On Mediocrity 8

In undergrad, a friend of mine adopted a principle that allowed him to spend more time playing cards than doing coursework. While he was very interested in doing his best when it came to the courses pertaining to his major, he viewed elective courses as something of an intrusion into his spare time. As a result he would aim for a balance between the highest mark that he could possibly get and the lowest amount of effort that would allow him a respectable grade. He called it “The Gentleman’s C.”

I am not sure that it served him well subsequently, but we always had a fourth for euchre.

I’ve been thinking a lot about The Gentleman’s C in recent months because I’ve noticed something interesting: Given enough time, everything, regardless of its quality will end up with a mark somewhere between 3.25 and 3.75 on Untappd. For those of you who don’t know, Untappd is an application that lets you check in the beers that you are drinking and give them a score out of five. It’s generally fairly pointless and ultimately gameifies the consumption of alcohol by giving you badges. That’s very probably a bad thing in the long term.

I think that this has to do with the sheer quantity of beer being made across North America at the moment and the amount of enthusiasm that the market is seized with. In terms of criticism it’s difficult because there’s only so much meaningful output that any one person can create. In Ontario at the moment there are so many new breweries that I think it unlikely that anyone has eyes on all of them.

Understand this: As little as thirty years ago, it would certainly have been possible for a single critic to have tried every beer in production in North America. It would not even have taken all that long to do it. Possibly less than a year. It was not as though there were fourteen new kinds of session IPA hitting the market each week.

My numbers are bogus here, but follow me on the concept. There are something like 3000 breweries in Canada and the USA. I think we can safely give those breweries an average of five brands a piece, although in practice I suspect it to be higher than that. This means that there are something like 15,000 brands of beer being brewed in North America (excluding Mexico because I don’t know enough about that to wrap my head around it.)

At one beer a night that would take you 41 years. Even were you to dedicate your entire life the process and call it 8 three ounce samples a night, you’re never going to catch up with the growth forecasted and you’re going to zeno’s paradox yourself right into oblivion.

(edit: kudos to astute reader David Horatio Ort, who kindly pointed out that my bogus math was three times as bogus as it ought to have been.)

For that reason, there’s a significant tendency in criticism to focus on the absolute best of the best. It’s impossible to have context for everything, so why wouldn’t you focus on the things that you know you’re going to like and be able to review positively? If you try something you don’t like why would you waste your time reviewing it? Many people I’ve talked to are pleased to simply not write about things that they don’t like or things that are poorly made. I do it myself. I’ve got books to write and I’d prefer to recommend good things in the column than excoriate bad things.

With that huge and ever expanding number of beers out there, I think that we’re probably doing a disservice to people who read about beer by accentuating the positive when we should really be eliminating the negative with extreme prejudice. If a beer is simply not very good, then we should probably be telling the public that.

Untappd is a poor substitute for reality. Not everything is worth 3.5 stars out of 5. There’s some rough work being pulled at the fermenter and I’m seeing that increase rather than decrease. There are beers being launched into the world that are uninspired and really serve no purpose other than being something to market. There are some woeful mediocrities out there that deserve nothing but scorn. I don’t mean mass market brands from the big guys. I mean small craft beer producers who are more interested in a marketing strategy than a quality product. Brewers whose grasp has exceeded their reach.

The directory over at Mom n’ Hops is telling me that there are 184 breweries and brewing companies open or in planning in Ontario. When I started writing about beer in 2010, I think we had something like 35 in Ontario. For that reason, you wanted to be a bit gingerly. It was a big deal when someone got a new product on a shelf. You wanted to be a bit supportive even if the product was mediocre because at least it meant there was choice.

Choice is no longer a problem, but mediocrity is becoming one. Average is going to get you lost in the shuffle. Aim for something a little higher than a Gentleman’s C, folks. Just existing is for plankton.

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8 thoughts on “On Mediocrity

  • Chris Conway (@groulxsome)

    I’m slightly confused, perhaps as a result of marking undergraduate papers as I write this. Surely someone has to be average and surely that person has to have some people below them and some above. Some years that average is higher than others, but, nonetheless, there is still an average.

    If every new brewery in Ontario started brewing Heady the Younger or Kentucky County Stout, wouldn’t those become average? And wouldn’t new extremes rise in their wake? Would we not just have blog posts lamenting another what-used-to-be-world-class, perfectly executed hop-bombs leading the lineup of some new brewery? Wouldn’t complaining about that in the future sound as ridiculous to us now as worrying about too many new beers would have five years ago?

    As for untappd being a poor substitute for reality, that I suspect is highly a matter of how you are using the site. If you’re wowed by numbers as they tend logarithmicly towards five and gobsmacked by digital badges, then untappd might just be a little tickers paradise. But there are other ways to use it.

    I enjoy untappd not for ticking or badges or numbers, but because I can see what people I know are drinking and, in a terse 140 characters, find out what they think about it. These are people, mind you, who I might not normally get to talk with often, but, because of untappd, we can have a discussion about the beer, not just whatever little bottle cap rating it was given.

    The problem here is one of quantification. Numbers are limiting and grades, for your C-friend, are only one method of evaluation. I think the comments on your friends’ essays. For the student, the grade might be all that matters in the end, but for the maker constructive feedback is key. If we are supposed, in your analogy, to be the graders of these beers, than our focus should be on more words on untappd than numbers.

