Connoisseurship

Posted on: Jun 24, 2016

Back in the 1970s, the United States was a vast beer desert. With little difference between brands except the color of the cans, our beer defied connoisseurship. While I do know people who were capable of distinguishing between beers made at different Pabst facilities back in the day, the big brewers had no need for passionate enthusiasts to weigh in on the quality, character and meaning of their products. Focused tasting was a job for professional panels with very specific techniques and goals solely in the quality control realm.

 

As craft beer blossomed, so did the need for informed criticism. The late Michael Jackson blazed the trail. His audacious idea was to take beer as seriously as anyone has ever been about wine, describing, interpreting, and even judging it for us. He set a pretty high standard, inspiring a whole generation to flip open our little tasting notebooks and get serious about beer. Many of us started brewing as well. Eventually this kind of inspiration turned into a movement, then grew into a small industry.

It’s not surprising that home brewers were at the forefront of beer appreciation back in the early days. Brewing your own beer opens a window into the materials and processes of beer, crucial for understanding every aspect, from styles to flavors to intangibles like balance and harmony.

As craft beer grew in complexity, many enthusiasts started breweries, but others found different ways to put their hobby to use by starting specialty beer bars, writing articles and books, and eventually building websites and other social media. Beer is now so vast and rapidly changing that no one can keep track of it all, and sometimes even the simple act of walking through the beer aisle and picking out a few beers for the weekend can be a very intimidating task. Critical opinions are ever more necessary.

But as craft beer relies more heavy on outside interpreters, that begs a few questions: How good is this advice? Are we becoming over-reliant on simple measures like numerical scores? Is the ability of enthusiasts to appreciate and critically evaluate beer a limitation to the progress of the art? What does it mean to be a beer connoisseur?

Let’s take the last question first. Based on the root word “to know,” the word’s a pretty good summation if you think about all the different things that it means. At a fundamental level, it’s the ability to know what’s in the glass—just you and the beer doing a sensory tango. With a little understanding of sensory neurobiology and some good practical technique, you can start internalizing the more important among beer’s 2,000-odd aromatic chemicals. This takes time and practice, but it’s the foundation for everything else.

Then the evaluation gets a little more abstract as you start to determine how a beer’s flavors actually work together, and concepts like balance, harmony, depth, drinkability and other intangibles come into play. On top of that are the strictures of style and how a beer relates to its historical predecessors. That also includes how the beer fits into its current context, and whether it’s adding anything new to the scene or simply executing classic ideas. And at the top level are judgements about artistic value, creativity, memorability and its ability to make an emotional connection. In a great beer, all of these things are important.

The knowledge base for this kind of comprehensive critique is fairly broad, touching on history, biochemistry, a range of specialized and ever-changing ingredients and even a little physics. Some of this is pretty straightforward book learning, but the act of tasting takes practice as one learns to identify and verbalize a range of beer-specific flavors and interpret their meaning. With that experience comes an awareness of one’s personal sensitivities and blind spots, which can be considerable. And while you can learn a good deal about styles from tasting along with imported examples as you read, for many styles it’s really helpful to drink them in their original context. English-style cask bitter, with very few exceptions, makes little sense in the US, but over there, it’s a revelation.

There is also an element of maturity that marks a true connoisseur. Those who are new to all of this seem to fixate on a few attributes—hops for example—and reward intensity, biases that are pretty well confirmed by the strong tilt in the online ratings to strong, bitter and otherwise massive beers. However with experienced tasters, and especially with brewers, you’ll often find their deepest reverence is for disarmingly simple beers such as pilsners and bitters, as they are highly revealing of flaws, and when done well offer satisfying, even magical depth over time.

The current craft beer scene in the US is bewilderingly complex, and it’s becoming more so as breweries pop up like mushrooms after a fall rain. It’s no wonder that most beer fans, even attentive ones, are looking for help. From a user point-of-view, numerical scores are the clearest. Just line up the beers you’re considering, pick the one with that top score and ring it up. But to reduce the vast complexity of beer, along with the blood, sweat and imagination poured into its creation into a single two-digit number seems absurd, no matter how good the raters. As mentioned, there is a bias towards intensity, as well as a tendency to pile on the high ratings and rewards for breweries that have already been singled out as “hot.” So if you share the interests of the raters, this is highly useful information for you, but everyone else should be highly suspicious of ratings numbers.

Because they’re conducted blind and are generally judged style-by-style, beer competition awards are a lot less biased and are a pretty good way to get an idea of a brewery’s quality level. Competition is tough these days, but breweries that win regularly, especially in challenging venues like the Great American Beer Festival, are generally a cut above the crowd. The main caveat is that with style-based competitions, beers a little outside the strict style definitions may not always score as good as they taste.  

Wine has long employed specialists to help people navigate its confusing range of offerings, and we’re starting to see this more frequently with beer. From distributors to bar managers to retailers, companies are investing in people with these skills. Organizations like the Cicerone Certification Program have jumped in the help fill this need.

“Curation” is a hot word today, as product categories fragment into minute slivers that require some winnowing down for most people. This is most evident at retail stores. Rather than aimlessly wandering through the 4,000 choices in a well-stocked mega-store, many people are choosing smaller shops carrying only products that meet certain quality, freshness and interest criteria.

So that brings us to the question of whether the current craft beer audience is pushing breweries forward or holding them back. From where I sit, it’s a mixed bag, but on the whole, the unique relationship between craft brewers and they people they brew for is pretty healthy. It’s a rare gift to have so close a bond between creator and consumer. While this relationship generates a lot of love, this intimacy also means that your fans aren’t afraid to get up in your face when you screw up. On balance though, thoughtful fans keep breweries on their toes and are a valuable asset, as evidenced by the efforts big brewers are making to create—or buy—some of this mojo.

There is a sliver of the market that has turned certain beers into cult objects: trading, hoarding and really disconnecting them from their primary purpose of creating pleasure in the sensory realm. While small, this group is pretty noisy, and drives a lot of hype in some annoying ways. Fortunately their effect is limited. As the old R&B song goes, “One monkey don’t start no show.”

It’s amazing-and wonderful-how much effort and energy people expend in an effort to fully embrace their favorite beverage. It’s even more miraculous considering that just a few decades ago in the United States, most brews were no more profound, interesting, or worthy of love than your typical can of soda pop. I’ll take the current scenario any day.