Reviewing Beer: Describing

Describing food and beverages is brutal business. It makes the tasting and assessing look like child's play by comparison. Every beer drinker knows why this is. Try to describe a beer to a friend. The conversation goes something like this:

"Tried the new Hopworks strong ale?"

"No, what's it taste like?"

"It's pretty hoppy, citrusy. It's boozy. It's good."

If the friend trusts your palate, he may try the beer, but he certainly has no idea what to expect. Language often fails us when we're trying to communicate the experience of certain flavors and tastes. We have to come at it sideways, by simile, or are reduced to using bland, general terms. Everyone who has written more than a few reviews has written bad ones. Sometimes we just can't find the words. But those of us who have read Michael Jackson know it can be done. I'm not sure how other reviewers do it, but when I pull off a good review, this is how I do it.

It's easy to fall back onto vague adjectives. Here's what I wrote about MacTarnahan's Grifter: "It has that characteristic MacTarnahan's clarity, the light fruitiness, and the gentle, unassuming hopping." This could describe half the beers on the market right now. Not so hot. Now, here's Double Mountain Kolsch: "They have overhopped it for style, but selected hops that draw out a lemongrass note, complementing the tartness." In the Grifter review, my adjectives are too general, and don't communicate anything that would help the reader imagine the experience. The Kolsch sentence is better--adjectives like "lemongrass" and "tartness" tell a fuller story.

It is a fascinating quirk of the English language that most of the adjectives we use to describe flavors and aromas are other flavors and aromas. We say a beer is "nutty" or "piney." Well, how else can you describe something that smell of pine? Although I don't often hit the mark, it is possible to do better. Rather than just say "nutty" and leave it at that, why not get a little closer with "roast almonds," say, or "hazelnuts." Wine reviews have given a bad name to this kind of specificity. So often useless and pretentious (I saw a pinot gris described as "linen"), they are mock-ready. But, going back to the tasting section, if I had the presence of mind to investigate the "nutty" malt, perhaps I saw something that would take it out of the bland and uninformative and give it a more vibrant clarity.

In India, there's a theory of art known as rasa, which is the mood of a piece. Music is grouped by rasa--romantic, melancholy, joyful, etc. Many beer reviewers don't like to evoke a sense of the feeling of drinking a beer--perhaps they feel this is an ornamentation that intrudes rather than clarifies--but I think it's useful. Beer, like haiku, is associated with season; this is one dimension. In the toolkit of the reviewer, we find only words. The more evocative ones, that help point to the experience of drinking a beer, I find most useful. I was pretty happy with my description of Duvel, a beer that inspires me:
The instructions on the bottle say "pour unhurredly," but unless you've got a large glass, you can't pour slowly enough to stop the massive head from rushing to the rim. You pour in increments, steadily building the pure white froth up like a vanilla cone. The beer is pilsner pale (made in fact with pilsner malt) and roils with bubbles. Still, it's not at all viscous, evidence of ample added sugar that gives the Devil its juice.
Avoid Beerspeak Wherever Possible
Perhaps most controversially, I hate the language of the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) which has come to dominate beer reviews. It goes like this:
Flavor: Moderate to high hop flavor from American hop varieties, which often but not always has a citrusy quality. Malt flavors are moderate to strong, and usually show an initial malty sweetness followed by a moderate caramel flavor (and sometimes other character malts in lesser amounts). Malt and hop bitterness are usually balanced and mutually supportive. Fruity esters can be moderate to none. Caramel sweetness and hop flavor/bitterness can linger somewhat into the medium to full finish. No diacetyl.
These technical outlines may be useful in trying to determine whether a beer has been brewed to a style or not, but they violate the two earlier rules. Brewers like them because they map to methods and ingredients familiar to him. But I don't write beer reviews for brewers. For a non brewer, this language is useless. It may tell what's in a beer and how it's brewed, but not what makes it distinct from other examples or whether it's any good or not. I don't like to read reviews written in beerspeak, and I try to avoid them.


So there you have it. If I manage to write a successful review, what appears on the page will have been the result of a careful tasting, reflective assessment, and evocative, specific descriptions. I hope readers walk away with a good sense the beer's context, style, and brewing process as well as my experience of drinking the beer--and clues to how their own experience may differ. I probably succeed half the time or less. (You be the judge.) Beer writers are a minor player in the ecosystem of brewing, but I like to think we can be useful. The world of beer unfolded for me by virtue of reading Jackson as I started drinking micros. Without his research and descriptions, I would have spent a lot longer wandering the wilderness. So, with luck, we bloggers and beer writers do contribute something.

Thanks to blogs and the ratings sites, many of you also review lots of beers. Feel free to throw in your two cents in comments.