Thursday, May 10, 2012

pride and prejudice

I usually write this blog once a week. Typically Monday morning on the train... But my post yesterday seems to have generated more interest than usual, and seems to possibly offend some people. While I stand by my statements about the need for honest feedback, it was never my intention to attack or target anyone. So if I offended anyone, I apologize.

Some of the most interesting comments came from DSG, a fellow Israeli beer rater (you can see his comments on the previous post.) DSG raised an interesting point: That we are beer raters, not beer judges, and thus that bias is built into our rating. In other words, that we rate beer according to wither we liked it, not necessarily wither it is good or not. In fact, as he points out, that is how beer rating is described on the site.

While I still feel that we should strive to incorporate objective measurements into our rating, I have to concede the point DSG is making. If ratebeer calls for a "hedonistic" rating, then by all means how we like the beer should come into play. I will still argue that when I detect flaws in the beer it detracts from my "hedonistic" enjoyment of it, but to each his own.

But in reading DSG's comment I came up with two additional insights:
First, that there is a difference between a beer rating and beer feedback. And I think unlike a rating (that is done in public) feedback (which is done in private and often face to face) should focus on the character of the beer. Its strong points, its flaws, its process, what was done well, and what could be done better. And furthermore that it should be as specific as possible. In a nutshell, if rating characterizes the beer, feedback should analysis it. 

Second, that the thing I was talking about, where a familiarity with the brewer or brewery may prejudice the rating, can work both ways. I know that when I evaluate a beer, I also look at were it came from. It is very possible that when I know a beer comes from a certain brewery, who's house character I don't like, it would prejudice my evaluation of a new beer by them (this happened to me with a certain New York brewery that routinely got great ratings. I tasted a bunch of their beers, and for some reason none of them seemed that great. It got to the point that I would smell a new beer by them and the particular "house smell" of their products would drive me away.)  If one tried to be fair about this, one must allow for the idea that prejudice works both ways.

So I am going to try something and, DSG if you're reading this, you're welcome to try it with me: I'm going to take three IPAs, and blind taste them. One will be an IPA that I thought was the greatest example of its kind in Israel, one will be a beer a lot of people claim is the best IPA but I thought was a little lackluster, and one will be an IPA that some people rave about and that I straight-up didn't like. (you're welcome to message me privately for the specific names).  For these three beers I'm planning to have my wife pour me a 100ml sample in identical glasses, without letting me know which beer is which. I'm planning to taste them one at a time, and write (on a piece of paper) a rating of each one as if I was doing it on the site. Between the samples I will eat plain crackers and sniff my own sleeves in order to cleans my nose and palate.

And then I'll compare these notes to the ones I posted on the site about these beers, and see the differences. I may discover some things about my own objectiveness. :) And it will be an interesting experiment at any rate.

I will end this post with one final thought: Homebrewing is a hobby. But it is also a community. As members of this community we need to embrace brewers on all levels, and know that every person brews at his or her own level, according to their tools, knowledge, and experience. BUT, and this is really the crux of my last post: I feel that we must strive for excellence. We must strive to improve, and learn, and experiment, and evaluate, and do all those things that we CAN do that professional guys can't afford to do. And in this quest for self-improvement, we must be honest with ourselves and each other about the results of our efforts. If I can trust you to tell me when you taste something bad, I'll be a lot more likely to believe you when you tell me something good.



  1. This replay came to me in response to this and the previous post, and I thought I'd share it here because it's succinctly summarizes different philosophies of home brewing:
    Bah no sense for a false sense of superiority and pretentiousness. There are really just a few things we should care about.

    1.) Meeting Judges expectations if entering in a contest and staying within style guidelines, along with producing a product that conforms to certain taste standards.
    2.) Screw the Judges and make what pleases your palate
    3.) Please the palates of whomever you are making it for.

    Off-flavors are referenced so much, but off-flavors are only off, if they aren't liked by the consumer. If the consumer is a Judge those may be one thing, but if it is a person, they may be totally different. Some people like higher Fusel contents in some types of Belgians, does that mean it is terrible if they ferment at higher temperatures and get a bunch of fusels in a non-belgian style? I don't think so. It isn't an off flavor if they like it.

    There are standards for the purpose of having a contest. In reality no such tasting standards are ever completely objective and right. They are all subjective. If my favorite beer is one that is rated lowly, that doesn't mean I am wrong. It means my palate prefers something some judges don't.

  2. I just noticed this post now, as I was in Copenhagen for a week to drink (and rate) beer.

    First, glad you could agree with me on some points.

    You wrote: "I will still argue that when I detect flaws in the beer it detracts from my "hedonistic" enjoyment of it, but to each his own."
    I agree about the off-flavors issue with the guy who wrote you.
    One example (I can give many):
    According to some style guidelines, some diacetyl is accepted in Bohemian Pilseners. Still, some beer lovers would hate a buttery example of a BoPils, some would love it, and some won't even notice the diacetyl is there. Is any of them wrong?

    And about the blind tasting thing - let us know how it turns out. You can also e-mail me the beers names and I'll try to do it as well. If you're using IPA for the experiment, I highly suggest that all bottles are very fresh. IPA can deteriorate very quickly.
    I've been to quite a few blind tastings in my beer-drinking career. I admit I'm always kinda nervous about being exposed as the biased clueless idiot I am, but I'm happy to say the most often that not, actually almost every time, I was very close with the ratings to previous non-blind ratings of the same beers. But I do think that it's really OK for good ambiance to be reflected in ratings. After all, we're human, not some beer-rating-machines (well, maybe some Danes actually are).