Theodore W. Ardorno is a bit of a hero of mine, if a little too intellectual for me to really keep up with. The German sociologist, philosopher and musicologist was one of the 20th centuries greatest thinkers.
A few years ago I started reading his very influential The Philosophy of New Music in which Adorno proposes that the separation of objectivity and subjectivity in the criticism of art was essential to raise critical theory above the problems created by people’s opinions. He supposed that the only way to do this was to demand artists create with a singular aim, that would conceptually drive this objective criticism.
Right now, you are thinking “cool story bro” and “what the hell does this have to do with beer?”.
Essentially critiquing beer is the same. We all have our own biases and expectations, we have perceptions that have been taught by the media, brands who want to train our thinking for the sake of selling their products. All these things affect the way we think of a beer, before it’s even touched our lips. Likewise, our opinion is totally relevant. At the end of the day, whatever your position, if you enjoy something, that’s why you would buy it again. If you love VB, that’s great, you are going to save a lot of money. It’s not for me though. I don’t “like” it.
What irks me though are the beer elitists who dislike a beer but pronounce it bad. This is what Adorno was all about for me. What defines good and bad? Unlike music, beer already has an established goal. In fact it’s got a whole set of judging requirements. The BJCP exists exactly for this reason.
Having created and updated a style guide that is universally accepted means that judges all around the world can throw out their opinions (if only for a moment) roll up their sleeves and compare a beer to a fairly exact description and quite objectively rule how well that beer performs to it’s style.
Under this context it’s easy for a trained judge to say that a beer is good or bad, because a clear outline exists to demonstrate what the conceptual aim is.
This critical approach to beer falls over though when a beer that could be fabulous is judged against the wrong category. The world’s most intensely fruity, well-balanced and delicious IPA would score very low if it were entered in a competition as a stout. This is the essential flaw in good vs. bad. It’s all about your aim, about the thing that conceptually you wish to achieve.
For many breweries, their aim is consistency and controllable results, so that every time you crack a tinny, it’s exactly the same. In essence then, given their aim, a brewer who makes hundreds of thousands of litres of beer and manages to make every batch taste exactly the same gets a pat on the back from his boss and has produced a “good” beer. These exact same beers may be bland and uninspiring to many beer drinkers, but it does not mean that it isn’t “good”, just that you don’t like it. Much like you mightn’t have liked your first wheat beer or your first Lambic, despite the quality of that particular beer.
Beer elitism is born out of two things. The desire to demonstrate a heightened understanding of beer (aka being a wanker) and not understanding the difference between the good or bad and like or dislike. Unfortunately it is something that is found a lot in craft beer drinkers, and often it is not as vigorously discouraged as it really should be.
Beer elitism can be an insidious by-product of becoming a craft beer lover. I think that it has the potential to cripple the craft beer industry. New beer lovers acting snobbish to their friend’s choice of beer could alienate a potential beer appreciators enthusiasm. Beer after all is a social drink, and it’s important to us, as beer lovers to be inclusive and objective about our tastes.
I like to encourage discussion about beer, how it was made, what are it’s characteristics, how does it relate to other beers we’ve tried? If someone you know enjoys drinking a beer, particularly commercial beer, that you don’t like, leave it alone. After all chances are you aren’t the king of beer knowledge and if they are drinking it and enjoying it, they have all the same qualifications as you do.
Leave the beer judging to competition rings and the BJCP style guides.