Archive for November, 2009

Session #33 Roundup

Friday, November 20th, 2009

session_logo_no_friday_text_inside_200I have enjoyed reading the contributions to The Session #33. I appreciate the depth of thought that was put into so many of the responses. The overall impression I got was that (with one particular exception) people had a lot to say, and had to pick just one aspect. I thought this was good as it provided plenty of angles. But it is a bit of a shame, since I feel your submissions could have spoken to each other further given the chance. Anyway, it was a great Session. Next month is on the topic of Stumbling Home, hosted by Jim of Two Parts Rye. It will be held in two weeks, on 4 December.

Alan McLeod of A Good Beer Blog makes me wonder if I may have set off some sort of existential crisis in the beer blogging world. I have posted 1,865 posts here at A Good Beer Blog but still don’t know why I do it or what the heck I am talking about. This is pretty much the issue. What about styles? Alan’s conclusion pretty much hits the nail on the head. What is this beer in front of him? Who knows and, really, who cares? Its character is itself. You can only know what it is by having one, by consuming one, by destroying one and turning it into another wee bit of body fat and pee. Beer only exists in the mouth. Well said.

Jay Brooks, writing on the Brookston Beer Bulletin, really digs into the topic. First he brings up a relevant case of framing in the political arena. Take another example in the news lately: socialized medicine. Opponents of health care reform bandy this term around safe in the knowledge that people have a negative reaction to it. But it is almost meaningless. The term was crated by a PR firm on behalf of the American Medical Association in the late 1940s when Harry Truman had the temerity to try to reform health care then. The beer Jay discusses is one of my favorites, Unibroue’s Quelque Chose. I had never picked up the message that it should be served hot, always just serving it at room temperature. This reminds me of Liefmans Gluhkriek, another delicious beer made with wild cherries and served hot.

Mario at Brewed For Thought looks at the elaborate corporate frame given to Estrella Damn Inedit, particularly examining the videos produced for this campaign. The frame becomes a caricature if it is so much more ornate than the art within. Two quips worth quoting: While I’m no professional evaluator, I do play one on the internet, and Ignore the labels, drink the beer.

Jon at The Brew Site brought up the role of the web in the framing issue, in particular the beer rating websites. After observing that the undisputed best beers on these sites are the hard to get, extreme, barrel-aged, he confesses, I’m being a bit snarky, yes, but really: if you know nothing else about a beer at first other than it got high marks at BeerAdvocate, then that is definitely a “framing factor” that will influence your take on it. Jon introduces a concept of anti-framing after considering his experience with Widmer’s Cherry Oak Doppelbock. Despite a recognized affinity for Widmer, he is surprised at his low expectations for the beer. Jon says he has big beer fatigue, something I know I’ve felt. Talking about this anti-framing, he gets us in a quagmire of logic: Which brings to mind an interesting question: how many people experience something akin to anti-framing a beer? That is, the way they approach the beer is counter to how it would typically be approached? Of course, then we’d have to define “typical” with beer. Of course, there we go framing the beer again…

The pair behind Beer By BART, Gail Ann Williams and Steve Shapiro, had a lot to say about the primacy of flight sequence when tasting multiple beers. This is an issue my brother is constantly pestering me about. They get a hundred points for the simile, This is framing like that experienced by contrast in tempo or other characteristic in music or perhaps as in a novel, with foreshadowing to color the unfolding action. They point out the drastic impact this has on blind tasting flights (like those in competitions?). Through a few examples they then develop the awesome idea of beer pairing, certainly worth another hundred points. That moment of discovering contrasting beers that pair to frame one another perfectly is even more fun than beer and cheese pairing.

