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Monday morning musing: Grading on a curve?

To jump start your brain this morning: Two beer posts and a wine link that provoked one of the posts.

Stephen Beaumont on Great Beer vs. Popular Beer.

The number one beer in the United States, for example, is Bud Light, a pale lager with, frankly, some complexity of character, but a flavour profile so that thin it’s almost unnoticeable. This is the choice of the general public, and the general public is well served by it. I am not. I prefer more flavour, more aroma, greater depths and complexities of character and a more notable and lingering aftertaste, and I prefer those general traits in any beer I drink, under any set of circumstances.

Jeff Holt at Wort’s Going on Here? wonders why not a single American macro can get a decent score at the beer rating sites.

So, Corona versus Landshark? On both sites, both beers are rated as “To be Avoided.” Say you are stuck in a resort in Mexico that doesn’t have a beer above 8% ABV, as the top 12 beers on the Beer Advocate list of the top beers. So you can only choose between ten or twelve “D-” beers?

There’s something fundamentally flawed about these beer ratings. Are you telling me that sitting under a Live Oak Tree on a hot, Texas July day a Trappist Westvleteren 12 is better than a cold Budweiser?

And from Eric Asimov of the New York Times, whose notes about the upcoming book “The Wine Trials” provide Beaumont with a starting point. (You’ll want to click over for the entertaining comments &#151 wine people get snippy in such an amusing way.)

In the end, the book seems to divide wine consumers into the casual buyers who are pushed this way and that by forces they don’t understand, and the wealthy conspicuous status seekers who also are not quite aware of capitalism and marketing. Unacknowledged are the serious wine lovers who are knowledgeable, experimental and passionate, and who, yes, are in control of their own destinies.

Perhaps we should be happy beer doesn’t “merit” such serious academic study.

18 Responses to Monday morning musing: Grading on a curve?

  1. Michael Sweeney April 28, 2008 at 8:22 am #

    This has always been one of my biggest arguments about the beer ratings websites. It seems like that a lot of people pit beers against each other rather than pit them against similar beers and beer styles.

  2. Mario (Brewed For Thought) April 28, 2008 at 1:05 pm #

    You just have to know how to read the site. If you want to know how a beer stacks up to other beers in the style, look at the Style %. For example, on Ratebeer Sam Adams Boston Lager has a 3.2 rating, 60 percentile and 93% Style rating, while Budweiser has a 1.4 rating, 1 percentile and 6% in style. Compare this to Brooklyn’s Black Chocolate Stout, an overall 4.0 rated beer in the 99th percentile, but has a style rating of 85%.

    So what’s it mean? Budweiser stinks. Sam Adam’s is one of the best examples of a Premium Lager and Brooklyn’s Black Chocolate Stout, while a very good beer, in the realm of the imperial stout, isn’t the best of the best.

  3. Stan Hieronymus April 28, 2008 at 2:00 pm #

    Mario: Not to hold up the World Beer Cup as the ultimate whatever or even to claim what follows is relevant to your point, but . . .

    But Black Chocolate won the gold for British style Imperial Stout, while Flying Dog Gonzo Imperial Porter won gold for American style.

  4. William Brand April 28, 2008 at 5:17 pm #

    Let’s see … Beer Advocate’s a force all its own. It’s something new and sometimes wonderful and occasionally weird that’s evolved with the Net. It just is.
    About Stephen Beaumont and Eric Asimov’s take, I say, hmmm. I posted the following on Stephen’s site:

    The whole argument ignores the fact that the buzz for light lagers mostly is artificial. It’s created by multi-million dollar advertising campaigns, endorsements, the whole circus.

    There’s a time and place for light lagers. But are American (and Canadian) taste buds so underdeveloped and unsophisticated that they really prefer a light lager in every situation, every time? That defies belief.

    Perhaps one push behind increased wine sales in the U.S. (Don’t know about Canada) is that on festive occasions, Americans of some brain choose wine, not realizing that there is beer readily available nearly everywhere that is just as sophisticated and tastes just as good, not powerfully bitter, not sour, just good.

  5. JJ April 28, 2008 at 5:24 pm #

    I think it is about more than just comparing beers within styles. To my mind, one of the big problems with the ratings sites is that:

    (A) most raters aren’t rating beers blind, and
    (B) most raters aren’t tasting similarly styled beer head to head

    Issue (A) causes problems because we all have biases, most of us against the macro-brewers. This is a bias that has a lot of foundation in fact because many of their beers are flavorless. However, I wonder if there might be a few cases in which decent macro-brewed beer gets rated down out of snobbiness, fear of judgment from other raters, and a sense of camaraderie with the craft brewers. A good example might be Blue Moon. They just won for Large Brewing Company at the World Beer Cup, and still their signature Belgian White gets a B- on Beer Advocate. I would be willing to venture some money that if tasted blind the raters would give it higher scores. (I’m not saying Blue Moon actually deserves much better than the “Worthy” descriptor that goes with a B-, I’d bump it up just one notch, but there’s a ton of grade inflation on BeerAdvocate now, and I think it can hold its own against many of the beers to which the raters are giving higher ratings. It seems like everything gets an A- nowadays.)

