|Your mission, should you choose to accept it.|
|Pictured: Your Friendly Tour Guide, in his natural element|
Although I'm ultimately reviewing someone else's product, and should thus be focusing on what they bring to the table, I can improve my own enjoyment of the beer and more properly respect the brewer's intentions by making sure I follow some basic preliminary steps.
When to Review:
|l-r: Nonic, Chalice, Weizen Glass. Pretty much all you'll need.|
|Lacing and head retention are great qualities for a beer to have, but |
not every style is conducive to producing this effect. I've had bad
beers with huge billowing heads and terrific brews with none
Being an amateur beer enthusiast, I'm pretty good at being able to detect most of the major beer scents (I refuse to use the word "bouquet", this usage here notwithstanding), but again, I'm hardly an expert. The more beers you assess, the more in-tune you will be as to how a particular beer style is supposed to smell like, or at the very least what the common notes to be found in each style are. Of course there is no Platonic Ideal for what an "English Pale Ale" must smell or taste like; the categorization of beer is a recent phenomenon and is really just a short-hand to help brewers and beer geeks communicate. Every brew is different - thank Ninkasi for that - but having a little knowledge of what to look for will help you identify the subtle differences between different brews. As an example, for hefeweizens the fermentation process naturally produces a variety of scents that include, but are not limited to: banana, coriander, clove, citrus, flowers, hazelnut, and even bubblegum. The brewmaster's job is to manipulate the ingredients to elicit all kinds of different smells and flavors in whatever combination they so choose, and it's our job to find and enjoy them. Not every hefeweizen will smell the same way: some will be stronger in banana and citrus, but with a milder malt presence; others will go for the spicy and sweet end of the spectrum. With a knowledge of what could be there, you can become better attuned to what is there. It takes a bit of practice to get it all sorted, but all that hard work will result in greater enjoyment of the subtle differences between brews of the same style.
I don't have much to add here on "smelling techniques," but two things I've noticed that might be helpful. Cold kills the ability of a liquid to release its smell-o-cules, so sometimes it takes a bit of warming up to really get things rolling. Again, think of the difference between an over-chilled and room-temperature glass of red wine. I tend to assess the nose at different times throughout my pint in order to see what changes may have occurred. Secondly, a good trick I learned from a fellow bartender and scotch-tasting master: keep your glass level to the table when taking a whiff. It allows you to obtain a complete assessment of all the brew's scented notes, while keeping the smell-o-cules contained within the glass. Feel free to swirl the beer around a bit first to further stimulate the nose, but as Michael Jackson observes in his Great Beer Guide, "[t]his level of study might best be pursued at home, as serious swirling might easily be thought pretentious when conducted in a bar or restaurant." In otherwords, don't be a dick about it.
What I like to see: A bit of complexity, and nothing smelling artificial. After taking a sniff, my anticipation to drink the beer should be at a fever pitch.
Again, fairly self-explanatory. As with the nose, a bit of practice will help you get a rough idea what to look for in each style, but the real pleasure is in finding little tasting notes that add to the complexity and character of the brew. I start by taking an initial big sip and slowly letting my tastebuds take over. You'll taste different notes in different places: for me, I tend to get sweeter malty notes at the front of my mouth, fruit in the middle, chocolate on the sides and roof, and musky bitterness near the back. After that first sip is done, I'll contemplate it for a minute, and take note of how the flavor opens and then finishes. Some brews will start sweet and finish bitter and dry; catching these changes are all part of the fun. If the brew is particularly bitter or strong-flavored, that initial hit will pack a wallop. All you'll be able to taste is bitter hops or dark chocolate, and you might not like it at first. But if you allow your tastebuds a few moments to acclimatize to the bolder flavors, you'll be able to detect subtler, more delicate notes. I like to take about three sips to start, each separated by a minute or two, and then dig in at a more natural pace for the rest. Again, sips at different times will allow you to assess the brew along a temperature gradient, adding to the complexity of the experience.
So, in a nutshell, mouthfeel answers the question: "Does the way the beer "feels" help or hinder my enjoyment of the beer?"
Overall Statement of Beer Drinkability:
Now is the time when all the bits and pieces, all my ponderings and musings come together and I'll make an overall assessment. At this point, I'm attempting to answer a few basic questions about the beer on display.