Derrick Peterman, the Bay Area Beer Runner, refused to limit his discussion to one aspect of the prompt. He gets fifty points for using the magic words as well as three gold stars for having a footnoted reference of a scientific study on framing. Derrick talks about the perception in the minds of many that craft beer is “too strong”, overly bitter, hops run amok, and simply not enjoyable. He observes that the wild art of Ralph Steadman on the Flying Dog labels which has turned him off for so many years has done so because it doesn’t appeal to his desire for the “unique local geography” of a brewery. Growing up, the standard was his father’s beer Rolling Rock, with the factory a stone’s throw away. The irony of InBev’s subsequent purchase and closure of that plant while retaining the slogan “Born Small Town” is not lost on Derrick.

Nemesis, posting on, isn’t excited about writing on salesman talk. I’m a production guy, salesmen are mortal enemies. I’ll do my best. Thanks for the indulgence. A few stories about people looking all over and finding beer remind us sometimes it doesn’t take a frame. The thing is that both these people did it for themselves, I had almost nothing to do with it. After they decided they wanted to try something I could encourage them and maybe make some suggestions but they decided on their own that they wanted to try something and all the pretty packaging, outrageous names or overblown ad campaigns in the world wouldn’t have convinced them if they didn’t want to already. But even Nemesis admits to being subject to framing.

Brad of La Petite Brasserie hit on a few really good points about homebrew competitions. First he raises a point similiar to one in my own contribution, about the expectation of a style coloring your perception of a beer. It seems this is particularly important in judging, where the style is the only frame. A good hundred points for the following: Another amusing trick is to cross-enter the same beer in different, though similar categories in the same competition. (For example, Robust Porter and one of the Stout categories.) If the beer receives high scores in both cases, one has to wonder whether power of suggestion had prevailed or there was simply not enough daylight between the categories to reveal one entry as fraudulent. Perhaps a little of both. The only other thing I’ll mention is on the subjectivity of judging: I have been on judging panels where, once the score cards are compared, one would think we had sampled entirely different beers. (This makes it all the more gratifying when, in what itself is no rare instance, judges independently pick up on the same things.)

A couple of you went one step further and tasted a beer (or four) blind. To you two I award a Golden Growler for exemplifying the issue at hand.

ggsmHeath from Bottles of Barley tasted four commercial beers blind and tried to guess their identity. He did a pretty good job guessing the styles, but was notably unable to identify the Anchor Christmas (tasted after a Duck Rabbit Imperial Stout so we’ll forgive him) as well as pick out the oatmeal in his New Holland The Poet, figuring it to be lactose. Heath posits that it is easier to identify bold beers than mild ones (especially when they’re first). The same with ones from his own cellar, so he wonders, what would happen if I sent my wife to the local Whole Foods with $10 and told her to bring back 4 random single bottles what this exercise would look like. Hmmmm……..

ggsmLew Bryson of Seen Through a Glass also tasted a beer blind, though in this case it was an unmarked bottle from the depths of his beer fridge. It hearkens back to a few tastings I did last year of mystery bottles of homebrew. Anyway, Lew Bryson has no idea if this is homebrew, commercial beer sans label, or perhaps a one-off sample. But even after an undetermined number of years (>= 3) this beer is hoppy in aroma and flavor, and bitter too. Perhaps it’s better that you waited on this one, if even now it is so intense? What’s it tell me about blind tasting? It sharpens the senses and the brain. Not only do you not have the shortcuts that labels and styles deliver, you don’t have the work of trying to objectify those inputs, leaving you free to focus on the beer, and nothing else. It kind of puts “style” in the backseat — or the trunk — which is where it belongs when you’re drinking beer.

A good number of respondents tasted a beer they wouldn’t have otherwise, with varying results.

John Duffy, a.k.a. The Beer Nut, got right to the heart of the matter by bringing up Ron Pattinson’s view of the role of beer style, that it is a consensus between brewer and drinker, a shorthand to describe the essential features of a beer and its relative alcoholic strength. John puts it simply, Framing beer is a matter of practical necessity. He tastes the very strong French beer Belzebuth with no frame other than the label itself, and, despite a few shocks, is eventually convinced that another beer he had written off (Bush) may not be so bad if given a chance.

