Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Point Counterpoint: Count Beer Festival Samples?

I've argued this in my head dozens of times. Is a 2 oz sample of a beer at a beer festival enough to consider that beer tried? Had? Consumed? Rate-able? What if you have two 2 oz samples? One right after the other. Or hours apart. Where is the cutoff? What if you're hammered? What if your writing's illegible? Why does it matter, it's only a personal quest anyway. Or is it? Are there unwritten rules or guidelines? Will I be outcast for improperly counting a beer as consumed and reviewed?

Like I said, I've had this conversation many times. Shall we take the questions one at a time?

In general, I say no. A 2 oz sample of a beer is not sufficient enough to officially (or unofficially) count. As far as the double sample goes, I'm less sure. Which is why I abide by the rule in my official journal that samples at a festival go in a separate category that goes uncounted in the year-end or lifetime tally.

Case in point: the 2009 City Pages Beer Fest, otherwise known as the biggest sanctioned college binge drinking session of the year. I shudder at calling this a real beer festival, but let's not be snobby now. It's somewhat of a gateway festival.

So why do beer samples at an event like this not make the cut? Shall we bullet point this?

1. Size matters. It's hard to get much depth out of a 2 oz sample, which is the only reason you need to not count them. You can usually tell if you'd like the beer or not, but it barely gets you two swigs worth. And forget about sticking your nose to the bottom of the plastic cup to garner worthwhile smell notes.
2. Samples are inconsistent. Some come from warm bottles. Bad pours. Cashed kegs. At an event like this, it's about speed for the pourer, not consistency.
3. Escalating intoxication. Three hours in, maybe that Michelob Honey Wheat (which I sampled) doesn't taste as bad as it did the first time. And maybe your buds are too shot to appreciate the step up from a Cold Spring Red River Trail Ale to a Sierra Nevada Southern Hemisphere Harvest.
4. Volunteers know nothing. Pour. Repeat. It's your job to figure out exactly what you're getting. I've had several occasions where the beer I'm told I'm drinking doesn't exist. See: Davis Hempinstein Ale.
5. Note-taking logistics. Drunken scribble on a damp napkin oftentimes doesn't look quite as clear the next day.

There probably are more reasons, but I don't think I need any. Maybe you've got additional ones, and I'd like to hear them. And if you'd argue that you can count these samples, I'd like to hear that argument as well.

Some fests, however, are plenty sufficient. Take Al's Blue Nile events, for instance. Even with a three-beer sampler, you get enough volume of each to have a clear idea of the beer's characteristics. Now, attending this event after you've spent all afternoon at the City Pages binger might not give you the clearest beer-rating head, but it does guarantee some interesting descriptions.

Of the 17 new beers I tried at the City Pages fest, I gave only five an above-average rating:

Sierra Nevada Southern Hemisphere Harvest (4 stars)
Big Sky IPA (4)
Widmer Brothers Drifter Pale Ale (3.5)
Lagunitas A Little Sumpin' Sumpin' Ale (3.5)
Rock Bottom Minneapolis Hopfen Konig IPL (3.5)

The Rock Bottom garner that rating simply because of the unique concept: they used an IPA recipe but substituted lager yeast. This is the kind of thing I'd like to see more of now that the jack-up-the-hops fetish has peaked. Let me see some innovation.

I've since had full pours of both the Sierra Nevada (on tap at Buster's on 28th) and Lagunitas (bottle from Heritage Liquor in Maplewood) and stuck by my initial ratings on both. Which brings the question back to the forefront: if my hazy, buzzed analysis is confirmed upon a full tasting, should more respect be given to the validity of festival samples?

Well, in certain cases, maybe. I speak mainly of the worst of the worst. The beers I'll never willingly try again, but deserve to be mentioned. Mentioned, that is, for their crimes. There were also five of those that Saturday afternoon (no links. If you want to research them, do so on your own):

Bohemia Clasica
Big Hold Headstrong Pale Ale
Cold Spring Red River Trail Ale
Michelob Honey Wheat
Moosehead Beer

There were perhaps a dozen more at least that I didn't have the chance to sample, including the certain abomination, Moosehead Light. Perhaps my head may have exploded upon that tasting. Also worth mentioning is Cold Spring's Honey Almond Weiss, which my counterpart could not finish. Keep in mind, these are 2 oz samples.

So can I count these? Please? I wouldn't mind the additional tallies, and it's likely I'll never have the chance to try them again. Still, the fairness-in-beer-tasting side of my brain says no. If you can't count the good, uncounted too go the bad.

Guess I know which crappy 12 packs I'll be buying for the next softball games.


al said...

Your ideas intrigue me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

nils said...

i'm not nearly consistent enough for a newsletter. i usually get ideas at inopportune times and then forget them later.

Derek said...

Very interesting question. I'd say, yes, a taste definitely counts on your list of beers you've had, if you're keeping track. As far as a rating goes, I would say maybe. You wouldn't want to mislead anyone into spending hard earned money on a beer you suggested if you've only had just a little. But I think you could definitely give your opinion of the beer after 2 oz as long as you disclosed the amount to any readers. I'll hang up now and listen...

Aaron said...

Good analysis, I agree on your beer festival points. And I avoided the City Pages thing like the plague. Al was pouring much better stuff that day, as usual.

Nick said...

I agree that the City Pages Beer Festival of 2009 was not necessarily a place to take notes on the new beer you tried, but it was an unbeatable deal. $25 dollars for all you can drink Lagunitas and Rogue beer (and others). Both of these beers run about $5-$7 after tax for a 22oz beer or about $9 for a 6 pack. After 3 hours, I know I got my fill worth of some delicious beers (and a few less impressive beers).