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?



Jul 20 2009

Anheuser Busch’s Bud Light Lime Review

Why are you doing this to yourself?  That is a very good question, and a reasonable way to start this review.  Bud Light Lime has been the butt of many of my jokes in the past.  Honestly, when trying to come up with the worst beer imaginable, I always point to BD Lime.  It sounds terrible.  An unholy abomination of beer.  

But sometimes you have to put your taste buds where your smack talk is.  It was time for me to buy and review this beer.  This beer equivalent of the white frat guy with dreadlocks.  And no, I did not get a little bottle of this fine elixir.  No, I bought big boy weighing in at 1 pint and 6 fluid ounces, but at a sessionable 4.2% ABV.  The plan was to drink the whole thing to get the true experience.  As the label said, it was a “Premium light lager with 100% natural lime flavor.”  No freshness date.

BL Lime - The Lime

I poured it into a tulip glass to get all of the sensory characteristics, although I would think a frosty mug would have been the natural environment for one of these brews in the wild.

The appearance was many shades of yellow.  The BL Lime is straw yellow in most of the glass with shades of Big Bird on the edges.  It reminded me of a pale, and pure, Berliner Weiss, although the head was fizzy and quickly disappeared to the flatness of flat apple juice.  

The aroma was lime with a capital “L”, but in the background was a corn sweetness that lingered. There were stages to the lime.  First was the smell of a lime flavored freezer pop.  Then it turned to the aroma of fresh limes, and then, towards the end, it mirrored a lime soda.

The taste was what I had steadied myself for.  I had cleared my calendar of good beer in anticipation of a taste bud crusher.  I was sure I was going to have bandages on my tongue like that kid that got stuck to a metal pole in a Christmas Story.  But that didn’t happen.


The body was water thin.  The carbonization was high and prickly.  But there was very little for me to wrap my mouth around.  The beer had a very persistent lime flavor and the whole taste experience was simple and one-note. There was no bitterness and, towards the beginning, there was very little aftertaste.  I was prepared for a light-struck bottle with more skunk ass than Pepe Le Pew’s wet dreams, but the lime covered it all up.

There is obviously a reason why people have been putting lime in Coronas for so many years.  To mask the flaws of these beers, and add some sort of flavor. 

Part of a thorough analysis of a beer is to let it warm up a bit and to see how the flavors evolve and get more complex.  I was going out with the family that night, and I let it sit on the bathroom counter while I showered.   After getting out, beer fatigue was setting in.  It became hard to drink and started to taste like one of those bottles of lime juice you can buy at the grocery store.  At this point, it became difficult to finish.  But I did, dammit.

I was prepared to hate the Bud Light Lime but, in the end, there was very little to love or hate.  The panacea of lime made everything level and unremarkable.    I’m not recommending the Bud Light Lime, but I can see how it would be refreshing on a hot summer day, or paired with Mexican or even Thai.  It won’t stand up to those flavors, but it might cool and revive your taste buds in extreme moderation.

In the end, this wasn’t terrible.  It just wasn’t beer.

Are there more “bad beer” reviews in my future?  I do not know.  You tell me.


Jul 10 2009

Stone 13th Anniversary Celebration Ale Review

I grabbed a Stone 13th Anniversary Celebration Ale on draft at Timberwood Grill on the way home from the gym last night.  It is an Imperial Red ale and it clocks in at 9.5% ABV.  Stone says they used more hops per barrel in this brew than any beer that they’ve made before, which is impressive in and of itself.  The starting gravity is 22.5 Plato (about 1.094 by my messy math) which means they backed up those hops with a ton of malt, too.

stone 13th label small

This one came in a brandy snifter, and the color was that of a dark mahogany with sparing ruby highlights.  The head was creamy, beige and persistent.  The smell was what I was expecting: a nosegasm of simcoe pine and centennial grapefruit.  In the end was a bit of sweet melon.  Perhaps honeydew or cantaloupe.  The resins were tangible, and almost seemed to add a sort of texture.

stone 13th

The taste continues that theme, but the malt kicks in with some sweetness and noticeable alcohol warming.  In another beer, these two attributes would be overwhelming but they are keenly balanced with the landslide of hops in the 13th.

As it warms, the malt blossoms a bit more and the hops settle down for the ride.  Amazingly, despite the size of this beast, it is very drinkable.  I could certainly have a few of these over the course of an evening.

As a side note, I thought the back label on the bottle (I have an unopened one at home) had an interesting line:

“No matter where you are, we are thankful and hugely flattered when you choose Stone.  However, if you’re outside of our region and you often choose a quality craft beer that is more local, we understand.”

This is a very cool sentiment that echoes Greg Koch’s mission to encourage locavores.  The label also alludes to Stone rolling through their teenage years, which is a departure from Arrogant Bastard-speak of the past.  I had heard that Greg mentioned needing to write the label for this brew during the SAVOR weekend in DC.  It is easy to see how the camaraderie of brewers of that event facilitated those words and beliefs.  It was strange for me to read at first, but it sounds like a company that is growing up and becoming a leader in the craft brewing industry that it deserves to be.

On the bottle, they tell you to drink the Stone 13th Anniversary Celebration Ale now and to not age or cellar it. 

Good advice, I say.


Jun 26 2009

Victory Wild Devil Ale Review

I was pretty excited to hear about Victory Brewing Company’s  WildDevil Ale.  Victory makes a lot of great beers, and what they did with this one was brew up a batch of their HopDevil, a hophead’s dream of an IPA, and then ferment it out with 100% brettanomyces.  This sounded like a very interesting idea and a bold experiment.


I bought two big bottles of WildDevil and brought one to a party to share, and stowed one away for myself to review when I could give it my undivided attention.  When I tried it at the party, and shared it with friends, it was a letdown.  It was getting towards the end of the evening, after a good bit of Oberon and some of my homebrewed lambic, but it can across as strangely both dull and prickly.  I was hoping that tasting it under optimum conditions would change my opinion. 

No such luck. 

It was in a 750-ml bomber that was corked and caged.  The bottling date was April 22, 2009, and I poured it into a tulip glass.

Victory Wild Devil -

The beer was a glossy, stained wood brown with bold orange highlights.  The head was thick, but wispy sea foam in composition (not the color).  Each bubble was apparent and separate, and did not meld together into a creamy top.

The nose of this was a perfumey sourness, with citrus and lemon zest.  A mild brett character slid through occasionally.

The taste was all over the place.  There was little of the barnyard character, but it was mired in an unfortunate amount of dryness that drags the off-flavors to the forefront.  There was a soapiness delivered on a dry aspirin platter than made this one hard to get through.  Sometimes a beer is undrinkable, or you just want to call it a day and walk away.  This one wasn’t quite that bad, but every time I put it down, it was easily forgotten.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want to drink it, but rather than there was nothing in it to make me want more.  It was an absent-minded chore to get through this bottle.

I cannot recommend this one, and I’ve having a hard time believing that laying this one down for a few months will help improve it. 

The mouthfeel made the Victory WildDevil unsessionable (because I have to make up at least two or three words in every review).  It is nice experiment gone awry.  A potentially cute girl with lots of pointy elbows.  Spooning a porcupine.  But I digress.

I look forward to Victory’s next brett experiment.  I believe in you, but let’s put this one behind us.