Jimmy of Hop Wild tasted a bottle of Rogue XS Imperial Stout vintage 2008. He waxes on the subtleties of such a big beer, and seeks to find a way to share them with the uninitiated. His method is probably the best: relate the flavors to comfortable ones. So maybe the way to re-frame beer isn’t necessarily to dumb it down – but to equate it to a similarly enjoyable experience. Of course not everyone is going to “get it” and maybe that’s okay.

Jim at Two Parts Rye, host of next month’s The Session, tastes a beer he correctly expects to dislike, New Holland Charkoota Rye Smoked Doppelbock Lager. The only reason he mentions for his prediction is the pig on the label, but I wonder if it is an aversion to rauchbier? I suppose so: one of the most disgusting beers that I have ever drank. He sums up the beer with the words It’s a salty glass of liquid smoke and then gives it an F. I don’t eat meat but I love the bacony taste of a rauchbier. Well, to each his own.

Stan Hieronymus of Appellation Beer enjoyed a Great Divide Hibernation and made the poignant remark, Some days you frame the beer. Some days the beer frames you.

Erik of Top Fermented gets the Crown of Hop Vines (image pending) for picking the beer that I would probably never drink, ever. I mean never. Every little thing about this label bothers me: the art that looks like someone was trying to make a cover for a teen fantasy novel, the slogan, “You must be sure you wanna taste it”, oh, did I mention the stupid half-face picture? Wow. But now I’ve been shamed and if I ever see Werewolf I will have to drink it.werewolf-225x300 Erik actually seems to end up enjoying the Werewolf, even though it is not his usual kind of beer. He then observes the integral role of memory to the senses of taste and smell. I’d agree this is an even more powerful a force than simply framing. He then describes a situation I think we’ve all been in.

“I don’t like this.”

“Why not?”

“It tastes like beer.”

“Well… it is beer. What about the beer flavor don’t you like? Because it doesn’t all taste like that.”

“The beeriness?”

Finally Erik produces what I was looking for all along.

Each person’s experience is their own. I can attempt to frame things for them, but in the end I will most frame them with three or four words:

“I like it.”


“I don’t like it.”

Again I’d like to thank everyone who participated in this month’s Session. Don’t forget that The Session number 34 will be held in two weeks’ time on 4 December, hosted by Jim over at Two Parts Rye.

The Session #33: Framing Beer

Friday, November 6th, 2009

session_logoHow do you know when you’ve had a good beer? You’ve poured your glass, taken in the aroma and color and have a measure on your tongue. How is it judged and ranked compared with other beers? The single most important factor affecting this determination is how the beer compares to what was expected.

Example: you just got in a trade a bottle of a rare Bavarian hefewiezen. But even after the swirl, it is still brilliantly clear. The color is right but the aroma is flat, missing key yeast character. This sounds like a really bad beer! Except the brewery forgot to switch labels on the bottling run and in fact you’re drinking their world-class lager. I’d hope I would notice immediately that it’s a lager. But is it that easy? I can see myself simply chalking it up to a single yeast fault manifesting itself in the appearance and aroma. I might make some sarcastic remark like “this would make a great pilsner”.

Is it possible to drink a beer without making this sort of judgement? I don’t think you can become a truly blank slate. Even in competition judging the beers are framed by the style of the flight. Actually, especially in competition is a beer held to the standard of a particular frame. These frames are not the world however, even though we view the world through them. That means we should be working to remove the frame, to get closer to the world beyond.

What was the world like before 1977? What would it be like if we stopped using styles? Chaos? Modern beer competitions are so intimately tied with the definitions of style. We adhere to a few historic (or not) ideals for each kind of beer and shove everything else into a “specialty” category. But I can say with a good deal of certainty that, even after decades of weird homebrew experimentation, there are more kinds of beer that have never been made than all the kinds that have.

You still have about twelve hours by my reckoning to post your contribution to The Session #33. The prompt is located here, along with submission instructions.

The Session is a monthly beer blog carnival. I am hosting this month, #33. For more information about The Session inquire here.