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Why We Need More Professional Beer Criticism

In favor of professional beer criticism.

Flickr/Almanac Beer

Almanac Beer Co. co-owner Jesse Friedman believes this country needs professional beer critics. Below, he explains why.

It’s a great time to be a craft beer lover. There is so much new beer to try, and many of these beers have something to say. Great beer is editorial. It comments on the style, and reflects the point of view of the brewer. Which is where the importance of beer criticism comes in to play. And makes me wonder, as the world of craft beer continues to explode, why don’t major food publications have full time beer critics? An expert who can decode all of the complicated, jargon-laden beer-terminology to customers, and help imbibers sort good beer from bad. It's that educational piece we're missing. If Denver has a pot critic who takes his job very seriously, so shouldn't beer?

Beer too is serious business, intersecting the craft and science of brewing with flavors, education, food, service and the larger culture of a given area. Just as beer presents a personal point of view from the brewer, the collection of beers at a given craft beer bar represents the vision of the bar's organizer. Does the curation reflect a focus on fresh local beers? Or maybe a fondness for imported Old World classics. How are these beer communicated ? Are tasting notes included? Are the styles explained? Or are jargony and useless terms like IBUs (International Bittering Units) thrown out without context?

The same consideration that goes into planning the perfect IPA should go into every step of the beer’s life, from the brewery to delivery, and finally into service. And it’s this Big Picture Brewing that needs to be conveyed to the public.

So, how does beer brewing actually work? Beer is made from four basic ingredients: Water, malt  (provides the sugars that will be converted into alcohol, as well as color and roast character), yeast (performs the magic of fermentation), and hops (provides anti-septic characteristics, necessary bitterness to balance the malt, and aroma to the finished beer). That last bit ,  aroma , is a major area of interest to breweries these days. A generous dry-hop (when hops are added after fermentation) provides only aroma, no bitterness,  and creates some of the most fashionable characteristics in modern beer.

Cellarmaker’s IPAs typify some of my favorite trends in beer right now. Many of their dry hoppy pales and IPAs utilize the latest craze in beers: New Zealand hops. These rare and expensive hops create fantastic aromas of stone fruit, raspberries, mango, passion fruit and honeydew melon. I love them. IPAs continue to grow at an unstoppable pace, leading the way for craft beer’s expansion. IPA and hoppy beers are far from over, and I would argue, just entering a new and exciting phase.

But, there is a catch. These fantastic aromas are ephemeral. Even day-to-day, a brewer can detect the aromas slowly dropping off, dying just a little bit. This is where the logistics of beer really mean something. Something a critic could explain. To preserve these delicious aromas the beer has to be stored cold, then poured as quickly as possible. Freshness is everything when it comes to hoppy beers. Oftentimes the condition of a beer’s aroma doesn’t tell the story of its brewday — it tells the story of its journey to your tap handle.

Just as beer represents a point of view, so too does its service and presentation. It doesn’t matter what goes into a great beer if it’s served through dirty draft lines. A great beer needs a proper glassware, to be served at the right temperature, and maybe most importantly, to be poured and delivered with great service. This means having an educated staff that knows about the beer they are serving, and can explain what it is, what it tastes like, provide samples, and make a curious customer feel welcomed into the sometimes overwhelming world of craft beer. It’s a big tent, and as craft grows and brings in new fans, we in the beer community need to help welcome those thirsty for great beer.

There is a huge, gaping need for great beer education. Questions from the basic (what’s the difference between an ale and lager?) to the complex (why rinse a glass before filling it with beer?) need to be answered with kindness, honesty and empathy. If Apple stores started offering beer tasting classes, sign me up.

The best criticism takes its subject  —  film, literature, wine, art  —  and places it in the larger cultural context.

The best criticism takes its subject  —  film, literature, wine, art  —  and places it in the larger cultural context. Merely judging if something is good, or to personal taste is easy. Telling people about it on the internet is even easier. But, actually putting all the pieces together and surrounding it in context and meaning  —  that’s the challenge. Sure, the Cellarmaker pales I described above are delicious. But, the adjoining context of these beers  — of brewers searching out new ways to explore hops, to keep creating new flavors within the IPA moniker  —  that’s the exciting part. These beers are part of a larger movement towards fresh beer, where the freshness and treatment of the beers are as important as what hops added. Part of what makes Pliny so great is that demand keeps the beer super fresh. Cracking a days old can of Heady Topper brings the same rush of aroma and freshness. Then there is Stone Enjoy By, which hard codes a beer’s expiration date onto the very name, and Lagunitas' #BornYesterday, a tropical mango explosion where the freshness and logistics of the beer getting to your glass are built right into the DNA. In order to get these delicious aromas into our nostrils, brewers are rebuilding the entire way beers are distributed in the name of freshness. It’s the role of the critic to distill all of this down into a coherent story that adds meaning and context to a beer.

Even I, a brewer that once swore I’d never brew an IPA, am caught up in the excitement. This week my brewery Almanac is packaging Don’t Call It Frisco a huge Double IPA brewed with eight pounds per barrel of Citra, Amarillo, Polaris and Simcoe hops (that’s so much raw hop material, it affects the efficiency of the batch, knocking down overall yield on the beer dramatically). It smells of peach skin, tangerine zest and summer melons. To make sure it stays that way, we printed a 20 day expiration on the beer. It’s a far cry from our normal barrel aged ventures, but the delicious appeal of incredibly fresh beer is just too much to resist. Making sure it is enjoyed fresh is a joint effort aligning our brewhouse, distributors, bars, restaurants, bartenders and dish washers. If even one of these links in the chain is weak, the beer won’t live up to its hoppy potential. And we really, really want you to try this beer at its peak  —  available only during SF Beer Week. Because if we didn’t serve it this way and this fast, it wouldn’t be the same beer. How can a tap handle that just says "IPA" on it communicate all this? We need more. Thinking critically about beer service and education is as important as cleaning taplines. Without it, the beer is ruined.