Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Defining Bad Beer, Part 1

Ben Johnson recently had his best beer experience to date and blogged about it. He invited several other beerlebratories to think about their best beers. It added more to think about in the continuing internal debate on what makes a good beer and a bad beer.

Best and Worst
First, let's get the best beer stuff out of the way. Best and worst beer experiences are often about set and setting. Guess it makes sense, given that alcohol is a drug but this mantra works for food too. One of my favourite MFK Fisher pieces is about going for a walk in the Alps and coming upon some strangers. All of them add an element to an impromptu snack that is basic but incredibly memorable. Sharing a 50 after helping a buddy move all day or having that first beer of the summer after mowing the lawn makes many beer go down well. Go read The best beer I've ever had series for more examples.

The worst beer would also fall under this category. Imagine receiving a text of a loved one's death when you are having a quiet pint on a perfect day. I can guarantee that the most delicious beer would be forgotten and maybe even reviled. Another example, imagine your team is up by two goals in the last sixty seconds of a series winning game and ...  well, those beer during that overtime period may even be left undrunk, too salty to drink from tears of misery. Even a Belgian quad may be poured down the drain like so many dreams of another victory parade.

I'm not going to try to define best and worst but to a more workable definition of good and bad. This is one of those perennial beer nerd questions that rattle around the rooms, both virtual and real. What makes a bad beer?

Off Flavours 
Firstly, let's not discuss off flavours in your beer as defining a bad beer. There are good courses for objectively looking at what can go wrong from brewing to serving beer, as anyone who follows Mirella Amato can attest. She often has classes to help those in the industry or with the interest in figuring out what is causing the undesirable tastes. There is some questions around some of the off tastes but we will ignore this for now. We will come back to questions of intentionality in a later part especially when talking about using beer flavours that aren't ordinarily desirable. In short, skunked or stale or buttery popcorn tasting beer is spoiled and may be no reflection on the beer or the brewer. If you have an habitual offender, then that could be a candidate for a bad brewer brewing bad beer.

Macro versus Micro
Is the question of bad beer just whether it is being made by GoliathCorp or David's Little Brews? Local Brewer Brews Bad Beer could become an Onion story with little imagination. It is too common for someone with a passion for homebrewing and a cadre of friends (let's call them enablers) to open a brewpub or brewery and put out lacklustre libations that fail to impress. On the other hand, craft beer drinkers sometimes find them at a party that has nothing craft or even crafty to drink and are left staring at a row of tall boys with familiar names. Tasting one doesn't kill them but it doesn't steer them off the craft beer course. Are either of these examples of bad beer? Not necessarily but neither are examples of good beer. So, the debate doesn't come down to size of the operation or level of craftiness.

(Not Good = Bad) or (Not Good ≠ Bad)
In some ways, this is a statement of subjectivity. The line between good beer and bad can be blurred by our own likes and dislikes. If we find a beer not good or to our taste, it doesn't necessarily mean that the beer itself is bad. It can't just be about desire or indifference. Bad beer has to be undesirable. This does lead us down the slippery slope of whether undesirable beer to one person can be desirable to a general population.

Everyone Loves a Bad Boy
There is a whole history of mediocrity in brews that do not firmly place them into bad beer category. This could refer to mass market beer. There is a fine sport of treating mass market beer as the enemy of good beer while at the same time reifying the superior taste of the craft beer speaker. In some ways, this is a revenge of the nerds scenario.

This serves to build the nerds versus frat boy mentality of beer appreciation. Most aficionados that I come across have a wide latitude in their beer tastes with little regard to the popularity of a beer. This is really what we talk about when we talk about beer not tasting of something in particular. It even exists in beer nerd circles under the guise of the now trending category. On one of the Albino Rhino Beer Reviews, one of the reviewers noted that IPAs are like the Bud Lights of the craft beer movement. So, there is that.

With these few starts at defining what a bad beer is not, the next post will focus on looking at whether rating systems can tell us when a beer is bad.

1 comment:

  1. You're spot on with the idea that whether a beer is good or bad depends on the situation. After all, an ice-cold Laker (technically a bad beer, most would say) while camping, for example, can be very satisfying.