The Session #33: Framing Beer

The SessionI have to admit, I’m a bit stumped as to how to approach this month’s Session: Framing Beer, hosted and suggested by Andy Couch.

For better or worse, in everyday situations beer comes with a label. This label very really ‘frames’ the beer inside. The fact that the beer comes commercially-produced signals the presence of investment (if not skill). A style name or tasting notes indicates the general characteristics to expect. If you know the brewery the beer is framed with your past experiences. Even the label art will affect your expectations for the beer.

What role does this framing play in beer tasting, especially for ‘professional evaluators’? Relate an amusing or optimistic anecdote about introducing someone to strange beer. Comment on the role a label plays in framing a beer or share a label-approval related story. I have not done much blind tasting, and I would be intrigued to hear about this ‘frameless’ evaluation of beer.

And drink a beer. Ideally drink something that you don’t think you will like. Try to pick out what it is about that brew that other people enjoy (make sure to properly frame the beer!).

It’s a thought-provoking topic that I could come at from several angles. So, I suppose I’ll do just that, mostly because I can’t decide on any single way to deconstruct the topic.

One thing Andy didn’t cover in his descriptors and examples above is what I think is a fairly recent twist in the “beer framing” discussion: the growing role that beer review sites like RateBeer and BeerAdvocate (and the web in general) in framing beer and influencing opinions on beer before said beer ever touches your lips. Indeed, because of these sites I know things like:

  • The best beers in the world are “big” or extreme beers, often Imperial Stouts, and often barrel-aged;
  • Some of said “best beers” are often rare and feature exclusive or limited releases: typically the harder the beer is to get, the better it is;
  • Most beers brewed by industrial macrobrewers are terrible;
  • Beers like Three Floyds’ Dark Lord Imperial Stout are so coveted that people will travel from far and wide to camp overnight at the brewery for just a chance of acquiring some on the one day a year it’s released—so it must be amazing.

I’m being a bit snarky, yes, but really: if you know nothing else about a beer at first other than it got high marks at BeerAdvocate, then that is definitely a “framing factor” that will influence your take on it.

I can think of one clear instance recently where I myself “framed” a beer before drinking it: with Widmer’s Cherry Oak Doppelbock I wrote:

I opened the bottle up yesterday, and I’ll be honest, I was expecting a good beer, a competent beer, but nothing really “blow your socks off.”

Boy, was I surprised. Stunned, even. I’m declaring right now Widmer’s Cherry Oak Doppelbock is one of the best beers of 2009.

See what happened there? I initially approached the beer from a different assumption than the reality, which is exactly the state of affairs Andy describes. Why would I do that with a Widmer beer? No idea. I like to think I’m fairly open-minded when it comes to beer, and I’ve extolled the virtues of Widmer many times in the past. Perhaps it was “big beer fatigue”, some sort of “anti-framing” to the website framing I talk about above—an initial “ho hum” reaction to yet another big beer.

Which brings to mind an interesting question: how many people experience something akin to anti-framing a beer? That is, the way they approach the beer is counter to how it would typically be approached? Of course, then we’d have to define “typical” with beer.

Of course, there we go framing the beer again…

2 Responses to The Session #33: Framing Beer

  1. Some excellent questions, Jon.

    Another would be what’s the mix of drinkers who buy the Cherry Oak Doppelbock (an excellent beer, particularly at $7.95 the way prices are going, if not one of my favorites of the year)?

  2. I’m also a huge fan of the Cherry Oak Dopplebock. I think Widmer is a great example for your framing discussion. Brrr and Drifter were also surprisingly tasty releases that surpassed my expectations.

    Mario