On Platonic Ideals
Several years ago, I was sitting in on Widmer's tasting panel. The exercise for the day was "go/no go," where members of the panel reviewed packaged beer before sending it out. The beers were graded on a five point scale, with one and two being problematic, three and four being adequate and good. Five? Five existed as an ideal state, a beer of perfect harmonic perfection. No beer was ever given a five; it existed as a way of reminding the brewery that they always had room to improve.
Platonic ideals--theoretical states of perfection unattainable in the mortal world--are useful because they establish a North Star. In the real world, no beer ever receives a five but, presumably, if one were to visit this earth, everyone at Widmer would recognize it. In terms of aesthetics, we all want to believe in Platonic ideals because such a status would exist beyond subjectivity. The problem arises when we hold substantially different opinions about what would mark such an ideal. If we're not actually talking about the same entity, of course we're not going to agree on its ideal state. Which brings me to the two items on today's agenda: blogs and fresh-hopped German beer.
Fresh-Hopped German Beer
Over the weekend, I had the great pleasure to judge fresh hop beers for the Oregon Beer Awards. As regular judging is scheduled for January, they obviously had to have a separate session for beers that blossom months ahead of time. Judging fresh hop beers presents a bit of a challenge. The OBA was of course looking for fresh hop character, which our judging material described "as green, chlorophyll-like, grassy or resinous." But we also had to evaluate the beer style in question. There were the usual IPAs and pales, but also sour ales, lagers, black IPAs, hefeweizens, and so on. How those two dimensions intersected posed a conflict on the nature of at least one Platonic ideal.
To protect the integrity of the contest and the anonymity of the judging, I will use very broad language here. In the finals round, one of the beers was a typical German style of beer. It bore the hallmarks of that tradition: low-intensity, harmonious flavors, balance, and delicate hopping. The brewery had used an American hop variety, but one bred to evoke the lightly herbal noble varieties. It was very clearly a fresh-hop beer, but the flavor impact was low; those fresh hops didn't blare but rather provided an accent. To my palate, they gave the whole beer a kind of three-dimensional luminosity. Everything was restrained, but to me the flavor seemed to glow. Had the beer come up in a German competition, I think it would have been received with shouts of joy.
The other judges, however, felt the fresh-hop quality was too slight. The character just didn't sing the way it did in the beers that ultimately medaled. And they were right! The problem was, we had come to one of those moments of differing Platonic ideals. To the other judges, fresh hop beers had to have assertive, vivid character. To me, each style has an ideal within the context of fresh hopping. Had the brewery infused their German beer with more fresh hop zing, it would no longer have been a good example of the style. Ultimately, we were unable to reconcile our differing visions. I do agree that it is far, far harder to make a decent fresh hop beer when you're shooting for delicacy, but man, when it works, it really works.
During GABF next week, the North American Guild of Beer Writers will announce the winners of their annual writing awards. For the first time, I entered this blog. Last year was the first year I entered the contest at all; in fact, I judged the first two years. Owing to book-writing and other projects, in 2016 I didn't feel like Beervana had had such a good year, so I skipped it. (I did enter other categories and was very honored by the the results.) In any case, I did enter this year, and something has been sticking in my craw ever since.
For the contest, you send three of your best posts. That's it. Judges look at those posts and those posts only, compare them, and determine the best. Were you to want to game the system, you could write only three posts a year, make sure they were titanic achievements, and you would probably have a pretty good shot. This is not to say the NAGBW is doing it wrong; I'm not sure how they should judge blogs, which may have hundreds of posts a year. But whether I win or lose this year, I'm going to suggest some changes. A good blog is a weird and unique thing, and something I care far too much about. (I still often refer to myself as a "blogger" rather than writer or author.) It's not just good writing. The form is specific and critical to the nature of a blog.
Here are the critical elements to a good blog (and its Platonic ideal), as determined by me:
- A strong voice. Blogs were originally a DIY alternative to bland, voice-of-god mass media. Have you ever noticed how people often say things like, "The New York Times said in a piece today..." It's because writers subsume their personalities to the media organ. Blogs are the opposite. Bloggers get to indulge their voices, writing in such a way that regular readers instantly recognize them. That's why no one ever refers to a blog as the source--they refer to the blogger. "Martyn Cornell had an interesting post yesterday..."
- Idiosyncratic content. Blogs don't have a mass audience, can't have a mass audience, and that frees them to write about whatever floats their boat. Stan Hieronymus keeps us up on hops, The Beer Nut continues his quest to review every beer on the planet, Lars Garshol's engrossing blog has documented Scandinavian farmhouse brewing, and Bryan Roth does his Nate-Silver-of-beer thing. Many bloggers have weird side-issues they regularly write about--often topics no one cares about. They are charming because they're personal and nobody cares about them.
- Regularity. This is a big one. If you have a website on which you post a periodic thought or article, you are not a blogger. You may be a writer; you may have a cool website. But you're not blogging. I know Alan hates etymologies (idiosyncratic!), but blogging comes from "weblog." Note the "log." Blogs should be regularly-updated, ongoing discussions about a topic at hand. Keeping up the chatter is a baseline requirement of a blog; regularity is its nature.
- Interactivity. This is the least among the criteria, but worth considering. Blogs are at their best when they're nodes in a web of conversation. They predate social media, of which they formed a rudimentary early version. Now, even though most commenting has moved to social media, they still perform the valuable function of collecting and advancing the discussion of various topics. They're a bit hive-mindy that way, different from standard reportage, which does not require the feedback of readers or other writers to exist.
There was a moment about five years ago when I thought blogs were no longer necessary. Social media seemed to have displaced the need for them. But time has proven the opposite. Good blogs, with the elements I've described above, are really important in a world in which everyone (including bots and Russian sock puppet accounts) has an opinion. Blogs offer consistent voices and help focus thought and conversation. Social media is like chatting; it vanishes the moment after it appears, smoke in the wind. Blogs create a more historical account, one that allows ideas and conversation to evolve. They are deeper and more thoughtful. Because they require a lot of effort, there really aren't many of them, and that is good amid the cacophony of social media.