Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Broaching Beer Bias

Today, I'm pondering how bias plays a role in beer reviews.

Hmmmm...
("What Ales You?" Image Courtesy of http://goo.gl/t6ixA)
What makes a good beer? Is it taste alone? What about the color or appearance? Maybe it's the smell or mouthfeel. Of course, these are all attributes that are typically considered in an attempt to objectively assess whether or not a beer is "good". But I submit that for every beer review, there are some behind-the-scenes factors that readers are not privy to and of which the reviewer may not even be aware.

Artwork on package or label

"First impressions last, but don't judge a book by its cover."(1) Yet we do, consciously or not. Attractive packaging artwork catches our eye as we're browsing through the rows of six-packs. The colorful design on the bottle label practically yells "Look at me! I'm interesting. Drink me!" Even those that claim to overlook such marketing ploys would probably at least admit when the artwork is appealing, which has to play into the end result on some level. Otherwise, the craft beer industry wouldn't bend over backwards to create intriguing, eye-catching artwork for their packaging and labels. AmericanCraftBeer.com thinks so too: "A great label becomes part of the beer somehow. It's a doorway to the drink - both a reflection of and an invitation to the brewer's art...Very few [labels] are neutral."

Favorite Brewery

Okay, so I like Tröegs. So what? I'll tell you so what. It is more difficult for me to criticize a beer brewed by Tröegs than any other brewery out there. Brand loyalty plays a big part here. I would like to say that all beers from Tröegs' brewery are the best you'll ever have. But that's simply not true. They have made a few brews that are not my favorite, so when I'm being completely honest, I'll tell you that I think Dead Reckoning Porter's 53 IBUs make it too bitter for the style. Speaking of bitter, Perpetual IPA is over the top in that category and is just too far out there for my liking (though it's a bit more acceptable for the style). But when I'm trying a new Tröegs brew--one from their Scratch Series for example--I have high expectations before I even take the first sip. I fully expect to like it before I try it! I'd say that's a bit biased.

Circumstances or Environment at Time of Review

How about the time or place or circumstances surrounding the event (yes, event) of enjoying a brewski? Yeah, they certainly play a role. Following is a list of a few I thought of. I'll let you decide how they might affect the outcome of the beer review.

  • At a party with friends
  • After a bad day at work
  • At a beer-tasting event
  • After being given a free beer
  • At the brewery
  • At home by oneself
  • At a restaurant with delicious food
  • At a restaurant with crappy service
  • After receiving bad news
  • Watching a Presidential debate

The Desire to "Fit In"

What about the beers with a lot of hype? Consider Russian River's Pliny the Younger (or Elder), The Alchemist's Heady Topper, 3 Floyds' Zombie Dust, or maybe even Tröegs' Nugget Nectar. (Refer to Beer Advocate's Top 100 most popular beers.) Each of these is purportedly among the best beer on the market. We talk 'em up; the suppliers mark 'em up. We go out of our way to get the good stuff. We pay more for a pint than we are willing to admit in mixed company, helping to shoot more holes in economists' theories about rational consumerism. And for what? A sublime swig of suds? Meh. I'm sure it's good beer, but I bet it's not all that and a bag of Chips Ahoy. Yet we perpetuate the hype by bragging to our friends and posting comments to our beer circle on Google+. Why? Because "everyone else is doing it". (Watch out for the edge of the cliff, my friends. It's dangerously close.)

Conclusion

Even the most conscientious beer reviewer will be influenced by one or more of the above factors, if not something else I've missed entirely. So as a reader of such reviews, you have been warned. Don't believe everything you read. When you're reading a review, take it with a grain of salt. Just as writers/speakers are admonished to know their audience, readers should know their writers. If you're not a regular reader of the beer blog upon which you've stumbled (perhaps this one!), get to know the author. Determine what predilections may prevent pure opining. Read more than one review of the same brew and take an average, as it were. And then form your own opinion. After all, in the words of LeVar Burton, "You don't have to take my word for it."(2)


Footnotes
(1) I had an idea about what I wanted to say here but couldn't quite phrase it right. After Googling for more ideas, I ran across this unique cliche mash-up and simply had to use it. Source: http://www.designweek.co.uk/industry-voice/what-does-your-first-impression-say-about-you?/3034985.article.
(2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reading_Rainbow