Judging Kooky Beer On Its Own Terms

It’s a tough job, but well… you know.

As we continually are bombarded by a greater number of beers pushing the envelope of taste and gimmick, it is important to take a second to think about some overarching ways of evaluating beer as lay people. There are, of course, more objective ways of evaluating beer. Members of the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), who have my complete respect, train and practice so they may become the arbiters of beer styles. Their skills and training rest at one end of the taste spectrum. The other is the “I like what I like” school of beer drinking, which also is perfectly fine if trying interesting beers isn’t your bag.

For those of us in the middle, trying new beers tends to have a couple of layers. First, we think about how we like the beer at first blush. We think about how it tastes and whether we enjoy the experience. Second, we check the taste experience against the style, a process that gets a little more arbitrary each day. But broadly speaking, we expect certain characteristics from an IPA and different ones from a Stout.

Describing emerging beer styles

Usually this means we can say, objectively, “This beer isn’t for me, but I can see how someone else might like it,” or “If this beer is supposed to taste this way, it is not a good beer.”

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“I thought this would be less carmelier-looking.”

This is more than an inexact science. It practically is voodoo, but for those among us who like to taste a lot of beers, it’s a good starting point. We learn what our friends think of as good beers and what they might like or tend to avoid. They can do the same for us. For example, I have some hop-head friends who, if you can still feel your mouth and breathe, think the beer could be a little hoppier.

Where we can fall into confusion is in the gimmicky beer department. Gimmicky beers can be fun, but they can also become tiresome and shark-jumpy. I thought I knew where I stood on gimmicky beer until I tried “Not Your Fathers Root Beer” and “Walker” in the course of a few days. For me, these two beers represented two aspects of drinking and craft beer that I have trouble coming to terms with: the un-beer and the attention getter.

Walker is the easiest to talk about, so let’s start there (NYFRB will require a different post here).

For those of you who don’t know it was a one-off by Dock Street Brewing Company that was brewed with roasted goat brains for flavor as well as a bit of kitsch. The beer was billed as a pale stout, which is where the real kookiness begins, and according to the press I’ve seen, more for fun than for reals.

Pale Stouts, White IPAs, etc. are emerging (or revived) styles that will be dealt with by the BJCP folks. For the lay beer drinker like me – someone who enjoys drinking and talking about beer but not doting on the language – the new styles can be problematic.

Brewers are, by nature, tinkerers—they tinker with their recipes, they tinker with their gear, they tinker with their processes. Trying new, chance-taking beers is one of the best parts of witnessing the maturation of the craft beer revolution, but figuring out how normies like me can talk about them is a different story. More importantly, for someone who writes for general consumption, not being too precious is critical. As enthusiasts and boosters, we’ve learned to deal with BJCP styles in everyday language, but coming to terms with the more challenging beers is a different story altogether.

Taking a cue from the movies

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So, Surfboard or Bus? Which style do you prefer?

For gimmicky beers, I think it is best to talk about them in economic as well as flavor terms. When we see a movie, we’ve all developed a kind of shorthand (Broadly: see it in the theater, rent it, don’t bother). Similarly, we can talk about whether a beer is worth more than having a pint of. To be honest, I have yet to take even very good advice about staying away from a bad beer; given the opportunity, I’l try anything.

But

If I’m out looking for a six-pack, I’m more likely to get something I already like if the only thing that’s new is also poorly recommended. For example, Walker is a good beer to try, but not one that you’ll crave after. If you see a six pack, pick it up, because if you’ve read this far, you totally know five other people who will want to try it.

My shorthand has become taster, pint, growler, among people I know. If I’m not nuts about a beer, I’ll say just that: “It’s not my favorite, get a taster first and see what you think,” and so on up the scale. It’s as good a way as any to deal with a beer that doesn’t fit a general profile or is so far-removed from what you might expect, flavor descriptions aren’t going to cut it.

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Tony Russo has been a print and digital journalist for the better part of the 21st century. He writes for ShoreCraftBeer.com as well as several destination websites and has published two beer books for History Press. He also produces “Beer with Strangers” a weekly homebrew and beer culture podcast. Tony lives in Delmar, Maryland, with his wife and the only of his four daughters who hasn’t moved out. Together they try and keep their dog and cat comfortable.

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