The critics’ pick may not be choice

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So I’m paging through the latest copy of All About Beer magazine, the trade journal for people with too much time on their hands, and I must admit I’m stupefied by this business of rating beers.

Each month, the magazine painstakingly ranks more than 100 beers as part of a Buyer’s Guide prepared by the Beverage Testing Institute in Chicago. This month, it’s 194 British and American ales, from amber and pale to cream and strong.

Top honors go to the beers from Wild Goose of Maryland and Pike of Washington. I can’t argue with either of those selections, especially their India Pale Ales.

Now, as a guy who has spent more than 20 years in the pursuit of something to drink, Joe Sixpack should be fine-tuning his resume to apply for the beverage institute’s Homer Simpson Fellowship in Tasting Arts & Sciences.

But, geez, 194 different beers? That’s more than eight cases.

How does anybody taste the difference between, say, Anderson Valley Boont Amber, which scored an 89 out of 100, and North Coast Ruedrich’s Red Seal, which scored an 86? Both California brews frequently are on tap at Jake & Oliver’s House of Brews (22 S. 3rd St., Center City), and you’d be hard-pressed to detect the subtle distinction that resulted in those three measly points – even if you weren’t tasting 192 others.

The ratings are conducted by beer geeks with expert eyes, noses and tongues that carefully judge appearance, aroma, flavor and body. But isn’t taste subjective?

The only truly objective beverage-rating system I’ve seen is the DPD Scale developed by researchers who huddle frequently outside the doors of state liquor stores in seedy sections of town. DPD – or Drunkenness Per Dollar – rates booze for maximum kick at cheapest cost.

The formula:

Alcohol Content/ Price = DPD.

The higher the number, the swifter the kick. I believe that after years of research, street scholars have concluded that the optimum solution to the DPD equation is Mad Dog 20/20.

For beer, though, there is no single best brew, no matter what criteria you use. That’s why I suggest you taste all of ’em (not at once, of course).

Some beers are winners, others are stinkers. But don’t make your selection based on somebody else’s supposedly objective tongue that somehow detects flavors that, as in the magazine’s rating of Reading’s Pretzel City Nor’Easter Ale, are “reminiscent of vine fruits, chocolate, spice.”


OK, maybe you can’t try them all. So what are you going to do when you’re confronted by a wall of $25 cases at your friendly distributor?

Colleague Signe Wilkinson tells me she recently was stumped at Brewer’s Outlet in Mount Airy and decided cheaper was better. So she shelled out 17 bucks for a case of Tun Tavern. The beer just didn’t do it for her.

Here’s some handy advice for selecting your next beer.

  1. Try a sixpack first.
  2. Go with breweries you’ve already sampled and enjoyed.
  3. Check out the location of the brewery. Local is usually fresher and, thus, better.
  4. Forget Rule No. 3 if it’s Wilkes-Barre. A better contract brewer is F.X. Matt in Utica, N.Y.


If you insist on reading ratings, here are some other sources:

The Malt Advocate from Emmaus, Pa., publishes monthly ratings for both beer and whiskey. This month’s top brew: Avec les Bons Voeux, a saison from Belgium’s Brasserie DuPont.

* Michael Jackson’s definitive “Pocket Guide to Beer” is now supplemented by his “World Beer Hunter” on CD-ROM.

* Dozens of sites on the Internet conduct tasting polls. One, Dipstick’s Beer Fridge, (www.afn/%7Eafn45349/beer/beer.html) is run by a college student who also advises where to drink. Naturally, his favorite watering hole is his own dorm room.

* Even Popular Science magazine chimed in this month. Tucked behind its stirring treatises on sheep-cloning and the search for water on Jupiter’s moons, the magazine published its Essential Beer Gauge.

The nifty chart judges beer by color, flavor, body and alcohol content.


The people who brought you Sugar Mom’s in Old City have another spot – Tattooed Mom’s, 530 South St. The compact-sized pub has seven taps with a decent variety. Celis White (one of Jackson’s 5-star brews) was on line during my visit last weekend.

Meanwhile in the ‘burbs, the Jake & Oliver’s crew is working on another megatap spot, on Montgomery Avenue in Bala Cynwyd. Opening date: late June.

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