Thursday, September 12, 2013

Defining Bad Beer, Part 3

Time for another whack at the bad beer pinata. In the first part of this series on trying to define bad beer, I made the argument that unspoiled mass produced beer that did not taste bad was not enough to define bad beer. In the second part, I argued that aggregate sites such as bulletin boards, beeradvocate, ratebeer and untappd were biased towards micro and craft brews and at best could help you find a candidate for bad beer. In this part, we take a look at the experts.

History of Beer Judging
You can bet that in ancient Sumer, where the earliest beer recipe can be found, some may have died at the king's hand over bad beer while others were exalted. Now that could be Guy Kavriel Kay's next historical fantasy novel. The tale of some brewer, probably a woman, being raised to courtier due to her prowess with the brew. In a slightly more contemporary note, Toronto Beer Week starts tomorrow and there will be a documentary about the guy who may have started the modern era of beer judging, Michael Jackson.

He approached beer in a local and historical approach, treating beer as a product of terroir. He made a modern differentiation between ales and lagers and started to form the framework for describing different styles of beer. His first major work was written in 1977. I was unable to find where he defined bad beer but did find where he talked about what some others thought bad beer was. This definition of styles led, of course, to judging how well a beer met a style. Before we get there, let\s talk about the other experts that have come since Michael Jackson.

Battle of the Experts: Sommeliers
There are two recognized arbiters of beer and beer service are Prud'homme and Cicerone. Both are focused on delivering beer as intended by the brewer. The lower levels of Prud'homme are geared towards appreciating beer to the final levels where you are expected to achieve a level of proficiency in terms of 'methods of designing, developing and facilitating beer education programs and events'. Cicerone helps servers get to understand all aspects of beer and to serve the beer in a way that it should be. These both hint at the intention of the brewer and ensuring that the beer served is free of technical defects from improper storage or serving. There is that word, intentionality. That will show up in the fourth part of this series.

Unfortunately, bad beer, in absence of defects, is not discussed in either syllabus. So, the experts are refusing to weigh in on bad beer or is it something else? Let's go a step further and discuss judging of beer because many of these people who achieve sommelier status, at some point, judge beer at competitions.

Here Come the Judge
There are a few judging bodies but I'm only going to tackle the Beer Judge Certification Program because it is one of the best documented of the bunch. They publish clear study guides and beer style guides. There are objective and measurable characteristics with clear examples. For instance, Lite American Lager states that there may be some light corn and sweetness and that strong flavours are a fault. Examples of this style are, you guessed it, Miller Lite and Coors Light. So, they are supposed to taste like that. Hunh, who would have thought that?

More importantly, the purpose of the judging and scoring is to:
  • To give the entrants valuable feedback on the quality of their brew as perceived by the judges in order to enhance the quality of homebrewing.
  • To provide training for aspiring beer judges.
  • To maintain valid standards of judging.
Took the above from their site. They are trying to help homebrewers be better. When you enter a competition, you have to state what style you are brewing. Even if you do a fruit beer, which is a catchall category, you still should note the underlying style that you have added fruit. Once again, it is about the intention of the brewer. A 'bad' beer is one that does not conform to the ideals of the brewer. 

Styles do evolve and get created over time. Older styles are often revived. The workings of how this happen can be seen by looking at how the judging guide has changed. None of this gets us closer to bad beer, though. We get from the experts is that the history and geography of a beer matters. The way that the brewer intends the beer to be appreciated matters. 

So, in the last part, I'm going to try to pull these two elements, the drinkers and the brewers together in some way at getting at the bad beer. 

Before I get to that one, a few things. This part will be my weakest. I can't pretend to be well versed in beer judging and it was only with hours of research that I could make sense of this area. What this post has kindled in me is a sense that maybe I should spend some time looking at these three programs. If you are at all interested in understanding the depth and breadth of beer nerdery, I would recommend highly going through the three websites. 

The second thing is that in the last week, a great post summing up the approach from the other side was posted. I include the link here because it definitely gets at how not to be a jackass and how to be a good snob. 

No comments:

Post a Comment