Friday, April 17, 2009

Beer Information Theory

What's the best way to describe a beer to other beer lovers? In the recent Beer Review Generator post, I expressed my skepticism about beer reviews in the current style of "appearance - nose - palate - mouthfeel - finish". Although they are endlessly fun to read, I claim that such reviews convey little information to a reader about whether he or she would like the beer. In the comments to that post, I proposed an experiment to try and prove or disprove my point. I presented two positive reviews of well-known beers -- edited for clarity and brevity, as the officious editors at the Oregonian like to say -- and asked which beers or even which styles were being described. The answers are hidden behind the button below, so if you want to play my guessing game, there's still time to click on over to the reviews.

The reviews are from two prolific reviewers on Beer Advocate, one of whom is one of the BA-founding Alström Brothers. I tried to play fair by picking reviews from knowledgeable sources, who liked the beer they were writing about. I picked the first review thinking that a reasonably sophisticated beer snob could easily call the style; the second review seems more challenging but not impossible. Only two brave readers -- Anónimo and Brett -- published their guesses on the earlier post, and they did pretty well. Ready for the answers?

Since only two people took part, I don't have much evidence whether my skepticism is justified or not. Are wine-talk beer reviews the best way to communicate how good or bad a beer is, and whether a reader will like it or not? How did you do on the quiz?


  1. Bill, Bill, Bill.... How did I miss this!?

    Some of these BA reviewers are about as reliable as having a Crack Head hold the keys to your car, while you run into the grocery store. (Whatever that means!)

    OK... I've seen the answers already, but lets see if the descriptions match the beer. Chimay has some pretty obvious flavor profiles. Reviewing Chimay Red is like an Red Neck describing a BUD. It should be fairly easy! It's a very familiar beer to beer geeks.

    1. Cloudy reddish-brown with an orange cast. The light tan head eventually subsides to a very creamy 1/8" head that leaves some nice lace. The aroma is lightly fruity (dark fruits - raisin, plum, fig... and maybe some lighter fruits as well), lightly phenolic (even some minor bubblegum), gently citrusy, somewhat woody, somewhat sweet, softly spicy (clove) and subtly leathery. The body is light/medium. The flavor is somewhat rich with a fruity, bready malt flavor, some yeastiness, and some light grassy hops that round and balance.

    DW: My first thought was Belgian Dubbel when I read the review, but Bubble Gum is a big HINT! Chimay yeast tends to ferment out with a Bubble Gum aroma. The fact that the aroma and flavor profile is primarily fruity told me it had to be a Belgian beer. I would have guessed a Chimay Grand Reserve because the evaluator talks up dark fruits.

    You have to understand flavor profiles of different beers and understand your beer ingredients. If I didn't know that Chimay yeasts gives off Bubble Gum aromas, I would never have know this was a Chimay. I don't agree with all of his flavor profiles... ;-}

    So.... Is this a review for the layman beer drinker? No! To much for them to mentally compute. A review for non-palate, untrained taste buds would be... Chimay is real fruity tasting and goes down easy.

    2. Caramel copper in colour with a thin but fluffy bubbly lace that leaves several rings on the glass. Nose is of caramelized sugars with a hint of toasted nearly metallic malt. Some fruity esters give of a whiff of alcohol. Rich and sweet caramel maltiness with a big flavourful malty palate, finishing off with a steely crystal malt flavour (vague hint of carob) and a semi sharp hop bitterness.

    Fullers ESB is British Beer 101 easy when it comes to Classic beer styles and an example of what the world uses as a cornerstone of an ESB.

    This reviewer isn't following the correct International evaluation protocol. Appearance, Aroma, Flavor, Body, Finish and overall. I can tell you he's a instant poser! His descriptions are incomplete, you can tell he can't describe what he's tasting... He can't use correct descriptors... Steely Caramel? Uh, no! Husky, grainy or Caramel profiles from the grain.. Steely comes from hops. Esters don't give off alcohol aroma, they give off Fruity aromas (What fruit?) .... Two separate things! "Big flavorful malt" That doesn't describe anything! What are the flavors? "Semi-Sharp Hops" Again, what does that mean!? Might as well say, it's semi-alcoholic beer! This is a BS poor review of Fullers ESB.

    I'll post a basic beer flavor profile quiz to all who want to take it...

    Hey! That was kind of fun!

  2. Doc: But these reviewers were the cream of the crop on BA. The one you called "a instant poser" is Jason Alstrom, one of the BA founders!

    I might have misled you by truncating the reviews to keep the comment shorter -- a concept that is apparently alien to you ;-). Full reviews: #1; #2.

  3. Bill, you've put me in a philosphical dark hole with your pursuit of this question. You're right that it's impossible to tell what those beers are. I'm spooked now. What the hell am I supposed to do?

  4. Ha, ha, ha.... I call em as I see em! No one ever said, you had to be a great beer evaluator to have successful web site... :-O I can name 100's of beer blogs were the authors couldn't describe a tuna sandwich!

    I know you're just pulling my chain, but I do have some strong thoughts on this subject.

    To me, it gets down to this....and this is directed at all readers, not just Bill. If you want to walk, the walk... You need to talk, the talk. If you want watered down descriptions of beer, there are plenty out there. If you want to talk intelligently about beer flavor profiles and evaluation, you need to learn, study and practice. That's about it.