    Issue (B) is a problem because all of us are influenced by what’s going on around us on a daily basis. I can’t possibly calibrate for what I’m eating, what else I’m drinking, how many drinks I’ve had already, where I’m drinking, who I am drinking with, my mood, and the weather (hot and sunny or cold and rainy), every time I try a new beer. I’d say the best way to draw a fair comparison between beers of similar styles is to try more than one of them at a time, head-to-head. Then at least you can control for most of these variables.

    Obviously, it’s not possible for the casual beer drinker to taste several comparable beers blind each time she goes out for a pint. On the other hand, just because I have some biases doesn’t mean I have no idea how much I like what I’m tasting, just that I can only call it in the right ballpark, not to an exact judgment.

    I would say this would explain a big part of the gap between the opinions of beer experts tasting beers at formal competitions and the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ on beer tasting sites. Each has it’s place. With the first I know I’m getting an opinion delivered under controlled conditions and calibrated against comparable examples, though subject to the tastes and preferences of a single or small number of judges. In the second, I get the confirmation from a large number of drinkers of the approximate range into which a beer might fall, and though this range is open to biases, one hopes some of the biases will cancel each other out as the number of raters mounts.

  6. Stan Hieronymus April 28, 2008 at 5:58 pm #

    Bill,

    I’d love to see you write a column based on a blind tasting with, for instance, a) Trumer, b) Sudwerk Helles, c) Michelob Lager and d) not sure, but not Lagunitas Pils, which is too big, maybe see what pale beers Moonlight has.

    The one requirement is that each of the participants considers IPA or DIPA their favorite style.

    I don’t know what the comments might be, but that’s part of the fun.

  7. Stan Hieronymus April 28, 2008 at 6:09 pm #

    JJ –

    It would seem to me that that ‘wisdom of the crowd’ online is not the crowd that consumes more than 90% of beer but the vocal online crowd.

  8. JJ April 28, 2008 at 6:47 pm #

    True, but I wonder if the group that is consuming 90% of the beer really favors the taste of that beer or just considers other factors (expense, calories, etc.) more important than taste most of the time.

    My favorite example of this is a pair of my friends who exclusively drank Coors Light at home, came to a tasting I had, and liked the barleywines best of everything they tried. It certainly wasn’t what I expected, I thought maybe I could just get them to like the Pilsner or Hefeweizen at best. Still, I thought I had converted them, and then found out that they still drink Coors Light most of the time at home because it is readily available in every corner store, has not too many calories, and doesn’t take a chunk out of their budget.

    I think that this is an example of a couple things:
    (A) People drink beer for things other than taste. To those of us who really require our beers to have a good taste this seems weird, but obviously even for us beer serves other purposes like cooling off on a hot day, or providing a foil for chat with an old friend or new date. If taste isn’t important to you, why not go with the cheapest and easiest option that fulfills these other roles?
    (B) People who drink macro beers don’t necessarily prefer the taste of these beers. Sometimes they just don’t know what is out there, and sometimes they do but can’t afford the money or calories to drink it. Of course, sometimes they genuinely do prefer the taste, and it’s this group I have the hardest time understanding. I guess you could chalk it up to familiarity and loving what you know best. It’s why I’ll probably never love eating grasshoppers, or liver, or whale meat but those who grew up eating those things do.

  9. Mario (Brewed For Thought) April 28, 2008 at 8:55 pm #

    Stan, I’m not saying I agree with all the ratings on Ratebeer, but that there is a way to read the numbers.

    And Steel Reserve is also a Gold Medal winner. I guess every system has its flaws.

    Finally, I love your blind head to head tasting idea. Moonlight does have a pils (Reality Czech), and it’s rather nice.

  10. William Brand April 29, 2008 at 7:04 am #

    Hey Stan, great idea. I’m writing it down. I could do it at the home of the DIPA, the Bistro in Hayward, Ca.

