Over at the New York Times, Eric Asimov will provoke thought with his recent post on blind tastings. His comments refer to wine, but I think many of the same points can be made of beer. (And Asimov is a friend of beer, often writing about it.)
Basically, his premise is: should the only judgment of beer be a blind tasting or should some other criteria come into play?
It seems to me that when you remove a wine from its context you are eliminating the conditions for understanding it properly. And if you insist that this context is irrelevant you almost insure that you will never understand the wine. It’s almost an anti-intellectual position. Obviously what’s in the glass matters. But I think the more knowledge you can bring to a wine, the better your understanding of that wine will be.I love his last point. Beer tastes best enjoyed in fellowship, and when enjoyed with others over a meal. That's the point of it! A blind judging, though done with others, is really a solitary endeavor.
Here’s another way to think of it. Trying to eliminate all external factors beyond what’s in the glass contributes to the sense of omniscience that we too often confer to wine critics. Most people involved with wine concede that two bottles may taste very different. All sorts of conditions affect how we experience wines. So in a sense boiling a wine down to a number, a score, a snapshot evaluation, rarely does justice to the wonderful mutability of wines.
While I have been critical of blind tastings, it may well be that they remain the best way to taste large numbers of wines. The absolute best way to evaluate wine, over time with a meal, is not always practical.
[UPDATE: 2007.09.23] But leave it to Frederic Koeppel, wine blogger, to place this in marvelous perspective: "I think that first we have to separate drinking from tasting."
I would agree with Asimov that context is important - but as a guideline not as picayune stricture. I'm specifically referring to US beer competitions.
The Great British Beer Festival may not be a perfect antipode, but it does promote keen interest, without resorting to the 70 or so categories and subdivisions with which we pollute our beer competitions in the US.