The rise of online reviews raises the question of craft beer quality
By Jim Witmer
Photo: Today, drinkers can try a beer and rate it in the same gulp
It seems like only yesterday that I sought out any bar serving some of the highest regarded beers on tap, namely Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Sam Adams Boston Lager, Anchor Steam, and maybe, if I was lucky, Great Lakes. I endured heavy secondary cigarette smoke at times, just to enjoy that pint of rare craft. That was the 1980s, if I remember correctly. Then, slowly crept in Stone, Victory, Dogfish Head, and before you knew it, the internet arrived and good craft beer was everywhere I looked, even on my laptop.
I then found myself sitting at the computer rating beers on sites and being quite serious about it, taking time to give an honest, unbiased critique but admittedly conflicted about having favorites.
But new brews were on the horizon and just being distributed in Ohio. In Dayton, it meant if one store could have it, Belmont Party Supply would get it. Of course, I was not the only one looking for greatness in beer, there was a momentum building in this country. I sensed a serious trend, although wine was still considered the most respectable beverage. In most people’s opinion, beer was still the working class swill and the fuel of bar room brawls, although there were some cute boutique-y beers out there if you wanted to be fancy.
Many decried that beer was being ruined by adulterated flavors and higher prices. They predicted the downfall of beer. I didn’t believe it. I thought this juggernaut was exciting and that wine had become old and boring.
The beers that were once my go-tos had become a gateway to others that were rarer, hoppier, higher A.B.V., with special ingredients, barrel-aged, and so on. In due time, I had abandoned the ones that brought me to the dance. I became promiscuous with any style that had the rarity factor—and was willing to pay the price, within reason. My collection grew in the cellar, and it had to be a very special occasion to open a barley wine. I kept a notebook full of tasting notes and printouts of descriptions. Books were being published that rated and ranked beers, usually it was just one or two credible guys doing it. One-a-day calendars gave me descriptions of beers I’d never heard of, but certainly wanted to seek.
And then, the Blackberry arrived. Then, the iPhone.
Having internet information about almost anything at your fingertips in a handheld device has been a milestone in technology. It has also changed the landscape of beer. When perusing the rows and rows of beer, one can quickly research the rating of any given beer and make a purchase decision based on that number or a description written by an anonymous critic. That anonymous critic might have no prior experience in brewing, of ingredients, of beer styles, or the time of his curfew. On the other hand, some reviews are spot on, and their knowledge shows. However, the ratings carry a lot of weight. Retailers will often check the ratings to gauge whether a product will sell before buying from a distributor because he/she knows that is exactly what their customers are doing as they make their decisions to buy.
Whether or not to base your purchase decisions upon a particular rating on a site such as BeerAdvocate or Rate Beer can be debated. Obviously, they are not blind tests, not scientific, and biased upon multiple factors, availability being a major component. If a certain beer is widely distributed, they will lose points just because they are not rare enough to be a novelty. If Good Morning from Tree House Brewing (with absolutely no change in the recipe) was as common as Dogfish Head 60 Minute and sold at Kroger for $9.99, it would no longer rate at Beer Advocate’s No. 1—and I am willing to bet my 1994 Thomas Hardy’s Ale on it.
Does rarity equal greatness? The principles of supply and demand are understandable. But just because a beer is nearly impossible to find, does that actually make it more palatable when a person sits down to rate it on Beer Advocate? I’m guessing that there is inherent bias.
If there is no lottery to win for tickets to buy a case, no line to stand in, no story to tell of the hardships to obtain such a hoppy wonder, the beer has lost its “cool” factor.
I have seen many a beer drop considerably in its world ranking just because it became more readily available. Seems the brewery thought they had a deep market to penetrate because their beer was so highly rated only to see it lose momentum when it was more widely distributed and available at your local drive-thru.
I well remember the days when Coors Banquet was unavailable in Ohio, and with that statement, I am admitting my age. But there was something about the mythical “rocky mountain spring” brewing water that made this beer taste so magically splendid when someone would mule it across the plains to Ohio in the late ’70s. It was awesome because it was rare. Of course there were no ratings back then, but if there had been, it would have been in the very high ’90s without a doubt.
It’s obvious that beer styles that were once in the top 25 such as Doppelbocks (Ayinger Celebrator), Belgian Strongs (Unibroue Don de Dieu), Dubbels (Chimay Red), Farmhouse Saison (Ommegang Hennepin), and ESB (Fuller’s) have given way to a monolithic parade of Imperial Stouts and Double IPAs, evidenced by checking the style diversity in Beer Advocate’s top 40 recently. It showed only one American Porter (Funky Buddha) and one Belgian Quad (Westvleteren).
Where it goes from here is anyone’s guess. I understand how awesome it is to get a rare beer from someone who had the passion to stand in a long line for it; but, at the same time, other wonderful beers arrive weekly to supermarket shelves without fanfare. So don’t worry if you don’t have the latest 100-point rarity. There are many outliers out there that are incredibly well made but just don’t have the hype going on for them for whatever reason.
And there are plenty of other beers, once considered the world’s best, just waiting to be rediscovered.