17 November 2011

The Quest for Better Beer Reviews

I don't read a lot of beer reviews. In fact, the number of beer websites I regularly read is pretty small for someone who professes to be a beer geek. And most of those websites center on beer news rather than beer reviews. Why? Because I think that more often than not, beer reviews aren't very useful or interesting.

I hope I'm not being presumptuous when I say that most of my fellow Knights of the Beer Roundtable feel the same way. Therefore, we've tried to "walk the walk" in this regard by taking a different tack when we do reviews. For example, for awhile, we listed in the sidebar of the blog our ratings for the beers we had reviewed. But since our rating system is so arbitrary (and admittedly probably not very useful to our readers), we ditched the ratings list a few months ago. Further, when we can, we eschew the traditional appearance/smell/taste/mouthfeel beer review model in favor of reviews that are (we hope) unique. We've written reviews pretending to be dead people, in haiku, in tribute to various people, in weird literary styles, using certain themes, etc. Some might consider these reviews to be gimmicky, annoying, and uninformative. I can see validity in those criticisms. But for reasons I'll list below, I think they're rebuttable criticisms.

My somewhat negative opinion of beer reviews might strike some as odd and maybe even hypocritical. After all, one of the mainstays of Hoosier Beer Geek has always been our reviews, and some of those reviews indeed follow the appearance/smell/taste/mouthfeel model that I just criticized. But in trying to take a unique tack with our reviews, I think we have recognized several things that make the garden-variety beer review of limited use or interest:

- Some people seem to place too much stock in reviews. This is particularly bad for new breweries trying to find their groove. A spate of bad reviews isn't fair to a brewery when the brewer hasn't yet perfected his or her beers. That's one reason why we don't review beers from a brewery right after it opens.

- Sometimes, there's a pack mentality or "echo chamber" effect stemming from beer reviews. One person will slam or rave about a beer, which is then perpetuated by later reviews. For me, this sometimes conveys a false sense of the beer's value or lack thereof. To be sure, near-universal praise or criticism of a beer is sometimes warranted. But not always.

- Frankly, some beer reviews are boring. There are only so many adjectives that you can use to describe the attributes of a beer before they get tiresome. How many times have you read reviews describing beers brewed with wild yeast as having a "barnyard funk"? Perhaps one too many.

- Palates are diverse. Therefore, one person will detect a certain note in a beer that someone else won't. So it's worth forming your own opinion about a beer's attributes rather than relying on someone else's description of those attributes.

- Finally, the enjoyment that comes from drinking beer (at least for me) comes primarily from the overall drinking experience rather than just the attributes of the beer itself. Who were you drinking the beer with? Where were you drinking it? What was that place like? What were you talking about while you were drinking it? For me, a review that answers these questions is much more interesting and useful than one that centers only on the beer's attributes.

Despite these criticisms, I won't stop reading beer reviews. Even though some beers reviews aren't very useful or interesting, many are. And the traditional appearance/smell/taste/mouthfeel beer review model certainly has its place. I only wish that more reviewers would try to be more innovative with what they have to say about the beers they review, particularly when enjoying craft beer is about more than just the beer itself.


  1. Jim, I agree with pretty much everything you said, and understand your points, however, I still believe that there is much value in beer reviews.

    Your point about different persons tastes being different is on target, however, when you pay attention to beer reviews you can often find a person who A: Does structured, descriptive beer reviews that are consistent, and B: align with your tastes and preferences. Of course both can only be determined after MUCH tasting on your own.

    Once you find that person/reviews you will at least gain some impression of whether a beer is worth your time/attention.

    For instance. Everyone knows @ericstl6 likes everything, so I would NEVER trust a beer review from the likes of him. I have found several people who's likes/dislikes mimic mine, and I place credence in what they say.

    In any event. Keep up the good work!

  2. I agree with memyselfandi, but reading enough reviews and reviewers to get to know your own style better takes a really long time (and a lot of beer drinking (which is fine by me)) but can be overwhelming for a newer craft beer drinker. I think that if reviewers go for an honest review of the beer at hand (which I think this blog does a wonderful job of) and not well thesaurus-ed generalities trust can be placed in the reviewer from the get go.
    Either way, nice work, I really liked the post...

  3. I like those HBG reviews which have an air of performance to them. I find that for this blog, which centers around "group reviews" as opposed to entirely individual reviews (i.e. someone sitting on their couch at home with a laptop), your style makes reading a beer review much more entertaining.

    That's not to say that standard (color, flavor, mouthfeel, blah blah) reviews don't have their place. But for a better read, i would go with what you do. For the best opinion of a beer, well I'd say some combination thereof would be appropriate.

  4. The where, with whom, when, etc. near the tail end of this post hit home with me. So many times the mouthfeel, body, et al were enhanced for me by those factors. At least that is how my memory keeps it. Maybe because I wasn't focused on the beer but the overall experience.
    Sometimes the relationship between the writer and the reader is affected negatively (for me) when the review feels clinical. The creative reviews, in my mind, add that missing element - an acknowledgement of something deeper that beer adds to our experiences. Or maybe I just like them because they entertain. Either way! Keep on. Cheers.

  5. Thanks for the positive feedback, all.

  6. Even though I sometimes select a new beer based on good reviews (or even a high RateBeer rating posted on the shelf), I willfully try to avoid skipping over beers due only to poor reviews.

    I feel like sometimes negative impressions are exaggerated; a difference in personal preference described as a flaw or a poor quality product, published without concern for the negative impact inflicted on the producer.