Friday, November 6, 2009

The Session #33 – Framing Beer

A mighty interesting, open-ended topic for this month's Session, hosted by Andrew at I'll Have a Beer and announced here. Our task is to consider how context and framing influence the way we consider and evaluate beers.

There are any number of ways to go with this thought-provoking topic, but in the interest of space and time I'll try to keep my focus tight. And given that many of my thoughts – my beer-related thoughts especially – fixate on homebrew, that seems like a good place to take this Session effort.

Homebrew competitions, by and large, are fine exercises for neutralizing many of the effects of context when it comes to evaluating beer. There are no names, so a brewer's reputation can't influence the judges. Extract vs. all-grain is not specified, so those biases are off the table. Recipes are not divulged, so expectations based on ingredients used cannot be considered. All that the judges have to work with is a declared style and a set of style guidelines against which to measure the entry.

And yet here is where we see how even in such a context-neutral environment as a homebrew competition, framing and context do indeed play key roles. More on that in a second.

As a card-carrying beer judge, I enjoy working competitions and trying my best to provide entrants with constructive, impartial and informed evaluation of their beers. But I know full well that, try as we might, judges are often vulnerable to context and framing influences, just as we are in "real-world" beer-drinking situations.

Let's start with the matter of categorization. So that beers can be properly evaluated against one another, entries are sorted into categories, with sub-categories further specified by the entrant. In so doing, the beers are pitted not only against each other but also a standardized set of guidelines specific to each style, with detailed notes on appearance, aroma, taste, mouthfeel, et cetera all assisting the judge in diagnosing the beer's quality. Thus the beer is framed before it even passes the drinker's lips – it is generally assumed that beers entered into a given category do indeed fall within its parameters; thus judges will tend to evaluate the beer as if it at least roughly fits the guidelines. Variation, where not plainly egregious, is often considered to amount to a mild departure from this or that prescribed quality.

This framing tendency is easily testable. I once entered a dark beer fermented with Witbier yeast and seasoned with coriander and citrus peel in the Brown Porter category. It scored fairly high marks, with none of the evaluators picking up on ingredients that, beyond a doubt, would be officially forbidden in the category. (And had I entered the beer in Specialty and declared the additions, I am certain they would have been commented upon.) Another amusing trick is to cross-enter the same beer in different, though similar categories in the same competition. (For example, Robust Porter and one of the Stout categories.) If the beer receives high scores in both cases, one has to wonder whether power of suggestion had prevailed or there was simply not enough daylight between the categories to reveal one entry as fraudulent. Perhaps a little of both.

Evaluating a beer against its category is only half the judge's task; the other is to suss out flaws in the production of the beer. A whole roster of off-flavors is usually available for consultation (though the experienced judge should already be familiar with these) and it is up to the evaluators, where appropriate, to call a brewer out for them and penalize the beer accordingly. (And, of course, to make suggestions for how to overcome the flaw next time.)

Judges are by no means assured of finding the same flaws in every beer they taste together. Some individuals simply are less sensitive to certain flavors than others – for a long time I did not believe I could easily pick up on diacetyl or oxidation – others may even have a reputation for being extra (or excessively) sensitive to some. I have been on judging panels where, once the score cards are compared, one would think we had sampled entirely different beers. (This makes it all the more gratifying when, in what itself is no rare instance, judges independently pick up on the same things.)

On larger panels, groupthink can become an issue, where a particular idea gains traction and suddenly the entire table becomes convinced that a certain flaw or characteristic is present. Sometimes consensus arrives by way of a particularly strong personality, or others' lack of confidence, or power of suggestion.

I don't mean to impugn homebrew competitions unfairly; on the whole I'd say judges tend to get the calls right, and at the end of the day the best beers are rewarded while the less-than-stellar ones are not. But beware the veneer of objectivity and the assumption it can be achieved to an absolute degree. It just may be that framing and context in beer evaluation – as in just about all other aspects of life – could be unavoidable after all.

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