Beer reviewing – beer goggles vs. blind judgement

By BeertownNZ Wed, 07 Oct 2015 National

Beer reviewing is changing fast.

Wine reviewing was once a field for experts to pass down opinions from on-high, but beer reviewing, god bless, has always been more democratic.

There has never been a celebrity beer reviewer. Certainly no beer writer or reviewer has held the power and influence of US wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. Good thing too. Parker Jr. has been so influential that a positive review is said to be worth more than $10 million to the winemaker, and his personal preferences have influenced wine styles and development. 

UK wine writer Jancis Robinson has also been very influential. In this piece from the Financial Times, Robinson contrasts the 20thCentury 'wine expert’ approach with today’s 'online rating’, and concludes there is still a role for the experienced reviewer. She also talks about the limitations of the human palate – more on that later.

Websites like RateBeer and Untappd give us instant access to millions of ratings on thousands of beers. The quantity of beer reviews is greater than ever before and increasing rapidly. Here, have another badge, tell your friends.

So there’s no shortage of beer reviews and supply certainly exceeds demand. This is a problem for people who like to review beer and expect their impressions to be taken seriously.

Here’s the big problem – almost every beer review you will see is prejudiced and biased. If you know what you are drinking before you taste it, you are already influenced by the label, the brewer’s marketing, the environment, and peer pressure. Your impressions of the beer itself are then twisted further by confirmation bias, as you attempt to match the flavours on your tongue with the expectations already waiting in your head.

Every beer tasting is either done blind, or done through beer goggles. Ordering a beer, selecting a bottle from your fridge, or accepting free beer for review, sets you up to form an opinion of the beer before you even taste it. You start out prejudiced.

The simple way to overcome these prejudices is through blind tasting. That gets rid of most of the biases. A blind tasting with a group also removes the influences of personal tastes, and the problem of using a single palate with its inevitable strengths and weaknesses.

I was involved in this kind of judging last week. A group of brewers, writers, and distributors blind tasted about 100 beers. Everyone’s sense of taste is different, just as everyone’s sense of vision is different. Tasting in groups helps remove this bias, and the overall results showed consistent results for particular brewers, with some surprises at the end of the session.

Of course, everyone is entitled to an opinion. But the opinion of a successful brewer, whose palate has been mentored through formal training, and who is judging blind, is worth much, much more than a 2am Untappd post. Well, that’s my opinion anyway.

Any beer reviewer who wants to offer an alternative to RateBeer or Untappd must be tasting blind, and needs to declare their interest if the sample was donated. Anything less is just drinking and boasting.

By BeertownNZ Wed, 07 Oct 2015 National