning in aggregate (and plugged into a magic formula that gives them a score on a 100-point scale).

    Which takes us to the next comments.

  9. Stan Hieronymus July 25, 2007 at 9:32 am #

    Loren and Steve,

    I am not a fan of the aggregate number at RB and BA, but I think it has more value to a regular user than as a number posted as a shelf talker in your local better beer store.

    Loren, I agree that the descriptions are more important, and Steve, that the real value is finding people whose tastes have meaning for your.

    I’d love to see some sort of collaborative filtering for beer drinkers. That way I could see that SteveH likes this particular Munich Dunkel and since we share similar tastes for lager I might seek it out.

    Given the range of beer styles – Alan and I might both love barley wines but if he bought a lambic on my recommendation (I love ’em; he doesn’t) then he’d be disappointed – it would need to be sortable in a variety of ways.

  10. SteveH July 25, 2007 at 10:10 am #

    if he bought a lambic on my recommendation (I love ‘em; he doesn’t) then he’d be disappointed

    But back to the collaborative filtering; if you recommended a lambic (and I don’t like ’em either) based on and supporting a good example of the style, I’d be incined to try it just to see if there’d been something I was missing before. Then I’d flame you if it was the same old sour beer. 😉

    Seriously, I like the idea of setting up a Did You Like It, sort of rating archive based on what we like or don’t. I’ve never made it a secret that I don’t like Gueuze or Lambic at RealBeer and no one would expect me to review one, but that’s about where my dislikes in beer styles end.

  11. Stonch July 26, 2007 at 8:54 am #

    I can’t see that rating beer is a good or helpful idea, and I can’t see that there’s public demand for it from consumers.

    I have rated a few beers on Ratebeer.com, and will probably do so again from time to time, but am not entirely comfortable with the concept. At least the websites represent lots of people’s views, and moreoever people who aren’t (usually) posting as “professionals” or “experts”. A few more disclaimers along the lines of “don’t take the scores too seriously” and “the best way to find out is try it yourself” would be nice, though.

    As for comparisons with wine, I am happy to consider beer and wine in a different light, with no criticism implied of either.

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