What Smells in Here? A Few Words on … The ‘Bullshit’ of Beer Reviews

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While beer thrives best in social settings, it’s still a very personal thing.

Whether it’s a pint with friends or unwinding alone at home, enjoyment of beer comes down to the individual. What do they like? What do they feel like drinking at that moment?

But what happens when a beer lover takes the next step – evangelizing the drink they love so much? I’m talking about the beer review.

Eric at Focus on the Beer posed the question last week: are beer reviews bullshit?

Maybe? Maybe not.

I have offered many beer reviews on this site, mostly because as a beer lover, I want other beer drinkers (not necessarily “beer lovers”) to have the best experience possible. I provide reviews in the hope that my subjective taste and/or opinion carries enough weight and description to offer a path to enjoyment for someone else.

After all, customer reviews have the largest impact on consumer behavior by a “considerable margin.” They also serve a psychological interest of consumers who actively seek information from an opinion leader. (There are many more esteemed “opinion leaders” than I, but I just love talking about beer…)

If a reviewer is able to break down barriers or at least set expectations prior to someone spending money on a brew, that could be a good thing. But I also wonder, do the thoughts of Beer Drinker A then influence Beer Drinker B’s experience?

Maybe it doesn’t matter.

One of the things I love about beer is that you don’t need to know anything about it to enjoy it. Yes, I can go on and on about malt bills and hops, but that information isn’t necessary to know if something just tastes good.

Ultimately, the beer review is an attempt to open things up for people. It’s about demystifying the idea that craft beer is fancy and you have to know something about it to really expand your palate and try all sorts of brews. Even more important – you don’t have to know a damned thing about craft beer to enjoy it.

It may seem ironic, but I feel beer reviews are (sometimes) an attempt to break down a barrier of snobbery between beer lovers and those who just want to find a tasty beer. It’s fun to share our passion. That’s part of being a beer person, but also a natural part of writing about it.

… and as Oliver over at Literature & Libation points out, like our personal tastes, a beer review can be more than numbers and nuance:

Don’t be so caught up in what people expect from a review. If you want to write about the hop characteristics because that’s just your thing, go for it. If you want to write about a memory that this beer brought surging back to the front of your brain, by all means. If you’re like me, and you want to write a story based on the taste and appearance of the beer, don’t let anyone stop you.

Beer is personal, as our the stories we tell. Maybe beer reviews are just a way of bridging the two.

+Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

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15 thoughts on “What Smells in Here? A Few Words on … The ‘Bullshit’ of Beer Reviews

  1. Very well put, Bryan. In my eyes, I see two different types of beer reviews. The first type are the ones on BA. I believe a lot of these are written to try and make up a customer’s mind on if they should purchase one beer or another. The second type of beer review are the reviews that are written on blogs. For the most part, I believe these are written by people who just love to write, analyze and discuss beer. Sure, they also have the ability to inform the consumer about a specific beer. However, in most cases, I find the blogger leaves the review open-ended, and invites the reader/beer customer to purchase the beer on their own, try it, offer their own opinion, and initiate discussion.

    Just my two cents!

    • I think that’s a great way to look at it. Sites like Beer Advocate are helpful, especially after I’ve exhausted my senses and may need some help identifying a particular smell or taste I just can’t quite figure out. On the flip side, BA reviewers – while dedicated – can also be a bit problematic because their personal experiences may not align with the reality of the beer. They may not fully understand a beer style, for example, and think a beer is bad because that knowledge isn’t there.

      Meanwhile, over here and at countless other beer-related blogs, I love the challenge of trying to break down a beer. The hard part is turning that off! I’ll usually spend the first few minutes after pouring a beer thinking critically about it, then relax and just enjoy after that.

      • When you put it like that Bryan, beer is nearly identical to literature. Sometimes we can break down why we like or don’t like something, split it into its most basic parts and understand what did what, to who, when.

        Other times we just sit there, satisfied as hell, going, “this is damn good.”

        Thanks for the plug, too 🙂

  2. My goal in my reviews is to provide more information about the brew then can be found on the packaging. That’s why I’ve stopped posting 4/5 or 3 stars or anything like that. To me that’s a personal opinion type of thing and is what untappd is for.

    • Great point, Tom. That’s how I like to approach it, too. It’s not so much “this beer smells like __ and tastes like __.” I want to know the ingredients so I can explain it smells like __ because __. Breaking down those kinds of barriers is important and the research can be sort of fun…

    • I agree with you about giving a star or number rating. That is something I used to do, but what does it really matter if I rate Sierra Nevada Torpedo with 3 or 4 stars? It is so arbitrary. A good description of the beer is far more valuable. By the way, what is your website?

