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Beer by the Numbers

By Michael Schiaparelli · May 19th, 2010 · Fermentations
There’s an ongoing debate over how wine experts arrive at their ubiquitous ratings.

Many oenophiles (or “wine geeks”) disparage ratings that aren’t the result of “blind tastings” (i.e., those made without knowledge of what’s being tasted). Proponents contend it’s the only way to “ensure objectivity” — to avoid prejudices regarding producers, regions, vintages, etc.

But the value of “blind tastings” is itself debatable. For instance, wine importer/writer kermit lynch, author of the celebrated memoir Adventures on the Wine Route, is said to have noted that “blind tasting is to wine what strip poker is to love.” Many, in fact, dismiss these exercises, contending that wine is made to be savored with a meal and can only be truly appreciated and evaluated under those conditions. (I should note that my flag is planted in this camp.)

Recently Seamus Campbell and Robin Goldstein, experienced wine/beer educators, released The Beer Trials ($14.95; Fearless Critic Media), in which 250 beers are rated on a 10-point scale within 11 categories. Of course, these are not the first beer ratings.

For more than a decade, Jason and Todd Alstrom’s Beeradvocate.com has been a robust online forum where professionals and amateurs alike post copious notes and scores.

The Beer Trials, however, sets itself apart by tasting everything blind, allowing Robin and Seamus’ panel to judge products on their own terms, unsullied by the insidious influence of marketing dollars. This process (spoiler alert!) leads to some “surprising” results.

For instance, in the broad Pale lager category, Miller Genuine Draft is rated a six out of 10 (or 6/10), effectively tying with far more “respected” brands (e.g., Pilsner Urquell, Heineken). and among Dark ales (porter and stout), Yuengling’s Black and Tan (rated 7/10) crushes both Guinness (5/10) and Murphy’s (4/10) stout!

and that proves the authors’ point, of course: By eliminating the prism of prejudice and expectation, one can truly judge the underlying product.

Personally, though, I've never been a believer in the reliability of “numbers” as a guide. and even the authors’ preface specifically warns readers not to “fall into the trap of believing that because a beer … gets a high rating … you should like it.”

you have to read the brief, pointed descriptions to get the whole story. For instance, that above-average, 6/10-rated MGD is described as “bland and inoffensive.” and even higher-rated beers that these experts love are sometimes described in terms unlikely to appeal to drinkers of America’s best-selling brand (Bud light). The 9/10 rated Aventinus Weizenbock, for example, apparently shows notes of “dark sugar/molasses, banana and clove.”

So while i still don’t fully buy into its methodology or scoring system, The Beer Trials proves a fun, eye-opening and useful guide to many popular and widely distributed beers. Paired with a mixed 6-pack, it would make a great Father’s Day gift, one that encourages even the most casual beer drinkers to open their taste buds to new experiences.




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