Why beer rating systems make no sense

The prevalent rating systems for beers are counterproductive, misleading, and downright wrongheaded.  Posing as objective evaluative instruments, they completely ignore the experience of consuming beer. In doing so, they eliminate the most important parts of drinking: fun, community, and unexpected experiences. What’s worse, beer reviewers using rating systems attempt to form “objective” criteria for evaluation, and in doing so create boring, pompous reviews that ruminate on “esters” and other “scientific” dimensions of sensory experience instead of talking about the much more bizarre and compelling social contexts surrounding purchase, consumption, and evaluation.

Better than numbers?

Before moving forward, take a look at the Beer Flavor Wheel (above). Not sure what you taste?  Throw a dart!  Better yet, throw your full beer against the wall!  It is more important to find exactly the right descriptor than to enjoy what is in your glass. Still lacking confidence?  Check out the Beer Review Generator!

The 100-point scale

This is a direct borrowing from Robert Parker’s 100-point scale for ranking wines, and has been popularized by websites like RateBeer. I’ll confine my comments here to the use of 100-point scale to evaluate beer, although I must admit that I have strong feelings against the 100-point scale and its consequences on the shape of the wine business. Point systems have a very strong influence on buying patterns and are used in beer competitions.  They are marketing tools that turn beers into commodities rather than experiences. This has its place, but unfortunately created a beer reviewing culture- at all levels- that marginalizes “fun” in favor of “accuracy”.

What does it mean that Beer A is an “87” and Beer B an “85”?  Nothing: the units indicate nothing about the features of the beer, nor are they discrete measures of “quality”.

Additionally, as online ratings presently function, the “number” rating is assembled as an average, unconnected to single reviewers and their perverse, contradictory evaluations. This means that the “number” rating is an imaginary middle-ground projected from the quantitative evaluations of an arbitrarily sized sample of reviewers.  If 1,000 people evaluate Beer C to be an average of “89”, and 3 people evaluate Beer D to be “89”, are these two values equivalent? No.

The Letter Grade Scale

The letter grade scale, usually based on some sort of numerical ranking system, was popularized by websites like BeerAdvocate (see here for more details). Like the 100-point system, this is a way of comparing beers.  Customers purchase beers that earn the coveted “A+” and avoid beers that earn “F”.  What happens to all the everyday, local beers in the middle of spectrum?  Is the “C+” of Stella Artois equivalent to the “C+” of Short’s Caramel Apple Ale?  Will I have a “D+” conversation if I’m drinking “D+” beer?  Why does a “D” beer taste more like  “B” beer after mowing the lawn? Why are ALL of the “A+” beers above ~10% ABV?

"B-"? Only if label art counts against it.

Another "B-" beer? Surely you must be joking.

People love to rate, rank, and compare everything (and to critique other people’s lists), so these formats are here to stay.  That doesn’t mean that beer reviewers should be OK with that, however.  This is a call to arms:  Beer reviewers, stop writing reviews that read like the ingredient list on a can of spraypaint and start describing what is interesting, fun, and weird about the experience of drinking great beers. I respect the fact that you have assigned a number to 10,000 beers, and I take your palate seriously, but why can’t you write an exciting narrative instead of just telling me about your ranking system?


~ by Perry S. on June 9, 2010.

8 Responses to “Why beer rating systems make no sense”

  1. A manifesto! Thumbs up! 1100%

  2. Was going to offer a review of Southampton Publick House Abt 12. (<–yes there seems to be at least 2 misspellings in the name). But it's so GARISH and SWEET–as in caramelly, HFCS-esque and other gross things, thus so NOT a proper 12 that it's sitting now in the bottom of Mitch's refrigerator, next to a bit of Manischewitz and some Champagne left over from her daughter's wedding. All of these bottles are open.

  3. I’m moved by this article and your stance on beer reviews. I have felt a similar disconnect when reading some of the more snobby reviews that I’ve seen, and it’s affected the way I review beer. I definitely have a more playful approach to it than most, because after all, it is supposed to be fun.

    I’ve been authoring a beer rating and review site that has a social aspect (your friends can see your ratings, etc). It’s actually been a lot of fun seeing the comedic reviews a few of my friends have posted. You should check it out! http://www.beerregister.com

    Sorry it’s a little ugly, I’m not a great designer. There’s a redesign in the near future, though!

    • Hi Rick. I just looked at your site. It appears that one has to become a member in order to access any content. One of the terms of use reads: “The User confirms that by uploading any image, text, or other user generated content to The Site that they have preoprt permission from the owner of said proprty to reproduce it electronically.” I’m not sure what “preoprt” or “proprty” is, so I don’t feel comfortable agreeing to these terms. Besides, we already have a beer blog! I would hate to think that you came here just to advertise your site, especially since one of your terms of use forbids invasive promotions…

      • Why, thank you for pointing out my spelling errors, albeit rather rudely. I will fix those ASAP. I didn’t think coming here and commenting on your blog qualified as “promote[ing] other organizations in an invasive manner.” I, after all, am not an organization (I think I’m just a person. I think.), and that site is a personal project of mine (yielding no profit, and having only 45 users). I also didn’t realize that commenting on an open blog post was invasive.

        I was simply trying to share the love, and I assumed that you and/or your readers are beer lovers like myself and would enjoy taking part in my project (even if I suck at spelling). Apparently love-sharing is forbidden here.

        So I am sorry, I suppose, for commenting on your blog and sharing my opinion and my project. It’s clear that neither myself nor my ideas are welcome here.

      • Yikes, Rick! I wasn’t trying to be rude. You have to understand that I have no idea who you are, and since the content on your website is not available without becoming a member, it is difficult to find out. If you have comments on any of the beers we’ve reviewed, you are welcome to post about them.
        Love-sharing is permitted. Sorry to have alienated you with my suspicion.

  4. dude. where’s the party?

  5. I love it when folks come together and share ideas.
    Great website, continue the good work!

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