Here’s the first of Seamus’ weeklong series of blog articles about The Beer Trials for the Powell’s website. In the article, he discusses a phenomenon that’s familiar to my experience as well: “conversations about how I could possibly have given famous and best-selling products poor ratings.” It is a basic human instinct, and (for those of us who like to argue, anyway) a great one, to find the first rating that doesn’t comport with your experience and use that as a jumping-off point for debate.
We could answer merely that under blind tasting conditions, the panel didn’t like this beer, or that the beer was boring or flawed. But that would be the boring, flawed answer. All the fun lies in the more substantive defense of each of these ratings and the dialogue that ensues—a dialogue that could well lead to new blind tastings and have a material effect on future editions. What exactly should we be searching for in an ideal European pale lager? Supremely refreshing bitterness, or balanced hop character and greater complexity? (Seamus and I debated this one a lot; the answer, I think, might be connected to how many beers you plan to drink.) That’s why, as Seamus has said, we also really hope you look past the ratings and read the text of the reviews.
It is the more interesting conversation about what constitutes a “good” or “bad” beer, about what it even is to rate beer, and ultimately about the basic philosophical problem of intersubjectivity—that we’re hoping to stimulate. That’s also part of why we chose not just to review the cult beers, but also the everyday beers that are most available around the country. We wanted parts of the book to be familiar to anyone who had ever tasted beer; we wanted to include benchmarks, points of reference, for everyone.
I was happy to see this review of The Beer Trials by Rob Rutledge discuss this engagement with mainstream beers. Rutledge writes: “along with Chimay Blue, they actually DO rate Natural Light! And Bud Light, for that matter, and MGD, and Busch, and every other cheap beer under the sun.” We wanted to see how these beers would hold up in blind tastings. We wanted to praise the ones like Steel Reserve, which outperformed expectations, while calling out the beers like Corona and Heineken, whose premium positioning (compared with entry-level domestic lagers) isn’t supported by much going on in the bottle.
Above all, to start a broad conversation about beer in America while ignoring the country’s most popular beers would be to lose sight of the conversation’s purpose.
I’m looking forward to reading Seamus for the rest of the week at the Powell’s blog. In the meantime, here’s a previously posted preview of the book (including all beer ratings), which is now in stock at, appropriately enough, Powells.com (Portland indy pride!) along with Amazon.