To Pan or Not to Pan

I saw the play at a disadvantage. The curtain was up. – George S. Kaufman

There is a place in the world for a good pan, for “informal severe criticism, especially a negative review.” This is even more true when the pan is done with wit and a very sharp harpoon.

Her performance ran the gamut of emotions, from A to B. – Dorothy Parker

Today’s question: is a beer blog that “place in the world?”

You know the feeling. You try a beer because it has a funny name, or a cool label, or both. We all do it, and I’m not knocking the method, that’s how I discovered Stone. Only this time, the new beer is “meh” or outright awful. I guess part of the question is whether you want to recommend, to judge, or to be a Critic, perhaps with that capital “C.”

There was laughter in the back of the theatre, leading to the belief that somebody was telling a joke back there. – George S. Kaufman

One problem with being a Critic is the temptation to be clever rather than to be fair. Another problem is losing sight of the YMMV principle: Your Mileage May Vary. Just because you don’t like it, doesn’t mean that someone else won’t.

b2But let’s say you’re getting tastes from the taps, and a buddy says “should I try the Silly Ass Saison?” If you like it, the answer is obvious. If you don’t like it, do you say “it sucks” or do you say “it’s okay, but” or do you say “I like tap #4 better”? Any of those is a recommendation, some more gentle than others, and your buddy expects no less.

What about judging a beer? There’s the Beer Advocate approach:

1.15/5 rDev -61.5%: look: 3.5 | smell: 1 | taste: 1 | feel: 1 | overall: 1
4.47/5 rDev +49.5%: look: 4 | smell: 4.5 | taste: 4.5 | feel: 4.5 | overall: 4.5

I bet you can guess that those are two ratings of the same beer, so YMMV comes right into it. If you go on to explain why you gave those ratings, you’re doing something useful.

Then there’s the BJCP approach:
porterThe Beer Judge is at the competition to objectively rank beers against each other, with bragging rights–and prizes–on the line. This ranges from ten homebrews in a local bar up to the massive competions at GABF. [Okay, I’m throwing acronyms here: Beer Judges Certification Program, Great American Beer Festival.]

So how does a Judge “objectively” rank even though YMMV? First, beers are judged according to very specific style guidelines of Aroma, Flavor, Mouthfeel, Overall Impression, and even History. How true is this beer to the Saison style? It may be a good beer, but is it a good Saison? Further, BJCP judges are judged against other judges, trying to ensure consistency. There’s still subjectivity, but that’s why there are “Comments.”

But back to that Silly Ass Saison. What if it sucks, but you generally like beer from Silly Ass Brewing, or maybe even you’re a friend of the brewer? If you’re a beer judge, you have to do the best you can despite the about-to-be-lost friendship, or recuse yourself from the tasting. If you’re recommending, you may be in this situation:

I worry about being that guy, doing a disservice to the breweries I enjoy and want to see succeed. – Nick Anderson, the Beermonger

If someone is asking you directly, you may point them toward an alternate that you like, or give a quiet “I might skip this batch.” Possibly one of the worst offenses, often hard to avoid, is damning with faint praise.

Now what if you just flatly don’t like Saisons? You may know there’s a category of beer that doesn’t work for you. That might be Berliner Weiss for me. There’s a simple approach available for both judging and recommending:

Tip: don’t review what you don’t like. – Emily Sauter, Pints & Panels

If you decide not to take that tip, be up front and say “Caveat: generally I don’t like this style.” State that bias, but consider why you’re continuing with your comments. It might be like me with Rodenbach, totally new to the style. In advance, I read “Yes, it’s supposed to smell and taste like that!” With that intro, I anticipated and got an intensely sour beer, and tried to review it as such. But then I had a second bottle, this time with a good cheddar cheese, and the beer was transformed. What an excellent pairing! A learning experience.

What about The Critic? Despite my love of a good pan, when it comes to beer I think that he or she should be dealt with as one might deal with a practical joker:

A “practical joker” deserves applause for his wit according to its quality. Bastinado is about right. For exceptional wit one might grant keelhauling. But staking him out on an anthill should be reserved for the very wittiest. – Lazarus Long

b1_02But what if it’s an off batch of a good beer? That’s why we look for consistency as a mark of quality, but everyone has an occasional misfire. What if the bar didn’t take proper care of that tap line? That’s not the brewer’s fault. What if some idiot stored the bottles in a tanning bed, or otherwise zapped it with enough light to skunk a canned beer? Again, that’s not the brewer’s fault.

