Beer – to credential or not?

I posted a picture and less than gushing observation of a novelty beer (one developed from a 300 year old recipe) on a beer page and a brewer in the group dropped one comment underneath: “Gold medal winning beer.” That prompted what turned out to be a pretty much one-sided non-debate, which I decided to flesh out here. These are some thoughts circulating around for a while (I’ve held this perspective for many years) that I’ve finally codified in a first-pass. They are certainly NOT meant to offend, but perhaps I’ll get some feedback to add to my toolbox. I’m not big on credentialing in general – I’ve declined to acquire three more in my professional life that I am more than qualified for – and beer is something I enjoy and like to learn about, but do not obsess over. 

gabf_medalsSo, I was curious. Do beer medals mean anything to anyone?

They don’t to me, but that’s because I’m not a brewer and I’ve not been convinced that judging certification is any less arbitrary than sommelier or food critic or Project Management Professional, or…you probably get it.  And I contend that as medals are awarded on the basis of a small sample set of opinions, they should have little meaning to me. I never buy a beer because of a medal…I find that silly and a useless interference…if I even notice anything about a medal.

Subjective assessments are … subjective. Always will be, no matter the claim of high degree of training. I’ve seen the lists of the XX “Best” IPAs/Beers/Breweries, which are good for new ideas (maybe …) but they are never without the usual objections from aficionados – “Who came up with this? Why wasn’t YYY on the list? Why was ZZ on the list? It sucks.” usain-boltUnlike Usain Bolt’s clear win, things like gymnastics, boxing, ice skating scores are subjective interpretations for which medals are awarded. And then there is Best in Show for the Westminster Kennel Club Dog. Or Best Picture at the Golden Globes (drama). And that list goes on ad infinitum.

I suppose you have to recognize an “authority” first before accepting what the authority says. I’m sometimes considered an authority in my field of work but I’m always careful to qualify any opinion with the caveat that it is just my opinion. I find that not to be the general case for others.Pronouncements of absolutism should always be received with a critical eye/ear.

51F1BKK-s5L._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_Now, I do subscribe to the wisdom of crowds ( an excellent book by James Surowiecki by the way), which suggests that a beer rating aggregation site might be more accurate than a few judges. But that generally works with an objective inquiry and not a subjective one, because something like Bourbon County Brand Stout continually rates quite high, but I can’t stand it because I dislike bourbon and I don’t think it’s a particularly good stout anyway. And if you look at IMDB and see the ratings Michael Bay gets….well…. It turns out that crowd sourcing doesn’t really work all that well when it comes to reviews, which technically undermines the point I made above, but certainly a very large sample set can be trusted more than a few judges, right?

Back to the subjectivity of my own tastes. No one can tell me that something tastes good or not and it have any meaning until I taste for myself. The particular beer that started the thread did not have anything that stood out to me as outstanding, irrespective of my general dislike for the kinds of initial flavors. But I nevertheless encourage people to taste and decide for themselves.

The brewer who posted the medal comment responded: “Judges that are certified and able to judge based on criteria for the style it is trying to represent. Able to judge on its own merit not based on personal preference.

I still have a problem with that. “Able to judge on its own merits and not personal preference” still comes down to subjectivity. “Preference” may or may not be able to be excised to a degree, but “personal” can never be. Even if a beer could be objectively analyzed in a battery of chemical tests by a computer, I respond differently to phenols and esters, etc., than the next person.

Now, here’s another question I hadn’t given enough thought to to find an answer: have they ever not awarded a gold medal at the competitions? I assumed, and that was tragically wrong, that the scoring may have been on an absolute, subjective scale, but awards were relative, based on what was presented at that particular time, so that top scores got gold, next tier silver, etc. hmm. A modicum of research was in order. Turns out that according to the Great American Beer Festival (GABF):

If judges believe that no beer in the category meets the quality and style-accuracy criteria, they may elect not to award a medal. Judges may award a beer with a silver or bronze medal and yet not award a gold medal.

freudOkay. And yet, I still question the subjective assessments of those criteria. There is a rigorous certification for beer judging that someone created called the Beer Judge Certification Program. I say “rigorous” because from accounts I’ve read, it is difficult to get certified. But…it’s still arbitrary. It’s like psychology…no matter how adamant that psychologists may be that they know something, they fundamental truth is that they don’t! They can only say, “I believe with more certainty than not that this is what is going on here…” Except…such qualifications never (or so rarely as to be essentially “never”) accompany their pronouncements. And, in my unqualified on that explicit subject because I haven’t pursued it opinion, I submit that any rigor is pretentious folderol. I do have experience with meaningless certifications (I have some letters suffixed to my name that I use, but consider essentially meaningless), and find that pretension is universally rampant in the fuzzier certs.

Even more … uh, interesting… there is a certification called Cicerone, created to fill a beer version of sommelier gap. They are not without their own pretension, claiming right on their front page “We Know Beer”. They say “The Cicerone Certification Program certifies and educates beer professionals in order to elevate the beer experience for consumers.” More…

Anyone can call themselves an expert on beer. But when consumers want great beer they need help from a server who really knows beer flavors, styles, and service.

To clarify a tad, they seem to focus on service – the first level of certification is “Certified Beer Server” – up to Master Cicerone, described as

The Master Cicerone exam challenges individuals to master every technical and aesthetic aspect of beer. Candidates must converse with professional brewers and chefs as a peer, demonstrate the tasting ability of a seasoned QC panel member and yet also speak with consumers using easy-to-understand but vividly descriptive language. Those who possess these skills serve the industry as consultants, educators and knowledge leaders in various organizations.

Okay…I might be being too hard on the certifications.  I’ve always found recommendations of food pairings of wine, and now beer, to be quite comical. And – I’m going to wear out this word – pretentious. And perhaps my exposure, eclectic and cosmopolitan as I try to make it, is still too limited – I’ve never met anyone who actually placed any credence in what a sommelier, or the far less prevalent Cicerone, have to say about pairings. Maybe recommended wine or beers, but…

Regardless on my perspective though, one cannot deny that it still comes down to subjectivity, which was my original point. And to answer my title question…for me? It’s a “no”, more because I question the validity and purposes of the certifications (I question other professional certifications for similar reasons.) If you think going through the process (at a not inconsiderable cost) will enhance your beer drinking experience and/or you like pelts for your “I love me wall”, then go for it. A few good books and lots of sampling will go farther in my opinion, but again, that’s my perspective.

Beer snobOne might be prompted to label me a snob for this. That would normally be a hasty judgment except that I do consider myself a beer snob – I only like to drink crafts. Moreover, I’m a snob within the beer snob classification: I dislike almost all lagers, and within the ale family, I dislike most Belgians, many farms/saisons, am not too partial to blonde ales, as noted above dislike bourbon and dearly love that fad would disappear, laugh at “session” labels, and detest any nitrogenated beer. I maintain that Guinness has never made a beer worth drinking twice (and a few not worth drinking once.) A snobby snob that makes me sometimes unpopular even in the beer snob circles…but I know what I like and avoid what I don’t. And me not liking your favorite or vice versa should in no way mean anything save we have different tastes. More available for you!

IMG_6459One final point to the beer that initiated the original mini-rant…I do applaud the “because it was there” efforts of the beer archaeologists. It’s cool to taste what we think those beers may have tasted like (Dogfish Head Brewery leads the way in what they call their Ancient Ales series.) But I am always happy to return to the 21st century and what modern brewing chemistry has created!

Brewers love what they do, which is why they go the extra mile … which is why I love what they do – if not every thing that they do!

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