I am going to get a little controversial in this post. Please bear with me. Disclaimer: some of this comes from the natural negative feelings you get when you read poor reviews of your own work. I’ve served some bad beer at the brewery back when I was getting my process down, but I do know the good beers I’ve made, and it hurts to see them rated poorly. Take what I say with a grain of salt, but trust that I do have a thick skin, and the following post is really a larger point than just wounded pride.
Untappd. Ratebeer. Beer Advocate. Beer rating apps and websites are ubiquitous these days. They help connect craft beer fans and can help provide useful information on styles and breweries. These are good things. If you use such sites, more power to you. They can be a fun way to socialize and stay updated on friends and new brands of beer.
Here’s the problem. Beer reviews aren’t really indicative of good beer. If a beer misses the mark or has some flaws, it should be rated lower. We can all pretty much agree on that. There’s another caveat that we can probably agree on as well. Critics must be objective. A film critic may not really care for summer blockbusters, but can still give an objective review of one. That’s part of the skill of being a critic.
Here’s the list of top-rated beers on Ratebeer. Almost every single one of the top 50-rated beers is an imperial stout. The others are mostly double IPA’s or quads. You’d be crazy not to see a problem with this. Not a single beer in the top 50 is anything close to a session ale. Imperial stout, the heaviest style in existence, absolutely dominates. You may be thinking, “Yeah, bigger beers always take the top ratings. Tell me something I don’t know.” I just wanted to point out the sheer ridiculousness of this, but let’s go a bit further.
Here’s the Ratebeer page for Devil’s Backbone Vienna Lager. Devil’s Backbone is an excellent Virginia brewery, and their flagship beer, a Vienna lager, is all over the place in the state. It’s a very nice beer, and is one of my go-to’s if I am out and about. Unfortunately, it has a score of 47/100. Basically, an F. Comments are mostly along the lines of “bland,” “boring,” or “thirst-quencher.”
It’s a Vienna lager. A nicely made one. It is supposed to be a malt-forward, easy-drinking lager, with good flavor from German kilned malts. It is not supposed to be over-the-top. The problem is that a lot of reviewers are comparing it to imperial stouts, double IPA’s, and other beers. To give objective reviews, you need to be familiar with the style, even if it isn’t your favorite style. This is my larger point…if you want to review beers, take it upon yourself to broaden your horizons and educate yourself on the different styles of beer. If you absolutely hate a style and cannot give an objective review, maybe it’s best to not review it. This is just my opinion, but I think that it would create a better beer-reviewing culture. A lighter beer is not unequivocally worse than a heavier style.
That aside, Vienna Lager was the top-selling beer in Virginia last summer. This is because, in my experience, the beer reviewing crowd isn’t really representative of the beer-drinking crowd. If they were, Russian imperial stouts would be all you would see. Most people want a good, easy-drinking style. The strongest beer they will drink is an IPA. With the rise of session ales, we are going to start seeing the lines between light lager drinkers and craft drinkers converge. It’s a good thing.