  11. Stephen Beaumont April 29, 2008 at 10:39 am #

    Bill, for some reason your comment never registered over at thatsthespirit.com, so I’ll answer you here instead. Eric’s point, and mine, has nothing to do with marketing, since the wine tastings that form the backbone of “The Wine Trials” were indeed conducted blind. That is the basis for the author’s contention that critics and so-called experts are out of touch with the proverbial “common man.” What Eric was saying, and I reiterating with application to beer, is that writers/critics/whatevers like yourself and myself and, yes, even you, Stan, are looking for different qualities in these beverages than is the “common man.”

    This is not to discount marketing, of course, which is a massive influence in beer. (That’s why A-B spends hundreds of millions on it.) But in this particular case, that influence is moot.

  12. Mario (Brewed For Thought) April 29, 2008 at 10:49 am #

    Stephen, I think the “common man” is convinced he is looking for something else by marketing. As JJ said, his Coors Light drinking buddies loved barleywines. At a dinner I had at Marin brewing, the Coors Light crowd was going crazy over the Wheat wine and rave about their trips to Russian River. Just because we can identify what we’re looking for doesn’t mean that we’re not all looking for a quality beer.

  13. Alan April 29, 2008 at 12:28 pm #

    “…People who drink macro beers don’t necessarily prefer the taste of these beers…”

    I am not going to say this is pure snobbery but it is not far from its neighbourhood. While I have turned plenty of folk on to good beer, many people like lighter lagers because they actually like the taste of lighter lagers and not because the TV tells them what to do. My pals who do are aware of the beers I have shared with them and many say thanks but no thanks. I have an acquaintance who is a particularly fine cook, quite particular and capable in terms of taste awareness who simply does not care for anything but a cold crisp light beer.

    Being self-aware about the rights of others to be not judged for being unlike craft beer hobbyists is sometimes useful. It’s no different from me putting up with the pro-Cantillon lobby. I don’t think I am going to love it anytime soon any more than I expect certain people to turn to DIPAs and oatmeal stouts.

  14. JJ April 29, 2008 at 1:51 pm #

    Well, but is it more snobby to be open to lots of tastes and give them all a chance or to only drink one style exclusively?

    I think it’s only snobby to prefer microbrews to macrobrews if you never try the macrobrews and write them off before tasting them. This was my initial point about blind tastings: I think some macrobrews have some merit, if only we microbrew drinkers would set aside our biases and taste them blind.

    So, I don’t fault people for liking American macro-lagers (espeically those who like it IN ADDITION to other styles), and I don’t presume that all of them are ignorant to what else is out there, as many do. But isn’t it a little snobby to turn up your nose at dozens of beer styles, and the hundreds or thousands of examples within each style, and assume that you know you won’t like ANY of them?

    This gets back to Bill & Mario’s points: if it REALLY is about knowing that you prefer American light lager and nothing else, and it’s not about advertising, or affordability, than why aren’t there similar sized contingents of beer drinkers for other styles that drink ONLY that one style? E.g. exclusive stout drinkers, exclusive wheat beer drinkers, exclusive sour ale drinkers? If it were about taste, wouldn’t we see groups like this too?

  15. Alan April 29, 2008 at 3:59 pm #

    …But isn’t it a little snobby to turn up your nose at dozens of beer styles, and the hundreds or thousands of examples within each style, and assume that you know you won’t like ANY of them?…

    Only if it is snobby to not take up stamp collecting or train spotting. I do see your point but I think we have to realize everyone is not going to have the same hobby and many who do not like beer fulfill their pleasure in a wide variety of tastes otherwise. And, frankly, if I had the time and the money I would spend my life happily comparing and cross referencing every port (tawny, vintage, LBV, crusted and even ruby) as against every sort of blue cheese and every sort of pear. But I don’t do that even though I love it and know it would make me a nicer person and a better dancer.

    This sort of goes to the problem with passion. People have only so many hours in the day and so much available to personal interests. If some do not go for craft beer, who am I to fault them? And if some do and go for it to a degree that is detrimental to other interests, who am I to praise them?

  16. Ron Pattinson April 30, 2008 at 2:39 pm #

    “Jeff Holt at Wort’s Going on Here? wonders why not a single American macro can get a decent score at the beer rating sites.”

    I love lager. I really do. Lagers in general get poorer scores than they deserve.

    But, American macro lagers are crap.

    British, Dutch and Belgian macro lagers, too.

    Crap beer, brewed by faceless corporations with enough advertising money behind them to delude the unwary.

    Hofmann Export – that’s lager.

  17. Ron Pattinson April 30, 2008 at 2:40 pm #

    Herold Kvasnicove. Another great lager.

  18. Stan Hieronymus April 30, 2008 at 4:02 pm #

    Ron – Does that mean we should visit the Herold brewery in November? (I might even ask about their mashing regimen.)

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