It occurs to me that I have not explained my grading system at all, and for the most part that’s because it’s a bit of a nebulous thing. How do I know something is an A (or an F or a B- or whatever)? To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart1, I know it when I see it (or, in this case, drink it). Then again, most beers could probably shift a level one way or the other and still be valid from my perspective, and I’ll admit that a big part of this is just a sorta gut feeling. That being said, I have some definite guidelines that have been brewing2 in my head over the course of the year and a half I’ve been running the blog.
I’m not entirely sure why I chose the letter grading system this time around, but it probably had something to do with the fact that most of the folks I read used that scale and at the time, Beer Advocate was using letter grades too (they’ve since moved on to a much simpler system comprised of, like, 13 different values, all weighted and averaged on a logarithmic scale to yield 3 separate ratings that you must analyze separately and together in order to get a broad snapshot of what a bunch of strangers think about the beer3). Plus, I’d never used it before myself (I use 4/5 stars for movies and at some point I had a 10 point scale for books, though I’ve reverted back to stars).
One thing I’ve realized that might be important when considering the below is that, well, I was a huge nerd in school. Not super-genius nerdy, but let’s just say that anything in the C range was unwelcome in my household (I got a C+ one one report card once and my parents grounded me for a month). Low Bs weren’t exactly favored either. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in school, but I think you can still see that bias seeping through my ratings. The other thing you’ll notice is that I tend to avoid the extremes. Very few A+s and, correspondingly, very few Fs. Most of the stuff will be in the middle of the pack. Anyway, let’s get this party started:
- F: There’s something dramatically wrong with this beer. Initiate quarantine protocols; the end is nigh. Fortunately, as of right now, I’ve only given this rating 4 times. Once was for a non-alcoholic beer, once was for the God-awful abomination that is Cave Creek Chili Beer, and two were for beers that were skunked to high heaven. I suppose you could argue that skunked beers don’t deserve an F, but in both cases, I get the impression that the base beer wasn’t very good to start with and in one case, it was packaged in a green bottle – a distinct decision made by the brewery to emphasize marketing over quality (and thus I have no problem giving it an F). I suppose there could be a plus or minus modifier on an F, but once you reach this level, there are other things you should be worrying about.
- D: There’s still something wrong with the beer, but there is at least some redeeming quality that prevents me from going nuclear and rating an F. Out in the real world, a D is technically a “passing” grade, but if I ever brought home a D, I’d be in serious trouble. To my mind, the textbook beer example is Brewdog Storm, an Imperial IPA aged in Islay Whisky casks. Interesting idea, but my bottle may have been well beyond its shelf life (this nerdy mystery is detailed in the linked post) and I’m not sure I can blame Brewdog for that snafu. All I know is that they tried something interesting and it didn’t work out, hence a D. In other cases, I rate beers a D if they seem stale or if they have weird off flavors that don’t necessarily overwhelm the beer. For some reason, traditional English Pale Ales that have a lot of buttery diacetyl seem to fall into this category a lot). Plus and Minus modifiers have actually been used on the blog, but that only really comes into play in a comparative tasting. In short, if a beer is anywhere in the D range, it’s in trouble. It’s possible that I will finish these beers, as I really do hate to waste a beer, even a bad one, but it’s also possible that I won’t be able to take it anymore either.
- C-: There may be something wrong with this beer, but it’s subtle and the beer is drinkable. I’ll finish it, but I won’t be happy about it. I’ve only given this three times, and in all three cases, the beer turned out to be a subpar version of better beers. In one case, there were minor off flavors, but nothing dramatic. Some of my least-favorite macros fit in here (for example: MGD, Natty Light, Beast, etc…)
- C: Profoundly average beer. There’s probably not anything outright offensive about this beer, but it also doesn’t have much going for it either. Drinkable, but nothing to go out of your way for and probably not worth the calories. I would say that a lot of macro-lagers and light-lagers would fit into this rating (For example: Bud, Bud Light).
- C+: An average (read: boring) beer. When circumstances are right, these can be acceptable. There’s nothing particularly special about this beer, but it’s the first rating discussed so far that isn’t meant as entirely negative. These are beers that usually suffer in comparison to other beers, but again, in the right circumstances, they can be solid. For example, last summer, after an entire day spent out in the sun, a friend handed me a Coors Light. And you know what? I enjoyed it. At that time and place, it was just what I needed. Sure, it’s practically water, but I think that’s what made it work. Now, it’s obviously not going to compete with most of the full-flavored beers I review on the blog, but it has its place. So I’d call this the top tier of the macros, with the occasional craft disappointment that still shows promise.
