I'd like to follow up a bit on yesterday's post by thinking about the role of the critic in food writing (including restaurant reviews and wine, beer, and spirits writing of the sort that we're exploring in the Trials series). I think that understanding the components of the critic's job is useful from both sides of the relationship. Hopefully it will be evident by the end of this article that my understanding of my job has an impact on how I do it; I hope that it will have the added benefit of increasing the value you can take from The Beer Trials
when you read it.
The goal of The Beer Trials (and its sibling The Wine Trials) is to educate consumers on the options available to them, to help them make informed choices about the huge landscape of beer and wine available across North America. From my perspective, there are three key pieces to how we do this.
First, I have to entertain the reader. All of the data in the world will do me little good if you can't be bothered to turn the page and read on. There are critics who lose sight of this; they're so focused on telling you why this new album is great or why that new restaurant is a failure that they forget to remind you why you should care.
But readers never stop asking themselves why they should care. Or at least I don't. Any doubts I had about that disappeared when I started observing how people use the book when they first see it: they immediately turn to see what we said about their favorite beer.
We do a few things to try to make The Beer Trials simply fun to read. The most prominent of these are the design reviews — most of the bandwidth of that section is reserved for me to be silly. We do spend some time in that section pushing the importance of brown glass and freshness dating, but more commonly we take an opportunity for levity — see, for instance, Magic Hat #9 ("the perfect meeting point between the psychedelic poster art of the late 1960s and a colorblindness test at the optometrist's office") or Boulder Planet Porter ("It's a little surprising that the Tax and Trade Bureau approved a label that might be construed as advocating the combination of alcohol and telescope operation").
Second, we try to have enough basic factual information to educate the reader. Or, as we call it in the nonfiction business, content. It's totally possible to miss this one. It's a serious challenge with wine reviews, where studies suggest that consumers don't do well at connecting the often-heady adjectives used by wine writers to describe flavors with the actual experience of drinking the wine. It's part of the reason that we included chapters on beer ingredients and flavors.
I know that there will be readers who disagree with the opinions we express in the book (and as I noted yesterday, that can be something to celebrate) but I hope that it's rare that the tasting notes about what is in the bottle seem jarring or off-base to readers. I think there's room for poetry in describing food, but it should certainly be paired with concrete, down-to-earth descriptions.
As a reader, you should be looking to identify and separate factual information from opinion. Particularly if you don't have an established understanding of where the critic is coming from, which brings me to my final point...
Perhaps most importantly, critics have to help you contextualize their opinions. This is something on which we worked hard for our book. Our opinions are only opinions, and we respect that. We've tried to be consistent and fair (both in writing and in setting up a system for tasting that will help push our internal biases out of the way), but mindful of the fact that all of the experts in the world have to play second fiddle to your tastes.
To my mind, a key measure of a critic's success is how useful their work is to a reader when the reader disagrees with the critic's opinion. The iconic example of a critic who excels at this is wine critic Robert Parker, founder of the Wine Advocate. There's a lot of criticism these days about whether Parker has undue influence on the wine world; whether his 100-point scale makes sense; and whether his version of "perfect wine" is good or in some cases even drinkable. But regardless of how you feel about his preferences, there is nearly universal consensus that his palate is impeccably consistent, and his writing is typically full of enough description and context that, with a little practice, it's possible to assess your interest in the wines he's reviewed even if your tastes don't align with his.
Any reduction of the dimensions of food or wine or beer to a number, a grade, or an adjective involves a loss of information. The best critics give you the background you need to begin to reconstruct the complex interplay of flavors, aromas, and other senses. The dialogue that we as consumers can have with that kind of criticism is infinitely more satisfying and interesting than simply agreeing or disagreeing with a thumbs-up/thumbs-down critic (however long they may take to make their point).
Good criticism requires the reader to engage their own critical faculties, to consider their preferences, and to form their own judgment. And engaging with our food — or more broadly, the world around us — is a high and noble purpose, in my opinion.
Who are your favorite food critics? Do they write short-form criticism, like Parker, or long-form expositions of food and our experience of it, like Michael Pollan?