What if the beer has been sitting on the shelf too long? It *is* partly the brewer’s fault if there is no “drink by” or “bottled on” date to give fair warning, but it’s partly the drinker’s fault if that date is provided but not checked. If it’s a competition, it’s up to the brewer to make sure the beer arrives in peak condition. Otherwise it’s up to the distributor, the store, and the bar to KEEP it in peak condition . . . but it’s hard for the reviewer to know whether the problems arose in the brewery or after the beer got out of the brewer’s control.

For that matter, what if YOU are the problem? What if you’re so stuffed up that any aroma is totally wasted? What if you just ate Thermonuclear Chicken Wings and burned off half of your taste buds? What if you just washed down toothpaste with orange juice and your mouth tastes like toxic waste? I think we can agree: at that point you’re drinking to cool your palette or quench your thirst, and not in any condition for reviewing. Come to think of it, if it’s the 27th beer you tasted in that session . . .

So can I make any conclusions here? If I’m doing a brewery tasting and there’s one clunker in the batch, do I say so or omit that one? If a cute name or label lures me to a mediocre beer, do I review it or forget it? Should I give fair warning? I don’t want you to have to waste your time, money, or taste buds on mediocre–or bad–beer. Still, YMMV.

What do you think? Do you want fair warning?

In the meantime, I might follow this thought:

Drawing on my fine command of the English language, I said nothing. – Robert Benchley

Categories: Uncategorized | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “To Pan or Not to Pan

  1. Ed Karasek

    Fair warning, hey? Seems reasonable I suppose if you stumbled upon a site such as this and did’t know you were reading someone’s opinion. But how often does that happen?

    It is not like you are the brewery web site. Or even compensated by them?

    What you are doing is similiar I suppose to movie reviews and we all know certain movie reviewers that we may read but never agree with. And yet it helps us form an opinion. Of both the review and the reviewer.

    If you are concerned about what I, the reader, think, then ask. Or electronically track who reads and how often. Or simply assume the reader is sophisticated enough to understand that what you like and or think is what YOU like and or what YOU think.

    Manwhile I still get to think what I think. And if. what you really want to know is do I agree with your assessment, consider adding a section where the reader can offer their opinion after having read your blog and tasted the beer in question. Which I guess you already do in a way but may be you need to be more direct?

    For me the value of the review is not only the reviewers opinion but exposure to new brews that I may not be aware of. Some of which I may want to avoid or try, which in either case you have added to the decision I am going to make. Consider that success!

    So I say tell us what you think, be true to your own standards and when given feedback accept it for what it is. If you want feedback, ask for it and if it is not forthcoming determine what that means. Based on what you’d like it to mean, after all it is your blog and we are just interloppers here. And always remember we can ‘vote’ by not coming back just as we can ‘vote’ by returning time and again.

    Even if it is because we hate your reviews and like to yell at you while reading them…

  2. John Cusumano

    I think that as a reviewer, all you can do is be as honest as possible in sharing your experience with a particular beer. You shouldn’t have to quantify a review of a “bad” beer with “but I normally don’t like this style”, or “maybe it was what I ate beforehand”, just to soften the blow. The fact of the matter is that in the moment of tasting a disagreeable brew, you didn’t enjoy it. The criteria you should be held to as a critic is that you share your experience as articulately and truthfully as possible. To elucidate a bit further, in being a reviewer (or critic, or beer snob or whatever title you care to give yourself) you are assigning to yourself a certain level of expertise on the subject; and so the reader has to trust that any outside influences on your beer-tasting experience will have been accounted for in your final review. If these outside influences are strong enough to make you second guess your own palette, disclose them. Don’t apologize for not liking something, though.

    As a reader we have to accept that no review is objective; if reviews were objective, what would be the point? Criticism in its most abstract form is based upon subjectivity; and as such, when reading a critique, I expect an honest albeit subjective review. In fact I’ve read negative reviews of beers (and albums, and TV shows, and movies), and been more impelled to give them a shot than if I had simply been told “this is amazing!”. Biting reviews are useful; to the critic, to the auteur, and to the audience.

    You mention in your post not wanting to offend the brewer, especially if you know him/her. There’s a pretty clear line between maliciousness and honesty, so I think that any seasoned pro or semi-pro knows how to accept a bad review without taking it personally. I’ve had friends and even girlfriends tell me that they straight up don’t like one of my songs. I’m still friends with [most of] them.

    At the end of the day thoughtfulness and eloquence will shine through whether you’re proclaiming your love or explaining your distaste for a product. Keep it classy and you’ll be golden. Just my two cents.

    Hope this helps!

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