Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

May 27, 2008

Beer Diary:


Don’t let the manufactured hype of the masses influence your beer tastes.
by Eddie Glick

I like my beer like my women: pale, strong, full-bodied, and extremely bitter.
Contact Eddie»
Everyone likes a good list. In fact, one of my favorite books of all time is the Book Of Lists. So what kind of sick puppy wouldn’t like a list about beer? Well, that’s a bit of a loaded question …

The December 2007 issue of BeerAdvocate magazine was all about lists: the top 25 best insert category here. Bars, beers, and brewers. Most of the lists were compiled from votes cast on You know, the best kind of content on the Internet: user-generated. Scoring a top-three spot in the American brewers category was Ballast Point Brewing in San Diego. This in turn led to Ballast Point, an otherwise relatively small, unassuming craft brewery, being inundated with requests to distribute and sell their beers.

Kudos to them. But I have to say I’m a little mystified seeing that brewery’s name in a top 25 list, let alone plopping down at number three. I’ve had Ballast Point beers on several occasions. It’s good beer. You may even say it’s very good beer. But I can definitively say it’s not in the upper echelons of the best beer in America. Hell, it isn’t even the best beer in the San Diego area, in my opinion.

We’ve seen this phenomenon before. It happened with Coors back in the ’70s and more recently with Fat Tire. Ballast Point, a brewery that distributes only in southern California and parts of Nevada and Arizona, suddenly explodes in popularity after people have it while travelling, then get home to tell about this great beer they had while on their trip. It’s not hard to visualize the scenario: you and your buddies or family on vacation in super sunny San Diego, relaxing on the terrace of a nice bar, playing euchre and drinking Ballast Point Yellowtail Pale Ale. Things couldn’t be better. You’re on vacation, you don’t have to worry about a thing (other than getting euchred), and the beer tastes damn good. So, of course you talk up the beer when you go home, because that was a part of the great experience you had.

Or maybe it’s from transplants from San Diego. Shivering their asses off in the Chicago winter, whining to friends, coworkers, people on the street, anyone that’ll listen, about the great weather back in San Diego, where it’s never too cold, never too hot. And this great beer only available back there …

Humans want—really, really want—what they can’t have.
Either way, it’s manufactured nothingness. Humans want—really, really want—what they can’t have. Which is why people tend to associate scarcity with quality. You can explain it with a dirty little mathematical formula:

reasonably good beer + hard to find = perception of high quality

That hard to find operator is the key: it’ll amplify the reasonably good beer part of the equation, sometimes to ridiculous proportions. Like the fabled Westvleteren 12, ranked on BeerAdvocate and Rate Beer as the best beer in the world. It’s about as scarce as it gets: you can only buy it (legally, at least) at the monastic brewery in Belgium, and sales are limited. I’ve talked to people who’ve had it, right from the tap in the inn across the road from the monastery. Their verdict? A very good beer. Nothing more.

This all points to a fundamental flaw when looking at sites that rely on mass-generated user content like Rate Beer and BeerAdvocate: opinions are influenced by personal tastes, and the less we know of these personal tastes, the less valuable the opinion is. If a total stranger were to highly recommend a movie you’ve never heard of before, his recommendation would be virtually worthless. Maybe he thinks the height of entertainment is Star Trek: The Next Generation. Maybe he’s Martin Scorcese. Maybe during the day he’s a mime. Either way we have no idea how valid his opinion is.

The point of this whole rant is this: don’t follow the crowd.
Same goes with these beer sites. We don’t know anything about these voters. For all we know they don’t even know how to taste beer. BeerAdvocate used to be about promoting good craft brewed beer over industrial swill, but it has since devolved into a quasi-social networking site with an emphasis on drinking beer—any beer, even if it’s brewed by some giant conglomerate that doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the health and longevity of craft beer as long as its pockets get lined. Rate Beer is known mostly for the esoterica of its voters—the bigger, the hoppier, the alcoholier, the scarcer, the—duh!—better.

Of course, we review beers here on Beer Dorks, but we make no bones about how each individual reviewer’s tastes influence their ratings. Nigel likes his stuff hoppier and tends to rate hoppier beers higher. Jill’s into fruit brews, and is more apt to give sweeter, fruitier beers a higher rating. Does this invalidate their opinions? That would be a big fat “no.” In fact, because you know their tendencies and tastes—and they write full reviews with explanations instead of bare bones tasting notes—it makes their opinions all the more valuable.

The point of this whole rant is this: don’t follow the crowd. Learn which opinions have weight, use them to steer you toward new and great beers to try, but always trust your own tastes over the opinions of others, no matter how informed they might be. Keep your mind open, keep learning about beer, do your yoga, and meditate daily. With enough patience and suffering, you might just experience … beer perfection. Or you could just score tickets to the Great Taste of the Midwest. You know, same deal.

Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

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