I was going to write a post about why although I enjoy beer and know more than many people about keeping and drinking it, I am not and never will be a beer blogger or beer expert; it centred around my disinterest in beer reviewing on a personal writing level and my rather more serious inability to care about technical terminology and professional food-matching but apparently casual beer categories are trending (See here, here & here). So instead I shall jump on the bandwagon tell you what I give a shit about when I am picking beers.
I am not a scooper or a CAMRA spokesperson/committee busybody/member, I am not a beer sommelier, I am not (as mentioned above) a respected beer blogger or writer but I am a publican and a drinker. As such I can comfortably tell you that in the last decade I have tried over 5000 different beers and have prepared comfortably over 15,000 firkins for sale (no I didn’t count, yes it hurts) and although I didn’t write each one down I remember more than you might imagine.
Choosing beer will always have two elements for me… would I sell it in my pub and would I buy a pint of it.
With that in mind I tend to use the following 4 basic judgements: Is it in good condition/poor condition/off?; Is it well-made or thrown together?; Is it interesting or boring?; Do I enjoy it or not?
If the beer is off or in poor condition I am not going to drink a pint of it but I would consider trying it again in the future to find out how much of the problem was the pub/bar manager and how much was bad brewing. Some brewers make beer that is notoriously hard to keep in good condition, some beers react badly to conditions at beer festivals but are great fresh from the cellar, sometimes poor quality ingredients sneak into a batch and everyone has bad weeks so generally speaking people get second (and sometimes third) chances. However, there are brewers out there who (in my opinion) regularly turn out rubbish and I only go back to try new efforts occasionally and similarly there are pubs at either end of the spectrum where I either routinely trust to either have made the best of a poor showing (and therefore 2nd chances are unlikely to yield better results) or to be unlikely to have been able to look after the beer adequately (and therefore barely count as offering a 1st taste). A beer consistently found in good condition has a much stronger chance of making it into my pub choices list and the chances are that if it is regularly in good condition it was well-brewed in the first place.
In general I am drawn to interesting beers. There comes a certain point in a drinker’s life where one has tried x variations of single-hopped with y beers and umpteen more golden ales and I can tell you with no embarrassment that they begin to blur into each other. It is worth noting that not all clever beers are any good and not all good beers are clever but there are quite a lot of things that can be done to make me turn my head. So saisons and sours, yes please; odd ingredient? go for it (for example Birmingham beer bash proved to me that there is more than one way to brew a good squid ink beer) – I’ll try most things once; stupidly strong, aged, ridiculously hoppy? all good for me. On the other hand some of these work better in smaller measures or bottles and some are not really pub-beers – by which I mean that they might sell well at a specialist beer festival or craft-beer bar or are easily enjoyed at home but don’t meet the basic quaffing requirements of a pub. If that sounds patronising, tough, its true; the proportion of interesting beer to average ale sold is probably less than 10% even in a ‘scooper pub’ but by way of consolation its also true that actually dull beer probably only makes up 5% of sales if other options are available.
Additionally, there is the straightforward issue of whether I enjoy it or not. There are some hop profiles that I just don’t like (Mosaic – I am looking at you in particular) and some I have grown bored of (Citra?) and in general I shy away from beers that are too sweet, strongly liquorice-y, or heavily smoked but none of these things in themselves mean that a beer isn’t any good. Just as I am not ashamed that I get bored easily nor am I ashamed to admit that my beer choices will always be dominated by what I like regardless of whether I’m ordering for me, my mates, a pub or a beer festival but it is also true that I am perfectly capable of recognising when a beer is clever and good even if I hate it and am happy to say so.
But finally, not all beer, from even excellent brewers, is good beer – sometimes the balance of the recipe is just off, sometimes its just so focused on one element of itself (strength, hoppiness, aroma etc) that its hard to recommend it for any but the most specific situations and sometimes it is so boring as to be incompetent. This is perhaps the hardest category to describe because it goes beyond beer that I just don’t like or has not been taken care of into the realm of failure and I am very careful about truly condemning a beer in this way – but quite often I have to admit that beer falls into the category of ‘not very good’ and thats ok, more than that it might still be the best on offer at any given time and just maybe its still what you want to drink.
So why does any of this matter? Well basically because a) I have spent a lot of time making these kind of snap judgements about beer and because b) I think you should too.