    Quantification is a poor substitute for reality. Words are better than grade letters and numbers. And wordy reviews make defining mediocre just that much harder. This is especially true when a beer needs a few cruel but constructive words more than it needs a 2 star rating and a “meh.” Or worse, the silence of omission.

    • admin Post author

      Yes, young man, that’s very clever, but it’s Heady Topper all the way down.

      I think what I’m saying is people are aiming for “just good enough” in some instances.

  • David Ort

    First, who pays any attention to Untappd ratings? Unless they’ve “been forced to drink a Bud Light” nobody gives a 1 and yet they throw out 5s like candy. Their pendulum swings a bit far in the “cult favourite” direction, but I think the ones on BA and Ratebeer are the only beer ratings worth discussing.

    To your main question (should we call out bad beers?), I go immediately to the accepted standard for restaurant criticism: What is the business promising and do they deliver? it’s not useful to find the very first PIzza Nova (it’s in Scarborough, they have tables and servers), now regularly patronised by locals, and tear a strip off it because it’s not up to the standards of Pizzeria Libretto. For beer, I think you have to start with a similar set of questions: Is this trying to be a good beer? Has it received enough public attention (from marketing or other critics) to be worth commenting? If those two tests are passed I think it’s worth warning readers to stay away.

    The other thing to remember is that there are shades of grey between a glowing review and a total flop. Again with the restaurant comparison, I don’t think readers understand how infrequently critics publish a truly negatively review. Many 1/4 star reviews amount to “well that was good, I’m just not blown away,”

    • admin Post author

      I’m always interested in crowdsourced opinion. In a lot of ways Untappd is a better reflection of what a larger number of craft beer drinkers think since the Untappd people are hobbyists who don’t care quite enough to think about ratings in terms of Ratebeer’s quantification. Ratebeer, you need to break the score down into different parts. Untappd is a “feels like.”

      Incidentally, that argument could be used to suggest that Bud Light gets a 5/5 for act intentionalism. It is, after all, exactly what it is supposed to be.

      There are craft beers on the market in Ontario at the moment that don’t know what they are meant to be and are produced badly. If I’m a customer who doesn’t have a top down view, it would be nice if not all of the reviews were of things I should try. Sometimes it would be good to know what to avoid.

      • David Ort

        Crowd-sourced reviews also catch my eye — especially when they are numeric and don’t emphasise those with a “the waiter put his thumb in my soup” ax to grind. I was going to say that the problem with Untappd numbers is that there is no context. We can’t tell what a person’s average rating is, for instance. The other RB advantage is that since it is a higher hurdle I think there is a greater chance that a reviewer isn’t actively intoxicated when they enter their score.

        Instead of just speculating, let’s look at five examples. Untappd score first, RB second:

        King Bock 3.5 / 59
        Side Launch Dunkel 3.6 / 95
        GLB Crazy Canuck 3.6 / 90
        Muskoka Winter Beard 3.8 / 96
        Waterloo IPA 3.1 / 21

        Not a huge sample — all from Ontario, all award winners — but it does show the inkling of correlation. Maybe you just have to pay attention only to the second Untappd digit?

  • Ben

    To further complicate matters, I’ve disvocered that Untappd as a rating system is extremely problematic in that it literally averages beers out to mediocrity, regardless of voting. Case in point, on April 1st, as an April fools joke, I created and checked into fictional beer “Parkdale Pale Ale.” Appropriately, I gave said fictional beer a rating of five. If you look at that beer’s rating today, I am still the only person to have ever checked into that fictional beer, and yet it has an Untappd rating of 3.61.

  • Gary Gillman

    Jordan, I agree with you and it’s not really a function of numbers, but of the palate and skill of those brewing. Most beers brewed today are acceptable drinks in the sense that they are largely without technical faults. In the early days, damp paper oxidation, premature sourness, excess diacetyl,infection and other problems afflicted craft brewing quite commonly. Today, that is relatively rare.

    However, getting a really good taste is a different story and avowal upfront, it is subjective. Subjective, but I can still state what I think and people can decide for themselves, as always. Recently I had a Junction Conductor that was a really superb pint. It has the perfect balance of high quality sweet malt, tasty hops, and with a fruity overlay of some kind. Reminded of a Canadian ESB, an ESB style adapted to North American taste and hops. I’ve had countless pale ales but few as good as that. Using a lot of hops or a lot of malt or a lot of spices doesn’t ensure a good taste. E.g. in the tissue-wrapped strong saison Beau issued recently the pepper taste – for me again – was way too strong. It became the dominant element as opposed to an accent.

    Brewers should strive for the top as you say and there is no limit to the great beers they can produce, it doesn’t become the new average just as, say, the great classified Bordeaux, even with a given district, aren’t the new average. Even within one style you can develop countless variants. Everything is down to a superior flavour. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale exhibits it. Creemore Lager does not, IMO. Pilsner Urquell does, and so on. It is the gastronomic qualities which brewers need to strive for, just as chefs seek great taste in their creations. It can be a strong taste, medium, or subtle. But it has to be superlative, and I find most beers around just don’t reach that special level while being quite acceptable for “having a beer”.