  3. I like to end my reviews my basically explaining if a beer is worthy of being sought out again. If I say I’m not going to hunt it down again, it doesn’t mean it’s bad….it just means it doesn’t stand out to me when there are so many other options.

    • That’s a great, open-ended way to approach it, for sure. I know everyone’s palates are different, but I hope that by offering up some broad (and sometimes very specific) thoughts it’ll help make up their mind as to whether it’s worthwhile.

      Then again, I know I’ve blatantly stated on several beers that I won’t be actively looking for them again…

  4. Anyone who’s seen any of my reviews (except for the ones I put up on RateBeer) knows that they’re really more about the lunacy involved in getting my hands on the beer together with a few other loosely organized tangents. I eventually get around to my personal impressions of the beer but not in a technical way and I’m certainly not looking to influence anyone. When I started blogging in the first place I never intended to do traditional beer reviews because there are already so many people doing them.

    If a beer makes me laugh I’m more likely to like it (unless I’m laughing at it (i.e. Bud Black Clown or any of those moronic crafty brews). If a post makes me laugh I’m more likely to visit the blog again. If I don’t make myself laugh while writing (a review or some other industry related observation) then I get bored and stop. That’s why my reviews are usually pretty heavy on humor and sarcasm.

    Then again, a drain pour is a drain pour and I do try to steer other innocents away from them.

    Cheers!

    • *wipes sweat from brow*
      (Well … no pressure … )
      *breathing heavily*

      Guess I’m doing something right if I manage to keep dragging you back here! Glad I can provide some funny from time-to-time. You’re most certainly adept at it.

      Meanwhile … cue Scott from Beerbecue in 3, 2, 1…

  5. You’ve absolutely right. Some people don’t need to know anything about beer, they only enjoy drinking and spending time with friends. But some people love beer and also want to get more information about it. I’m probably the second kind of person, because I love reading about history of beer, brewery industry and different types of production. I also love arrange trips to countries where is produced a lot of kind of beer. I’ve been in Germany and Belgium. This was great experience because I can drink and visit places where beer is preparing and get to know more about process of beer in breweries opened for tourists. Lately I’ve read article http://www.wespeaknews.com/features/the-true-drink-of-the-gods-208530.html about breweries in Eastern Europe. I think that my next direction of travel will be Poland. I think, there is no accounting for tastes. Everybody can drink beer, whatever he like, no matter or it tastes anyone or not. This is our choice because everyone has different taste. And depends on us how much we want to explore this topic. We can be only beer lover who don’t need more information. Or we can be expert of beer who has knowledge about hop, beer production, and all brewery industry.

    • Thanks for sharing that article, Ray. It’s funny, for as much as I think about beer, I’m very domestic in my thoughts. I’ll usually let my mind wander to foreign countries when I’m trying to think about origins of beer or beer styles, but much of my effort otherwise stalls inside the US border because of all the activity that goes on daily.

      Everyone most definitely has their unique way of thinking, appreciating and drinking beer – I just hope they enjoy all of it no matter how they do it!

      Thanks for adding to the conversation – cheers!

  6. As always, well written, Bryan!

    For me, I find the hardest part of reviewing is staying timely. I have reviewed seasonals at the end of their run and not posted them online. It seems pointless to tease people about a beer that’s done. Maybe I’ll post it next year when the beer returns. Besides my love of Belgian beers, that may be why I focus on them so much. Most of the ones I try are year around but smaller. So maybe I can point someone in the direction of a beer they haven’t heard of because it falls under the “American-centric” radar. I also hope it’s a way to differentiate my blog. There are a lot of Oregon blogs talking about local beer. I may highlight a few local things, but it’s not my primary focus.

    You still planning on coming to Oregon? We can “review” some beers together.

    • Thanks for the kind words!

      I’ve also run into a similar problem with timing. Because I’ve (luckily) ventured into writing more column/essay posts, my stock of reviews gets backlogged quickly. It can be tough to try to keep things timely, especially when focusing on local brews. I think you’re spot-on with your effort to focus on the brews you are passionate and very knowledgeable about – Belgians.

      As far as a Portland trip, I am not so sure. Scheduling conflicts abound with my brother, so if I do make it, it may be rushed. I will most certainly let you know if I’m lucky enough to make the trip, though!

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