- B-: This is the first genuinely positive rating, though I also tend to use this as a place to dump beers that I can tell are well crafted, but which never really jived with me. For example: Founders Breakfast Stout. Everyone seems to love that stuff. Me, I’m not a big coffee drinker. I can tell the beer is well made, but it’s just not my thing. So while this rating is positive, a lot of beers rated here tend to be something of a disappointment to me. That being said, I’d pick these over anything in the C-F range any day and twice on Sunday.
- B: Unambiguously good beer. It won’t set your world on fire or melt your face, but it’s a good brew worth drinking. Lots of beers fall into this range, so it’s hard to really define a pattern, but if you’re rated here, you’re doing very well. These are beers I would try again, though I don’t think I’d necessarily go out of my way to find (but they’re certainly a sight for sore eyes when your in a bar sporting mostly macro crap).
- B+: Extremely good beer that is nonetheless lacking something that would lead to true greatness. However, I really like this beer and would go out of my way to try it again. This is my most frequently used rating, so perhaps I am overrating some beers. Or I just have an amazing intuition when it comes to picking out new beer. After all, it’s not like I’m trying to find bad beer!
- A-: A great beer. Despite the minus, I wouldn’t say the beer lacks anything or has any real flaws. However, there may be something that’s holding me back just a teensy bit. Maybe the mouthfeel is just a hint off, or the flavors could be better balanced. While I may rate a ton of stuff at a B+ or A-, I still have rather high standards, so to get higher than an A-, your beer has to be something special. That being said, beers that get an A- are things I’m going to seek out again and things I’d recommend to others. If you’ve got an A-, you’re doing very well indeed. These are great beers, and they actually are setting the world on fire… but it’s an orderly fire, suitable for roasting marshmallows and making s’mores. Which are, like, totally awesome.
- A: This isn’t just great, it’s special. Awesome, in the true sense of that word. Excellent, superb, brilliant, fantastic, fabulous, fantabulous, heavenly, sensational, hyperbole, HYPERBOLE! Oh God the world is on fire! And my face! It’s melting! Yet somehow I want more… gimme! As of right now, I’ve rated 36 beers as an A, which strikes me as being a bit on the high side. And every one of them is truly great. These are beers I’d go far out of my way for. These are the ones that keep me drinking beer.
- A+: No words. No words to describe it. Poetry! They should have sent… a poet. So beautiful. So beautiful… I had no idea. I HAD NO IDEA! Yeah, so at the extreme high-end of the ratings, I’m apparently very strict. Only 3 beers have reached this transcendent level. How does one attain this level? It’s a little mysterious. You need more than just a great beer to get up here. This is the one rating where I really do try to make sure I’ve had the beer multiple times to ensure it holds up (though I did break that rule once, which would be mildly shameful if I didn’t absolutely love that beer).
And to further demonstrate my nerdery, I’ve graphed the number of ratings I’ve given out. This is only really an approximation, as I’m using the post count rather than looking at individual beer reviews. This means that posts that feature, for example, 2 B ratings, will only count as one on the chart below. And if you look at those posts, there often are multiple Bs and B-s, etc… Anyway, here’s my dorky chart:
Not quite a perfect bell curve and the peak is probably centered on too high a rating to be statistically sound, but I’m not that much of a nerd, so I’ll just say that I think this is a rather fine distribution. I suspect that my hesitance to rate along the extremes (i.e. A+ and F) will continue unabated.
1 – Did I just reference a Supreme Court ruling in a freakin post about beer rating? Well, yes I did, and I normally try to avoid devaluing the Supreme Court by applying their rulings to the trivialities of my life, but I don’t feel that bad about it this time because the court case in question was about pornography (for the record, I know that when I see it too.) I should probably just chill out and drink a beer rather than whine about ratings and the Supreme Court.
3 – Ok, so it’s not nearly that complicated. I just miss the letter grades. It was sooo much easier to tell at a glance what a bunch of strangers thought of a beer. Now I have to, like, do calculations. And why do their beer listings use a different, 5 point scale? Pick a scale and stick to it. Or make them all available all the time. Ungh.