Monday, 15 July 2013

Reflections on Hops and the Valuable Flaws of Rating Beer

Why do I rate beers?

I don't ask this as if some FAQ, but rather as a question I sometimes ask myself.  At 1144 rated beers, I sometimes find myself wondering what the heck I was previously thinking when I revisit a rated beer and, hence, if I should even bother rating them all any more.  Past aroma and flavour descriptors typically remain the same, yet an assessment of whether it works often evolves as does my palate, learning, and experience.  If my tastes change, I find myself wondering just what my ratings are good for anyway.  Am I wasting my time, let alone that of others?

Even with personal palate evolution and new exposures, I am sometimes amazed by my consistency.  For example, I recently had a fairly obscure Ontario IPA for the second time and, without referring back to my notes from a distant first taste about 600 rated beers past, I reproduced an eerily similar text and an identical rating.

Yet others, which my original review called "astringent" or "so bitter as to be undrinkable," I now find to be amongst my current favourites.  It isn't a claim to some newly acquired sophistication, but rather to a continuous personal transformation (through which I may later revert to once again finding these beers astringent, or perhaps even bland in some hyper-flavoured future).  What began as a quest for sweet, oaky, vanilla brews changed to a desire for some hops alongside a malt backbone or for bitter coffee/chocolate malty notes, but which has now gone full force in two directions: towards sourness in the extreme and for nuanced blasts of citrusy hops.

Yes, I have entered my so-called "hop-head" phase.  Some start their craft beer journey there, some grow to appreciate it, others never do, but I have now happily devoured many an IPA I would have once found undrinkable.

Throughout it all, however, despite a change in degrees of tolerance, I have maintained that hops are something like hot sauce.  Hotness/hoppiness without sophistication presents simply a useless barrage on the senses, while those even incredibly spicy dishes and hoppy brews teeming with flavour bring such nuanced pleasure with that barrage that one's appreciation grows.

What I didn't realize when I first enunciated this analogy, though, is that there is a further dimension of correlation: as one's consumption of tastier/spicier food evolves into greater tolerance, so too does the appreciation of imbibing yet-hoppier beers.

So what is my point?

My point is that my ratings - even when drastically different over time - are still personally useful insofar as the essence is descriptive.  I understand how my tastes have changed.  If the beer descriptor is "solvent-like," it probably remains unenjoyable for me, while I am similarly unlikely to enjoy a "piney" IPA than a citrusy one, but something I once called astringently citrusy may provoke a different adjective to modify the citrus appreciation today.

Though I 'tick' off numbers, ratings beers isn't simply a numbers game for me, rather it helps me understand my preferences, understand beer, and - primarily - to drink better beer more regularly even in newly discovered brews.  I've learned much about beer, about description, and about myself in the process.  Yes, my ratings are both subjective and mutable, but they are nonetheless an experience I find enjoyable and nonetheless valuable.  Flawed, subjective, mutable, and imperfect though it may be, I do refer back to the notes from toasts past, and even if I now disagree, ratings and reviews have become my framework for beer appreciation going forward.  You should try it, if you don't already!

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