In the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen a pretty interesting trend in the beer department. We’ve had some releases from Founders and Maine Beer, with completely different levels of demand. In particular, I’m speaking about the Backwoods Bastard from Founder’s, a bourbon barrel-aged ale, and King Titus from Maine, a porter. I had the pleasure of trying both beers (I had to buy the Backwoods elsewhere!), and although I wouldn’t claim to be an objective reviewer I feel confident in saying that there’s a pretty clear discrepancy between the quality of the two.
The Founder’s Backwoods lands somewhere in the realm of a brown ale in terms of color, with a bit of an orange tint to it from barrel aging. At a hefty 10.2% alcohol, the best descriptor that I can give the beer’s flavor profile is “boozy”. There’s a lot of caramel character in there, but between the bourbon influence and the alcohol content it was hard for me to avoid thinking that the beer is too unbalanced for me to really enjoy.
The Titus, on the other hand, I really got into. As far as I can tell, there are no unusual techniques used in its production, it’s just straight dark chocolatey malt and enough hopping to keep the sweetness in check. It has a bit of a chocolate and coffee character to it, and a slightly lighter mouthfeel than most American porters possess, adding up to what I thought was a very pleasurable beer.
I seem to be firmly in the minority in terms of my opinion on these two beers, however, as a check on www.beeradvocate.com revealed that the Backwoods scored a 93 on their 100 point scale, while the Maine received a mere 89. The Backwoods was also the subject of countless phone calls and queries from customers, while the Maine arrived with relatively little fanfare, and while the Backwoods was gone within a week I still have some of the Titus being held in the back room.
It’s my opinion that a lot of people feel compelled to like things that are rare, because presumably if something is difficult to get it must be good. In general this makes perfect sense, but I think in the beer world this basic economic principle is being manipulated by breweries in an unnecessary manner. If Backwoods Bastard were available year-round, I’m certain people would tire of drinking it very quickly. An occasional indulgence, sure, but it simply cannot be a daily drinker. With that in mind, I suspect that Founder’s is perfectly capable of brewing enough Backwoods, or Breakfast Stout, or the legendary KBS, to satisfy demand, but they choose not to in order to keep customers clamoring for these beers and, therefore, inflating their scores on Beer Advocate and similar publications. This in turn adds to their prestige, ensuring a steady supply of enthusiasm for their every limited release.
There is no universally accepted objective standard of quality assessment in the beer world, like those necessary to earn a Master of Wine or Master of Whisky title, so ratings and reviews seem to be largely driven by personal taste. What do you think about this phenomenon? Are breweries psyching us into thinking that mediocre beer is excellent? Am I just a contrarian by nature, is the conventional wisdom that rare means good a reliable way to determine whether or not a beer is worth tracking down? What say you??