YYSuds: Beer criticism 101

“Everyone’s a critic.”

That’s the sort of thing you say when your ingrate friends don’t like the dinner you cooked for them or your pals don’t laugh at your joke.

Nowadays, that resigned lament usually reserved for your asshole buddies is quite literally true. Thanks to the Internet, there are sites where people rate every product or service imaginable: doctorshotels, clothing, restaurant meals … and beer.

On balance, people power is a good thing: consumers can base their buying decisions on the experiences of others — sometimes hundreds or thousands of others. All that said, it’s not a perfect system: reviews too high or too low are almost always seem suspect. Was the five-star review planted by a friend of the proprietor? And was that scathing 0/5 written by a competitor or someone with a grudge? And then, of course, there are the people who just don’t know what they’re talking about.

Like the expression says, “Opinions are like assholes: everybody has one.” And the quality of those opinions varies widely. Inevitably, this has created tension between amateur reviewers and the subjects of these online critiques — and it has occasionally flared up in the beer world, like that time a Calgary brewery “fired” a vocal critic. More recently, a darling of the craft beer world, Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergso, fired off a series of tweets trolling a particularly incoherent critic who couldn’t spell “diacetyl” — an unwanted, buttery-flavoured compound that results from brewing flaws. (There’s a reason that Jeppe, whose doppelganger, Mikkel Borg Bjergso, is behind Mikkeller beers, is the Evil Twin of the two.) 

What’s intrigued me most about these spats is how so many people come to the defence of the online critics. Maybe it’s the bias of someone who has written under a byline for more than 20 years, but I believe that if you say something in public (and do we really need to remind people the Internet is public?) then you should be prepared to back it up. Don’t get me wrong, constantly picking fights with online reviewers is not a winning PR strategy for any company, but if someone posts a negative review that clearly demonstrates they don’t know what they’re talking about, I fully understand why a brewer would lose his or her shit.

If you’d like to own what you write without getting owned — or “pwned,” as the kids would say — by an angry brewer or beer geek, here are some tips:

Learn about beer

Look, beer is supposed to be fun, right? No one’s saying you have to go out and learn to be a Cicerone, but a little reading could not only give your critiques a little more cred, it could also lead to more research (read: drinking beer). There are countless lively and informative beer blogs out there, while beer-focused sites like BeerAdvocate have style guidesglossaries and information about common off-flavours in beer. If you want to take a deeper dive, there are books like Ultimate Beer by the late Michael Jackson (the British beer writer, not the creepy Michael Jackson) and the Oxford Companion to Beer, written by Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garrett Oliver.

Learn the difference between “I don’t like” and “this sucks”

When I talk to brewers about online ratings, nothing drives them crazier than people who trash one of their beers because they’re not a fan of the style. “I drank this IPA. I hate IPAs. 0/5.” If you don’t like IPAs but are open-minded enough to keep trying them … good for you. But maybe resist the urge to post an unhelpful — and unfair — account of your latest failed attempt to appreciate the style. Taste is indeed subjective, but there are style guidelines for beer. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen people shit upon a beer that is, objectively speaking, a good example of its style just because they don’t like the style. That’s not fair to the brewer and it’s not particularly enlightening to anyone looking for guidance from online reviews.

Show, don’t tell

Never mind rating beer, this rule applies to writing of any kind. “John was mad,” doesn’t really say much, does it? “John’s eyes bugged out, a vein in his temple bulged and he got red in the face as he screamed at the douchebag in the Dodge Ram who cut him off,” while not my best work, certainly paints more of a picture. Similarly, saying a beer is “hoppy” or “malty” means sweet FA. Beer, by definition, contains hops and malt. They’re ALL “hoppy” and “malty” in some way. Think: what do the hops taste like? Are they citric? Earthy? Spicy? Can you get more specific? If you settle on citric, what does the flavour remind you of: grapefruit, orange, lemon? The ingredients in beer, and the processes that go into making it, produce flavours and aromas reminiscent of all kinds of familiar things around us. Go beyond vague, lazy descriptors and try to find tangible examples that will help people imagine what a beer tastes like without trying it themselves. Zach Wiskar, a friend and a fellow contributor over at The Daily Beer, wrote a good piece about this a few weeks ago.

Don’t be a dick

Like “show don’t tell,” this is generally a good rule to live by. The distance afforded by a keyboard and anonymity (which, for reasons stated above, I don’t agree with) can make it easy to toss off an arch comment or a lengthy screed without much thought about the impact of your words. But would you be prepared to deliver your epic burn to a brewer’s face? Make that a litmus test for what you write. Particularly when we’re talking about local craft brewers, these are people who have probably put a lot of their own money and effort into the venture. As I said in a recent blog post on the subject, it doesn’t exempt them from criticism, but it’s a reminder they deserve respect and constructive criticism as opposed to casual smartassery.

All I am saying, is give beer a (second) chance

If a beer still sucks after you’ve considered all the previous factors, chances are it sucks. But bear in mind there are variables beyond the brewer’s control. Hoppy beers like IPAs become duller over time — is there a date code on that bland IPA you sampled? Maybe it’s past its best-before date. Dirty draft lines in a bar can make even the best beer taste like it was poured from an ashtray. Was it skunky? Maybe that’s because the vendor stored it somewhere it was exposed to too much light. If I’m horrified by a beer, I may buy it again, from a different location, to determine if the fault lies with the beer or how it’s being treated.

Spelling counts (sorry not sorry)

Here’s where I’m going to hike my pants up to my ribcage and yell at kids to get off my lawn like an old man: if you can’t spell, I will judge you and take your opinion less seriously. To me, it’s a sad commentary that pointing out someone’s poor spelling is viewed as a petty complaint. If you can’t take the requisite care to distinguish between there/their/they’re and your/you’re, I’m not convinced you’re (as opposed to “your”) going to pay proper attention to rating your (not “you’re”) beer.

Jason van Rassel has been writing about craft beer since 2006, when he started a beer blog at the Calgary Herald, where he covered crime and justice for 15 years. Jason left newspapers in 2016, but he continues to chronicle Alberta’s craft beer scene as a contributor to theYYScene, The Daily Beer and Drink With Me. He is a member of the North American Guild of Beer Writers. You can find Jason on Twitter and Untappd.