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Book Review: The Beer Trials

Matt Tunnell

Frisbee player, beer lover

   We recently received an email from Fearless Critic offering to send us review copies of their new book "The Beer Trials."  Since fame hasn't yet gotten to my head, I decided to go ahead and review it.  The Beer Trials and its companion book, The Wine Trials, are based on the premise of blind tasting, which is what really sets them apart from other rating systems.  
   The editors selected 250 beers for evaluation based on availability (they tried to find beers distributed in at least 12 states) and on their origin with half from microbreweries and half from macrobreweries and of those one third are imports.  These 250 beers are broken up by some artifice into so-called families of styles in order to facilitate the blind tasting process. An index of the beers and their ratings, organized by style, is available at the beginning of the rating section of the book for quick comparisons.  I have some qualms with the selections that this resulted in.  Do we really need ratings for 5 different versions of Budweiser?  Moreover, many of the craft beers in The Beer Trials, including Deschutes, Kona, and Oscar Blues are unavailable here in Chicago and it seems like Midwestern craft brew gets underrepresented here.  I don't know if Bell's and Great Lakes meet the distribution requirements, but, in my mind they're likely choices for inclusion.
   The flavor and aroma reviews, which were, unfortunately, the meat of the book, left something to be desired.  While this is more likely to be a flaw of beer reviews in general than the fault of the authors, each review features a list of flavors drawn from a rather small pool of adjectives (Then again, look at our reviews, maybe the lexicon is just depressingly small) so they don't really make for compelling reading.   Most of them provide a passable account of what's going in the beer, touching on highs, lows, and off flavors; several reviews even feature snarky comments from the tasters but they fail to engage and provide a true sense of the beer.
    Another, less essential, aspect of the reviews kept me turning the pages though, and that was the reviews of labels and packaging.  I enjoyed these judgmental and humorous little passages, and I often caught myself skipping ahead just to read them.  These design notes really set the Beer Trials apart from any other beer reviews that I have read.  While the contents of a bottle are ultimately the only thing that matters, great presentation can enhance the whole experience of drinking a beer.  Similarly, poor presentation is also an interesting study in marketing and the sometimes twisted minds of brewers.
    I found the strongest section of The Beer trials to be the introduction, in which beer flavors, both desirable and otherwise are broken down and explained in simple terms.  While it's hard to wrap your head around some of these ideas until you literally get a taste of them, Seamus Campbell's presentation of them is one of the most succint and helpful ones that I have yet encountered.  
   This book has the potential to make the beer section of the liquor store less intimidating, but it doesn't just give it away for free.  In order to extract the fullest use from The Beer Trials, you really have to read the introduction and make an effort to try a variety of the beers described, especially since several of the reviews refer to other beers explicitly, while others focus certain qualities, such as Belgian or English, that are difficult to adequately describe in words to the uninitiated.  This amount of work can seem daunting to someone newly interested in craft beer, though one would certainly enjoy just sticking to the highly rated beers.  On the other hand, this book doesn't really have much to offer beyond the introduction for those already immersed in the craft beer scene.  I found myself annoyed by the seemingly exhaustive survey of American and American style pale lagers as it doesn't seem to hold any appeal for either audience.
Update:  Check the comments for some words from an editor at fearless critic.



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1 Comment

TWalters said:

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Hi Matt, thanks for the thoughts and kind words. I'm an editor and occasional writer with Fearless Critic - glad to hear you enjoyed the book. I think you're right that the vocabulary of beer tasting is still a bit limited, and I only hope that as more and more drinkers start taking it seriously, we'll expand our language (without falling into the trap of "tar-covered elderflower petals" into which wine tasting notes often get mired).

As far as why we reviewed so many mainstream lagers, it's because the book bills itself as a guide to "the world's most popular beers." And whether we like it or not, there are many, many more bottles of Bud and Miller sold each year than all the microbrews combined. So if people are going to drink mainstream lagers, we might as well make sure they're drinking the best.

Anyway, thanks again for the kind words, and definitely let us know if you have any other thoughts.


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