First of all, was this an easy beer to drink? Is this something of which I could enjoy several in a single sitting? A negative answer in this case isn't necessarily a bad thing; it's an opportunity for me to say "that was interesting, tasty, worth trying, but not something I'd want more than one of over the course of an evening, or longer." A rich, hearty imperial stout with a high alcohol content might have a lower drinkability because, even though I might adore it, it's just not an 'everyday' beer, and that's okay. Same goes with seasonal offerings, like pumpkin ales, or experimental beers that are more intriguing in their composition than they are drinkable. Intensely-hopped American IPAs and alcohol-rich Belgian Strong Pale Ales might be flavorful and terrific, but because of their virtues, aren't something you could have too much of. By contrast, a mass-market lager, though perhaps lacking in other departments (like flavor) might score big points in drinkability because they go down that easily. These are brews one could consume in great quantities. Ideally, I'd like a beer to be both great and easily drinkable, but this isn't always the case. Also, consider the fact that you're lucky enough to be having a beer right now. Even though it might not be great, there's still a place for (almost) every beer. If you're already half in the bag, a nondescript lager might just be the ticket. Sitting by the beach in Mexico, with a book in my left hand and a Dos Equis in my right, I was about as happy as I've ever been in my life. An Imperial Stout in that situation would have been a terrible choice. Just something to think about.
Of course, I always prefer drinking great quantities of great brews, which brings us to the second, and most important question. I've given careful thought thus far to the individual components of the beer, and now it's time to consider the entire package. By this point, you must be asking: "Dammit, Matt: is the beer any good??" A just question, indeed. After all this reviewing, would I recommend this beer to friends, well-wishers and blog-readers? Is this a beer I'll avoid like the kiss of death itself; something I could stomach if I have to; a decent offering that would receive no complaints if presented to me; a stand-out brew that is damned hard to refuse; or is this the kind of beer upon which mainstream religions are based? As a general rule for myself, I tend to rate beers high. Even a "meh" kind of beer deserves at least some kudos, because the brewmaster had only the noblest intentions: to make us all just a little bit happier. If the beer is pretty good, but perhaps a bit bland, uninspired or lacking in a cohesive vision, as long as I can drink it, I'm a happy guy.
Finally, for my own little purposes, I like to consider how the beer compares to others from the same brewery or same style, and wax poetic about what I find wonderful about it. Basically, the historian in me is attempting to place the beer "within the canon." What was the brewer trying to do here?
Is this an English Pale Ale with American Pale Ale characteristics? And so on.
You've probably noticed that at the end of each review, I give most of the brews a little grade scale total, a mark from A+ to F. You also may have noticed that this grade might come across as a bit arbitrary, considering that I haven't as of yet developed a grading system to calculate said grades. This much is certainly true. Truth be told, I probably shouldn't use a grade system to evaluate the beer that I drink, because I don't feel it does the beer justice to be reduced to a simple grade-point after having considered so many different aspects of the brew. After all, what does a B- beer taste like? What about a 'B'? What's better, a beer that I'm pleasantly surprised with that warrants a 'B', or a lesser beer from an otherwise great brewery that only deserves a 'B'? It's all a bit ridiculous. But, for the purposes of the blog, I've decided that a little shorthand to help distinguish the better beers from the ones I would avoid was a necessary evil. These scores are derived from my graded scores submitted to Beer Advocate, with perhaps a bit of tweaking on my part for humorous effect. Thus, I'd advise everyone to not take a lot of stock in these grades - the review of the whole should do a much better job of conveying what I like and dislike about the beer. But, in case you were wondering, here's a general overview of what each grade scale 'means.'
B- = Decent. This beer is pretty average, or it might possess a noticeable flaw, whether it be appearance or in the flavor department. Worth getting again, but could be better. May have been an experimental brew that didn't fully work out, but wasn't altogether bad either. (Old Speckled Hen; Mill Street Lemon Tea Ale)
C+ = A brew that is drinkable, but probably not worth seeking out. Something you'd drink if it was offered to you or if the selection was limited, but you'd be happier with something else. (Alexander Keith's; Red Stripe Lager; Holsten; Grasshopper)
C- = Pushing the boundaries of drinkability. Bland, blah, or foul: take your pick. You can drink it, but you're probably not happy about it. Like when someone at the table orders pitchers of Canadian before you get a chance to order, and don't want to look like a douche by getting yourself something else. (Canadian; Dos Equis; most offerings by Great Lakes or Trafalgar)
So there you have it, my little (albeit verbose) approach to the reviewing of beer. Now pour yourself a cold one (or room-temperature one), sit back, and enjoy!
- Michael Jackson. Great Beer Guide (2000)
- Michael Jackson, ed. Eyewitness Companions: Beer (2007)
- Garrett Oliver. The Brewmaster's Table (2003)
- Patrick McGovern's Uncorking the Past (2009)
- Randy Mosher's Tasting Beer (2009)
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