There’s a quote (attributed everywhere I’ve seen it to an old Czech proverb, but which is almost certainly recent and apocryphal) that goes like this: “A fine beer may be judged with only one sip, but it’s better to be thoroughly sure.”
As with so many cliches, it’s both trite and trenchant. And it begs the question: can a beer be judged with only one sip?
The overwhelming consensus seems to be: yes. At least if the incredible popularity and proliferation of review and rating platforms like Untappd and the recently-maligned RateBeer are any indication. “Ticking” beers – that is, checking in to them, rating them via social media, almost always through Untappd – has become a way of life for an alarming number of beer consumers.
It’s not unusual that I meet someone at a tasting with literally thousands of unique checkins. Usually these guys (and it’s almost always guys) sip a two ounce sample, mark it down, and move on. Sometimes they’ll review their checkins to see if they’ve tried the beer at hand before, and perhaps not even deign to give it another shot if they have. Sometimes they thrust their phones at you accusingly, two-star “review” glowing like the proverbial Scarlet Letter, as though you’d tried to trick them into tasting again something they so witheringly dismissed in the past.
How can one say he's had the full measure of something after one brief encounter?
I taste beer constantly and in different contexts, and I’m often shocked by how much my impression of something will change from experience to experience. This is true of everything from homebrew to Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, from Dark Lord to Cantillon Gueuze: beers I remember loving at first blush may fall in estimation over the years; beers I dismissed as one-note or unsophisticated may reveal hidden depths with repeat consideration. It is better to be thoroughly sure.
Be willing to try it again, under different circumstances. Give it another shot.”
So how do we give a beer a fair shake?
A large number of variegated factors influence one’s perceptions of flavor and aroma. Mood, setting, environment, time of day, one’s hunger level, the freshness of the beer and the manner in which it’s served all contribute to what we might call one’s overall impression of a beer.
“Overall Impression” is my favorite subheading in the Beer Judge Certification Program’s Style Guidelines: each style (and there are 80+ as of the 2015 edition of the Guidelines) is broken down thoroughly by both its qualitative and quantitative particulars, and Overall Impression is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a paragraph-long precis of the characteristics that make up a given style. There’s a reason the BJCP is so widely regarded and utilized as a reference – these people are serious about, well, judging beer. And when it comes to the judging, the organization has stringent judging procedures that are meant to ensure each judge comes away with as accurate and fair an impression of a particular beer as possible.
On the day of a competition, judges and those assisting judges are to avoid: smoking, perfume/cologne, spicy or greasy foods, strongly-flavored toothpastes, lipstick and lip balm, and certain medications that “may impair your ability to perceive certain stimuli.” The judging rooms should be calm and quiet. They also don’t want you drunk.
All of this is to say that even if you’re not a BJCP-certified judge, this stuff impacts how you perceive a beer. And these are just the factors over which you have some modicum of control – consider briefly a few of the impactful factors over which you have limited perception of, let alone control over: the freshness of a beer (which can be of paramount importance), the cleanliness of draught lines or glassware, the potentially extreme and damaging temperatures to which the beer was subjected in its trip from brewery to site on consumption, the dude smoking a huge nasty stogie next to you on the patio, etc.
How does one account for all this when deciding on a beer’s relative quality? Simple: be willing to try it again, under different circumstances. Give it another shot.
It’s worth slowing down and thinking, both about the beer at hand and your experience of it.”
It’s unfortunate, I’ve long thought, that apps like Untappd have ultimately become less diary of experience and more mobile video game. When I first started using Untappd, back in 2012, I thought of it as a useful tool, not just for rating beers, but for recording impression and experiences. And while I used it for that, I liked it quite a bit.
Although I’ve long since abandoned it, it strikes me that it has the potential to provide beer drinkers with some insight into their own habits, predilections and prejudices – if you do more than tick and assign star ratings. The next time you open the app to log a beer, try to slow down and think about where you are, what you’re tasting and smelling, and how you could express those things in words, not just a number.
The ceaseless churn of the novel and new in craft beer can be, and often is, a wonderful thing. The spirit of experimentation and innovation that drives craft brewing is one of the key qualities that draws so many to it, myself included. But the obsessive quest for the new can make us too quickly dismissive, of both venerable brands from centuries-old breweries and wildly iconoclastic brews from radical, plucky upstarts. The attitude of “yeah, I tried it already – what’s next?” is an all too easy default when the beer world provides us daily with such an embarrassment of riches.
It’s worth slowing down and thinking, both about the beer at hand and your experience of it. After all, if you didn’t want to think about these things, why would you pay the premium for something made with care, consideration and craftsmanship – when there are so many more direct routes to get to where you’re going?
Respect the beer, respect the brewer, respect yourself: stop, think, then drink. Cheers!
Thanks to Remo Remoquillo for the header illustration.