Monday, May 25, 2015
Giving out star ratings - for beer
If you think star ratings are a hopelessly ineffectual way of ranking movies, try using them to rank beers.
If you think that nearly every movie you see is somewhere between a 2.5 and a 4, I repeat -- try using star ratings to rank beers.
I was in a position of doing that on Friday night, as the Great Australasian Beer SpecTAPular rolled through town. (I say "rolled through town" because there is also one in Sydney, not because it's actually some kind of moveable drinking feast complete with clowns and carnies.) I went with a co-worker, and we met up with his housemate, his brother, and another friend.
Here's what you do. You buy a bunch of "tokens" (actually, thick-cut paper squares attached to each other along perforated edges). You get a paddle with a chalkboard surface with five holes in it. (You will get what I'm talking about when I post a picture at conclusion of this paragraph). You review the 118 beers on tap listed in the festival guide, and choose five per paddle, all within the same range of 20 beers. You scrawl their numbers in chalk, one under each of the holes. You then wait in line (or "in the queue") in front of six different beer stations, each of which has 20 taps. You return -- very carefully -- with samples of five beers, each in plastic cups that are about the size of one-and-a-half shots. Then, over the course of the evening, you steadily get drunker and drunker.
Here's that photo:
Because I am not a beer aficionado -- I like what I like, but I can't really "talk about" beer -- I decided to choose which beers I sampled completely randomly.
It was a blast. None of the 30 beers I sampled were outstanding -- more on that in a minute -- but the steadily getting drunker and drunker part was more than enough to make up for that. Plus, the company was good, a BBQ sandwich really hit the spot about midway through, the venue was grand (the Royal Exhibition Building, former home to the Melbourne Museum), there was a giant game of Jenga, and there was a brass band playing pop songs, so it was just a great evening.
Don't worry, we're getting back to movies. Now, in fact.
Because the others were doing it -- and because it dovetails so completely with my nature -- I gave star ratings to all the beers I sampled. Yes, all of them -- I remembered to keep doing it even as 11 p.m. rolled around and I'm not even sure I could have even written my own name at that point.
Nearly half of the 33 beers I ranked -- I had three others donated to me from others who didn't care for them -- got that middle-of-the-road, three-star ranking. That's 16 of the 33. Three-point-five was the next highest with nine, then 2.5 had four, 4 stars had two, and then one each for 2 stars and 1.5 stars. That 1.5-star beer I clearly remember -- it tasted like bargain basement raspberry soda with alcohol in it.
Wait, didn't I say I was getting back to movies?
I think the point of my comparison is that after a while, everything just blends together and you are giving a three to everything. You don't actively hate very much, but you don't love anything either. It seems like a lot of movies that come down the pike are ones that you feel like you should rate lower, but they do whatever they do well enough that they deserve at least three stars. Such was the case with Friday night's beers.
However, there's also that idea of grading on a curve. A star rating is not always an absolute thing -- you sometimes can't help but think of it in comparison to other star ratings you've recently given out. My favorite beer of the night ended up being #72, "Almonds of Steal," from Mildura Brewery. This is a funny/interesting choice for two reasons: 1) My father-in-law taught in the town of Mildura for a good portion of his career, and 2) It was quite possibly the only vegan beer there, and I'm not usually a vegan type of guy. Because it was one of the first ten or so beers I sampled, I skewed conservatively and gave it "only" four stars, expecting that it would have a number of competitors over the rest of the evening. In fact, it did not -- and the only other four I handed out, I think I did so because it seemed ridiculous that not a single other beer had made it into the four range.
I'm living through the opposite curve problem now in the movies I'm seeing, though I guess if you love movies (as I do), the only reason you'd think of it as a "problem" is because you wonder if it means you're not being critical enough. Since the beginning of May, I have only seen a single film that received fewer than three stars (2.5 for Anna Karenina) and a full nine movies that are four or higher. The other five have been three or 3.5. Of course, at times like this I wonder if the movies I'm seeing are really all that good, or if I've just established a higher-than-normal baseline with one of my recent ratings and now everything else is skewed as a result.
So what do I ultimately conclude from all this?
I don't know. I think I just wanted to write a post about drinking beer.