The Beer Trials” by Seamus Campbell and Robin Goldstein (Fearless Critic Media, $14.95) is a fascinating new book billed as “a ratings guide to 250 of the most important and widely available beers in the world, from craft brews to macro-lagers.”
The ratings — on a 10 point whole-number scale with 6.5 as the average — are sure to stir lively discussions, both among casual beer lovers and aficionados. In many ways, the presuppositions, methodology and selection process behind the book are even more interesting and controversial.
“The Beer Trials” was conceived by Goldstein, a consumer advocate whose 2008 book, “The Wine Trials,” created a fuss in the wine world. New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov called it “another anti-intellectual effort to take fancy-schmancy wine down a peg or two.”
That criticism aside, by boldly purporting to break down the connection between price and quality, it became a best-seller, as well as a sort of populist manual for shamelessly exploring the pleasures of inexpensive wine.
For instance, during the original “The Wine Trials” brown bag blind tastings (an updated 2010 edition is now available), a $9.99 bottle of Washington state Domaine Ste. Michelle brut sparkling wine scored higher than a super expensive bottle of French Dom Pérignon champagne.
There’s nothing quite like that in “The Beer Trials,” though there are plenty of quirky surprises: Bud Light Lime rates a 5, while Budweiser rates a 4; on another set of facing pages, Flying Dog Snake Dog IPA and Foster’s Lager both rate a 6; Steel Reserve 211 High Gravity (a malt liquor) also rates a 6.
As the book explains, beers were judged against other beers in the “same family” and thus were evaluated on how they “achieved their particular aims.”
Some of the highest rated beers are beer geek favorites, including Alaskan Smoked Porter, Great Divide Yeti, Russian River Pliny the Elder, Saison Dupont and Victory Prima Pils, which all rated a 9.
Several introductory chapters go into “the science behind beer tasting,” with some fun experiments, including a blind tasting in which beer drinkers performed no better than chance at distinguishing between major pale lager brands.
A chapter titled “Beer Goggles” takes aim at what the authors call the “beer snob.” They contend: “That enthusiastic beer geek may turn out to be even less aware of lifestyle marketing than your average Bud Light drinker.”
As one example, they cite the tendency of beer geeks to go for “imperial-strength” ales. And there’s an interesting discussion of the “Freakonomics” of hard-to-get beers, such as Pliny the Younger and Westvleteren 12.
Though Campbell and Goldstein have some criticisms and concerns about the current craft brewing renaissance, they’re mostly encouraged by the availability and relative value of great beer — especially compared with wine.
As they put it in the preface: “If we can help you find a new beer to love, then our purpose is met.”