Dec 21 2011

There is no good or bad beer; or what I learned about brewing from Questlove

Inspiration comes from everywhere.

There may not be any obvious parallels between brewing and music, movies, and other art forms, but if you’re not looking you are missing out on the big picture.

In reading through the latest Spin magazine, I came across a feature with Questlove, from The Roots, as well as a few others doing  a Jukebox Jury on the singles of 2011. They went through the biggest and, in this case in particular, the most viral songs of the year. What caught my eye was his takeaway on one of the “worst” songs of the year:

About Rebecca Black’s Friday :

We played this on Fallon, and I remember the irony of us studying the song like a science. What does she do in the second verse? How does the rap go? Doing that made me realize that I no longer believe in good songs and bad songs. I now only think of songs as effective and noneffective. Even though as a technical singer she’s not “good,” this was one of the most inescapable songs of 2011. What does it say when a bad song is inescapable?…….This song reveals a primitive side of us that we’re afraid that we have.” – Questlove 

This, as many things do, had me rearranging my thoughts on brewing. Is there so such thing as a good or bad beer? Is there only effective or ineffective?

Let’s just segment out the beers that have obvious, technical issues. We can’t look at the beers that have unintentionally soured or are rotten with diacetyl. These need to be thrown out the window not unlike a recording session where a guitar string snaps or a microphone breaks. That is bad beer, and not worth talking about.

I’m just as guilty as others of labeling beers good and bad, although never in such black and white terms. But it is easier to apply these labels to beer and move on to the next. We all want to simplify life, but as with any Boolean metric, it doesn’t critique a beer with any depth or insight.

By changing my mental reviewing of a beer to effective or ineffective, I can address the intent of the brewer, my personal tastes, AND the palates of others. Surely this is a more complex method of reviewing a beer, but does it make it harder to come up with a short, definitive answer in the review process? I don’t think it does.


Example Beer #1: Big Freaking Bourbon Barrel Coffee Vanilla Bean Russian Imperial Stout

Brewer: The brewer knows what he wanted to make. Something huge, complex, ready for patience and somewhat absurd. All in equal parts.

Me: I like that sort of beer on occasion, but not everyday and almost never by myself.

Beer Drinker: I think the average beer drinker might be overwhelmed by this beast of a beer, so let’s be honest and address that the beer geek as the one who is really excited and into this huge RIS.


Example #1 – Effective?

Brewer: If the technical pieces are in place, then I we can assume that this is the beer the brewer intended. Unless it is severely under-attenuated and sickly sweet, or they threw too much coffee or too many vanilla beans in the pot and obscured the rest of the beer, hopefully they nailed what they were looking for.

Me: If those issues are kept at bay, I’ll probably find it to be a good beer, although I’ll like it less if there is too much coffee because I’m not a big coffee fan. Again, this is hypothetical.

Beer Drinker: The rest of the beer world? Well, that is select group and they are not your average macro drinkers. They know what they are getting, and they are willing to jump through hoops and pay more money for a beer that is likely to be scarce.

Example #1 – Answer: Yes, that monstrous RIS was effective. It was well made, it was priced and distributed to a limited group that would appreciate it, but it had a little too much coffee flavor for me. So, big picture, it was good and effective.

None. None More Black.

“None. None more black.” 


Example Beer #2:  American-Style Light Lager

Brewer: Did the brewer intend to make this beer? Good lord, how do you make this beer on accident? Seriously, you can’t. Corn and rice don’t just fall into the mash on accident. I don’t want to get shitty here, but you only go wrong if it tastes too much of adjuncts, or hops, or doesn’t have a healthy fermentation. These beers are really hard to make and there is a lot of equipment and back-watering that goes into balancing these beers.

Me: This is a “when in Rome” beer for me. I don’t dislike them, per se. They are just nothing that I want to pay money for and I’d rather drink water. If I’m at a party and that’s all there is, I’ve have a few, but not notice that I am having a few since they aren’t really challenging or interesting. Fringe case: I might pay for one or two at a ballpark on a hot day when there aren’t better options.

Beer Drinkers: The average beer drinker (and, no, I have no idea what that really means anymore) is probably into this beer. Unless it is too low in alcohol and they have to drink a million of them to achieve a slight buzz, they are going to enjoy it and its price point.


Example #2 – Effective?

Brewer: This is a hard beer to make and, if the brewer nailed it, he/she should be proud. Pabst and other breweries win medals at GABF every year for this style. That is critical praise.

Me: I don’t want this beer and I don’t want to pay for this beer. Water is free and much better for you. But I do appreciate the skill required to make this beer.

Beer Drinkers: Increasingly less of the US drinkers want this beer as the years go, but they are still the vast, vast majority of the drinking population. The price point is right for them and this is all that they (know that they) want.

Example #2 – Answer: Yes, that thin and highly carbonated beer is a success. The brewer made something difficult, the crowd will drink it, and it wasn’t made for or with me in mind.


Pulp Fiction Diner

“Hey, sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie, but I’d never know ’cause I wouldn’t eat the filthy motherfucker.” 

I could bring up many more examples and it would be very easy to come up with examples of what would be an ineffective beer. Those are beers that veered from the brewer’s vision and/or beers that no one wants to drink for a multitude of reasons. This post isn’t about changing minds or working out all the scenarios. I just think that I need to take a more complex and faceted view of beers, and maybe you do, too.

I imagine the best brewers out there steal from the world around them, and not in the physical sense. You can learn from disparate masters and, sometimes, Questlove can give you a different angle on beer.

I know the more primitive side of me is brought out by my love of sours. But that is another post.

What do you think?