Earlier today I got an e-mail from my friend and colleague, Stephen Beaumont:
I like it when consumer magazines publish stories about beer, I really do, even when I don’t write them. But it pisses me off when they accord such a noble and respected beverage about one-twentieth of the respect and consideration they would wine or cognac or gourmet chocolate bars.
Case in point is the new issue of New York Magazine and its panel review of 21 beers. On the surface, it looks like an okay story, but the more you get into it, the more its flaws are exposed. Which is why I’ve written a rebuttal to the piece.
At the most basic, I’m sending you this simply to bring these stories to your attention and get your reaction. At the most, I’d love to spread the message around a bit so that hopefully these kind of review pieces might eventually become the exception rather than the rule.
Amen. This is the same kind of hatchet job I’ve been complaining about a lot lately. Read the original story in New York Magazine first and then Stephen’s rebuttal. Go ahead, I’ll wait. When you come back, I’ve got a few things to add to Beaumont’s wonderful critique.
Finished? Good, here’s a few random observations I can add. First off, the article is titled Ales in Comparison. But of the 21 beers reviewed — the ones “in Comparison” — nine are lagers and four are hybrid wheat styles, meaning more than half are not ales. That would be like having a tasting of eight red wines, nine white wines and four champagnes and calling the whole thing “Red Wines in Comparison.” That would be ridiculous, of course, but it’s exactly what New York Magazine did here in their zeal to be clever.
In his introduction, author Ben Mathis-Lilley claims Budweiser and Stella Artois taste the same. While I’m not a great fan of Stella Artois, on any given day it does taste decidedly different from Budweiser. And though both are adjunct beers, I’ll drink Stella Artois whereas I’d pass on a Bud, the point being they’re different enough that they can’t reasonably be called “taste-alikes” as Mathis-Lilley does.
The tasters are described as a “panel of untrained but enthusiastic drinking aficionados.” Well how scientific. Forget for a moment that calling an “enthusiastic” drinker an “aficionado” is probably oxymoronic, but what value is there in the opinion of people not trained to judge and/or evaluate the quality of a beer? Why is is you never see wine evaluated by enthusiastic amateurs, but it’s fairly common for newspaper articles to assemble an unnamed group of people to taste beer with no training and then report their findings as if they were all Robert Parker? Why do they assume one needs no training to evaluate beer? It’s preposterous, of course, and one more reminder of how ignorant the wine and food media is about beer. Wine takes years of training to learn, its nuanced flavors reveal themselves only to the sophisticated, discerning palate. But beer? That swill can be tasted by anybody — no training necessary — just throw a bunch of random bottles in a styrofoam cooler and voilà, you’ve got a story.
Even if I knew nothing about beer, why should I care if another person, equally ignorant, didn’t like a particular beer. In the New York Magazine article, negative descriptors such as “sissy,” “too girlie” or “eh” are used to describe some of the beers. What does that tell me about how they taste? Absolutely nothing, of course, which makes this entire exercise all but meaningless. In the first group of random beers, some of the panelists even correctly described one of the beers which was revealed in an aside as “accurately, according to our moderator.” So if they comment that on one of the beers some of the tasters actually got it right, showing by mentioning it they were surprised, what does that say about how wrong they got all the others? And if they got it wrong most of the time, as I suspect they must have, why report on it at all? What value does having the opinions of people with no training and no proficiency for what they’re tasting being used to educate others about what they taste like? Isn’t that like asking a blind person to describe a color?
And as Beaumont points out, the tasting flights have almost no logic to them and the beers tasted against one another bear no relation to each other, which would make it difficult for the seasoned taster, and all but impossible for the neophyte. It’s a process doomed to fail from the start, and another reason why this tasting is so comical. I’d be laughing except for the fact that some people will probably take this seriously and base their buying decisions on the article in what is otherwise considered an influential publication.
Also, in the article, the author gives the following advice. “Beer-pairing rule of thumb: Match up similar flavors.” Which is the same as saying white wines with fish. While such a rule of thumb may sometimes work, it’s extremely limiting and rigid, and ignores what choosing a contrasting beer might add to the experience.
For one of the beers, the only thing said about it was it “had a funny name.” How condescending. Thanks. That’s very helpful for me if I might want to drink it. But it’s indicative of the tone of the entire piece. There’s very little here that’s actually useful and they seem to have a great deal of trouble taking the subject seriously so I’m left with one final question. Exactly what is the point of this article?
UPDATE: New York Magazine invited Stephen to write a letter to the editor for their next issue. In the hopes of having it carry more weight, he graciously invited other beer writers to also sign the letter. Six of us agreed to sign it. In addition to me and Beaumont, the letter was also signed by Julie Bradford (All About Beer), Lew Bryson, Tom Dalldorf (Celebrator Beer News) and John Hansell (Malt Advocate).
UPDATE (10.27): New York Magazine has now printed Stephen Beaumont’s letter to the editor.