Philosophical Question: Can a Beer Be Perfect?

Over the weekend, I was invited, along with most of the members of the Associated Brotherhood of Portland Beer Bloggers local 503 to judge a double IPA smackdown at Blitz Ladd. Angelo has a picture of the judging panel here. (Deschutes' Hop Trip Henge took the gold; Stone Ruination rode shotgun.) Afterward, I was chatting with Bill Schneller, an avid and award-winning homebrewer--you can see him in Angelo's picture there on the left side, inhaling that sweet, sweet hop aroma. Somehow we got off onto the topic of judging homebrew, and Bill declared, boldly, that there's no such thing as a 50-point beer. A 49--theoretically possible. But no such beer exists that could not be improved upon.

This is a statement of philosophy, of course, not fact. But it goes a long way toward explaining certain differences in the way beer geeks approach beer. If you don't believe in a perfect beer, then each sniff and sip is forensic; you're looking for the imperfection. Imperfections may be objective or purely a matter of taste. (Worse, they may be imperfections only of style, which is to say, a failure to adhere to a completely artificial framework. But Bill, who is not a style Nazi, wasn't making this argument.)

I adhere to a different philosophy. I believe perfect beers exist. In our discussion, I immediately named my go-to perfect beer, Orval. If I were to sit down and make a list, I could come up with perhaps a score or two dozen. Stan once collated Michael Jackson's ratings and found that in every Pocket Guide he published, he awarded the highest score to 19 beers. That's not a bad standard.

If Bill tastes beer forensically, I taste it meditatively. I try to see what the brewer was doing. Sometimes, the quality I find offensive is intentional--recall a couple months ago when Van Havig released an IPA he described as "kind of metallic and harsh." He added, "I love that." Rather than conforming to standards, I view beer as having very few fixed points. It's almost all up for grabs. (Exceptions, obviously, exist: off-flavors, infections, indecent top-heaviness, etc.) A beer must be perfect on its own terms--the realization of the brewer's highest goals.

In Christianity, there's the concept of original sin. We are all sinners before the lord. In brewing, this would be Bill's view: we are all flawed and it is the judge's role to find the sins. But in Buddhism, there's the concept of Buddha nature. Strip away the veils of confusion and we are all enlightened. This is my view--perfection is achieved when the beer has realized its true nature. (That I am actually a Buddhist is merely coincidental.) Perhaps a more obvious explanation exists: Bill's a homebrewer and I'm a writer. Homebrewers look for flaws, writers search, like children on an Easter egg hunt, for treasures.

(I suppose I should mention the obvious: perfection isn't an absolute standard. No one is going to agree that all of those 19 beers deserve a five-star rating, never mind being perfect. Rather, the ideal of perfection must be an individual one. Thus it has ever been with art. There doesn't have to be agreement in order for there to be perfection.)

So, two approaches, one product. Which do you employ?