In which I fisk a beer review.  

Posted by Wayne Bretski in

One of my most visited websites is Beer Advocate. It's just that: advocacy for beer, an oft-maligned beverage. The primary function of the website is reviews, primarily of beers, but also beer bars, breweries, etc. In this Incredulous Stare, I'm going to Zapruder a recent review I wrote, of an American IPA by Alesmith Brewing in San Diego. I gave Alesmith good grades: it's near the top of my ratings list on the site, and quite possibly the highest ranked India Pale Ale. And speaking of India, here's new 'ish from spaced-out producer Madlib's latest addition to the Beat Konducta series: Masala.

Expository comments in red
Additional comments on the review in green

First pour is slightly cloudy from the pint plus six bottle, haze increases as the bottle is finished. Amber color that thins a bit towards the bottom, while a host of rushing bubbles make their way to the two finger full off white head.
The first quality the review is meant to judge is Appearance: take note of the color; relative clarity, i.e., is there sediment or haze in the glass; and the characteristics of the head - color, height, quality of bubbles (small and foamy, large and soapy), how long the head stays intact, how much lace sticks to the glass during the drinking process. Etc.
The Alesmith IPA is bottle-conditioned, meaning that after the brewing process is completed and the beer is packaged, additional yeast is added to the bottle, keg, or cask. This produces additional complexities of sugars and ester alcohols in the flavor. It also results in a slightly hazy appearance, as the yeast sediment will settle to the bottom during storage but often is shaken loose during transport. There is nothing wrong with this; in fact, bottle-conditioning is generally considered a good property for many styles of ale, and thus the sediment is welcomed. American IPAs generally range from clear, pale orange to an opaque brown-amber that may show some orange highlighting. This one falls slightly darker on the spectrum. I didn't mention it, although my guess is that the head had good lasting power and stuck quite a bit to the glass, as higher-hopped beers generally have stickier, retentive properties that results from the resinous hop flower additions.

The magnificent look is matched by the powerful and flavorful nose, nothing new for a San Diego IPA but very well done: piney, floral, and citric hops out-muscling slightly sweet caramel malts. The flavor is every bit the progeny of this awesome aroma, as the rich sweet malt provides a sturdy backbone but comes nowhere close to touching the citric vibrant and pine-bitter hopping. There is a certain amount of fruitiness derived from esters in the yeast, but also some citric zest from the hopping.
The next characteristic is Aroma: what does the beer smell like, and how powerful is that smell. Even more subjectively, Is it good? I've lumped the third ranking, Flavor, into this paragraph as well. I'll get into "flavor" characteristics over which beer can range some other time, but the important things to emphasize in a review are 1. How does the malt profile add to the nose/taste?, 2. How do the hops impact them?, 3. Do the chemical processes of sugar to alcohol conversion affect things? (That is, does it smell/taste of yeast, like bread, or of alcohol? This is generally a 'peppery' scent.) Finally, are there specialty ingredients involved? These can range from wheat, rye, rice (or worse) additions to the malt bill, to fruits or vegetables, to herbs and spices.
Hop aromas and flavors are well categorized, as beer drinkers that love a huge hop profile (hopheads) often get a touch effusive when describing the flavors imparted by the leaf. Like grapes in wine, hops are region-sensitive, and since they are cultivated by species, they will impart trademark flavors that are often associated with a particular style - or even substyle. This is why Jim Koch of Sam Adams calls hops the "soul" of a beer. Examples of style-specific hops would include Saaz and other continental hops associated with Czech pilseners and German lagers; Fuggles and East Kent Goldings in Britain; and the "4 C's" hops used predominantly by Pacific Coast breweries. Further, IPAs can often be broken down by San Diego style vs. Pac Northwest style, with California breweries often dividing somewhere between LA and San Francisco. American brewers have rejuvenated the IPA style vigorously in the last several years, with a "more is better" strategy of adding hops - in the process creating the Imperial, or Double IPA style. The Pacific coast brewers often use high alpha oil, resinous hops that impart citric (grapefruit, orange/lemon zest), pine, and/or floral characteristics. Alesmith does all of this without losing a sense of balance: IPAs are often paired with caramel-sweet malts that offset the bitterness, while the ester alcohol byproduct of yeast fermentation tends to lend a fruity character to the flavor. Just so here.

Medium to full in body, with a dry full finish of lingering bitterness. Alcohol makes its first appearance here, although it could be argued that the spicy bitterness betrays a higher alcohol content than many/most Am. IPAs. Either way, it lets you know you're drinking a powerhouse, an incredibly tasty IPA that, even if not quite 'balanced', steps right up to the line of a double IPA - maybe sticks a toe over - but remains very drinkable and delicious (and dangerous) not matter what the style.
The last two measures of the review look at Mouthfeel and Drinkability. Mouthfeel refers to the relative thick- or thinness of the beer, ranging from full and creamy to thin and watery. I usually the characteristics of the finish here as well: does it leave an aftertaste, do additional flavors develop during the swallow, is it "dry" (used just as in wine)? Drinkability is a catch-all for anything that escaped the last three qualities, as well as a compendium of the three. Is it pleasant to smell, drink, and savor? Is the alcohol overbearing? Should something have been done differently with the recipe? The question is, Do you actively want another?
Alesmith's IPA got uniformly solid marks for me. High hopping is going to thin the body out (grains are "tougher" and "chunkier" than green, flowering plants) necessarily, so I'm not looking for a really chewy mouthfeel here. This will also tend to leave a bitterness, and dry the finish out. I like all of this. To address drinkability, I note that this is a seriously hopped IPA, and indicate that it nears the bitterness of a Double IPA - don't take my high numbers to heart if you know you like a pale ale or lager. But if you really like double IPAs, look into this one.

Another issue, something of a bone of contention among reviewers, is the challenge of reviewing to-style versus purely characteristic-based scoring. For instance, there may find a beer that is delightfully balanced, tasty and sessionable, but you don't think it fits the style characteristics that well.

For instance, Breckenridge Brewing produces a small batch IPA called 471. The bottle, and BeerAdvocate, refer to it as a double IPA. It's not. It is "double-hopped", meaning that at two distinct points in the brewing process, additional hops are added. When I looked at the reviews, I thought it strange that everyone was blasting it for being so light, not bitter enough, etc. For an IPA, it's more than enough hopping, but to legitimately be called a double IPA there should be much more of everything: malt, hops, and alcohol content. So I reviewed it very favorably, and encouraged future reviewers to put aside thoughts of "Imperial India Pale Ale" and focus on the flavor points.

I understand the point of reviewing to style, which encourages brewers to properly market their products - and I'll certainly note when I think a beer treads territory it ought to avoid - but when I sit down to judge a beer I'm going to do so considering the actual characteristics, not my ideal version of the style.


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