    Sometimes it's about the audience readers. Gateway beer drinkers vs. advanced beer geeks. If you are a beer geek, you should be about able to follow a thorough beer description and understand the evaluators descriptions. Don't get me wrong... I know plenty of quality beer drinkers who are poor evaluators, but they can at least describe what a specific beer style should taste like and identify those beers.

    Even though I found Jason's ESB description rather....Uh... pedestrian... That doesn't mean he doesn't appreciate, nor understand a proper beer description or beer style. Maybe, he's trying to appease a less beer knowledgeable crowd? It's more complicated than black and white.

    It's not about mocking a thorough review because someone can't follow it. If you want to describe beers to appease those Beer Geeks and Afficianodos, you need to talk their language. If you want to appease the lesser educated beer drinkers, that's a choice. It's not a right or wrong way...

    If someones beer appreciation and taste buds are not sophisticated enough to read or understand a well written beer evaluation.... Don't read them. There are plenty of Beer Bloggers who should appease. ;-}

    Personally, I'm not going to dumb it down for those who can't follow my beer evaluations. I have an audience that fully appreciates and understands my beer descriptions. If someone can't comprehend my descriptions, Jeff (Beervana), caters to less experienced palates. By choice! I choose not to cater that audience. Of course, the Doctor does like to interject on his blog too... ;-}

    So, the ball is in the your park, Bill.... Which ball park do you want to play in? Minor or major league? Are we Mocking what we don't understand? If so, that just isn't going to cut it... ;-}

  5. Jeff,

    Stop scaring me! I'm sure you know that Chimay's yeast has a Bubble Gum aroma profile! You're a brewer.

    The ESB description was so vague, Jason could have been describing his Grandmothers' Jello Mold... ;-}

  6. Dr. Verbose: I'm curious if you ever find the time to actually enjoy a beer...seems like you are too busy thinking of your next grand descriptor to relax and say, "Ahhh...that's what I've been waiting for all day." While I enjoy discussing the complexities of a drink while sharing it with friends, right down to the hints of cheeseburger and freshly turned sod*, writing paragraphs about it seems more masturbatory than helpful and informative. Judging from the prolixity of your comments your ego must be insatiable.

    Jeff: Don't be spooked; relax and enjoy your beer...all 16 ounces of it! Glad to see your crusade is finally getting some official attention.

    *That description came out of a Scotch tasting night...sad but true: Port Charlotte 5.

  7. Jeff, I didn't mean to rattle you.

    I know I'm throwing bombs here. But I am serious about the question: how can we best communicate about beer? The first idea that comes to my mind is: analogy. "This new/rare/regional beer is similar to international standard beer X".

    Pick through Dr. Wort's diatribes, and I think he has a reasonable idea also: learn the classic styles, and you'll be able to talk intelligibly about beer. OK, but he still insists that this style information be encoded into "descriptors" by the reviewer, which the reader has to decode. Why?

    Let's talk Beer Information Theory. Is there yet another way to pass beer info among the beer-loving bees in our hive?

  8. You guys crack me up!

    Dave... You really just drink to get drunk and fart, right? You are obviously incapable of learning from others or seeing things from another point of view. What a shame.. ;-}

    Bill: Good to see you can read through crap and find an answer.

    You're on the right tract!

    There is nothing to encode, you can read the basic style descriptors on the AHA Style Guide which can be found on the BJCP web site. That would be the basics... Maybe someone can read it to Dave! :-O

  9. Dr Wort, did you mean "you're on the right track?". You sound like a very bored and lonely person, I'm sorry. You obviously have no idea who you're chatting with. I think what these guys are getting at, is that you don't need a manual or a style guide to enjoy something - anything. Loosen up a bit, you might be a happier person. Go out and get laid or something, maybe you have a good website to reference during those encounters too... ;)

  10. Any further comments on this post that aren't about describing beer or kissing my butt will be deleted. Some retroactive deletion is forthcoming -- no offense to anyone.

  11. Kiss your butt?? Well... Jill said I need to get laid... That might be a start.... ;-}

  12. I just got linked to the previous post today where the question was asked in the comments. I definitely got the first one; I was thinking an Abbey Dubbel most likely or perhaps another Belgian dark ale. So my guess was Chimay Red because it's among the most common that fit the description given.

    The second one, I've never had Doggie Claws, but I don't think a barley wine is an unreasonable guess, and a malty barley wine was my guess. The review gives no indication of the strengths of the flavors other than calling the malts "big," and the alcohol aroma and small head make barley wine as good a guess as an ESB or an amber ale. Perhaps the lacing would draw me away from guessing barley wine, but when I think ESB I don't think "big" flavors or alcohol aroma. Point being that, yeah, that one wasn't a particularly helpful review as given.

    That said, in the context of beer reviews, they're always going to be given on a page with the beer and style listed along with ratings. A review doesn't need to tell you what style the beer is; that's already listed right there on the page. So I'm not really sure what your test is trying to say, since beer reviews don't need to be tracked back to a particular style or beer. A description is a lot more when placed in context with a rating on the beer's review page.