Beer Ratings – Good or Bad?

Craft beer enthusiasts love to debate the variable merits of the different beer they drink. But a funny things happens to them once they register an opinion on one kind of beer or another. They change their minds.

The last thing I do on this blog is rate a beer. I will drink one. I will tell you if I like it or not. I will try it again later on and report what I experienced. Why not? There are lots of folk out there in the craft beer world who make a living rating beers, either as an individual or as part of an aggregate of many people who use a service they built to apply their own opinions and then generate a “consensus.” The individuals want you to think they are educated and experienced beyond your feeble potential, and you MUST read their review before even considering swallowing another drop of beer. The ratings services and magazines  – well they are in it for the advertising bucks.

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The theory is people new to the craft beer movement will gravitate to their site to seek out the better beers, rather than trying something they may not like. Maybe this works for things like movies, books or household appliances. I don’t think it works for beer all that well.

Why not? What an individual person likes is too volatile to set a value. There are a few exceptions. I think Irish Death from Iron Horse Brewing in Ellensburg, WA is probably the best beer in the world (well, my world), or maybe it is Alaskan Brewing Company‘s Smoked Porter. But then Second Sight Scotch Ale from Black Raven Brewing  – ooh and their brown/porter called Tamerlane – and the stout – what is that one(?) – ah – Morrighan. See what I mean?

When I started this blog I did not care for IPAs. That was pretty consistent. I would get a sampler tray from a brewery I was visiting and sure enough, one swallow of the IPA had me gagging. I would go to festivals and try the locally-famed, high-hopped IPAs just to annoy my drinking companions (Hop Digggity, Whoop Pass, etc.). But over the past three years, I have acquired much more than a tolerance for hoppy beers. In fact, Elysian‘s Avatar Jasmine IPA is one of my favorite go-to beers.

I didn’t like saisons or sours until Eric Akeson at Puyallup River Brewing (and owner of Puyallup River Alehouse) took the time to educate me on the style and what a quality saison ought to taste like. I would go to Elkhead Brewing in Buckley for their dark beers and get a sample of each of the four IPAs they had on tap. All good. Hmm, maybe I don’t know as much about beer as I thought.

What I did learn – aside from my own tastes and opinions about beer changing over time – was that what I liked and what other people liked varied significantly. I would say, “I don’t like xyz about this beer – it smells like old socks”. And my associate would say, “You know, that is exactly what I like about this beer, and it doesn’t smell like old socks at all, you bozo.”

Hmmmph. Well then, I love salmon and cannot stand squash, but my wife hates salmon and loves squash. If I were rating different cuts of salmon, from various rivers, or oceans around the world, I could do it. She would give them all a zero.

So, first rule of rating a beer; DO NOT RATE A BEER IN A STYLE THAT YOU DO NOT LIKE.

At a GABF event in 2012, I went to the So You Want to Be a Beer Judge discussion session. We tried six different hefeweizens. We were given a taste of a perennial award winning hefe that is supposed to be dead on for what the style is defined to be, and we basically rated the beers on how close they came to tasting like that beer. We ranked them, one through six.

We were all over the map in our choices with no real consensus to be able to award a Gold, Silver and Bronze medal. Further, while some of the beers didn’t necessarily nail the style, we liked how they tasted more than the one the style suggested was best. I talked to the judge after the session. He had been judging this style for many years.

“How has the competition changed over the years?” I asked.

“Well,” he began, “not to mention that when I started there were about 20 entries to now well in the hundreds, the quality has really improved. Early on, it was not that hard to find the three best and then award the medals. Now there are easily ten beers that ought to get a Gold. Choosing one is extremely difficult.”

Just something to keep in mind when reading beer reviews.There is a decent book out there that is of my same mindset; The Beer Lover’s Rating Guide by Bob Klein.

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Bob Shoemaker

Grew up in Renton, WA. Writer. Photographer. Homebrewer. Woodworker. Beer lover. UW grad. - 14 years in Marketing and Advertising communications - 16 years in technical product support, quality, loyalty, support analyst - 12 years as communications business owner