The Perils of Points

Through all my years of reviewing and occasionally rating beers and whiskies and other spirits, I have steadfastly refused to involve myself in point-based ratings. Wildly popular with many of my drinks-writing peers – or perhaps endured as an unavoidable reality – I have long viewed them as problematic in the extreme.

I’ve explained why I feel this way several times, but every once in a while an example comes along that illustrates my misgivings so well it deserves reiteration. Late last week was one of those whiles.

It arrived in the form of a promotional email from a wine importer I follow. (Yes, The Beer Guy both buys and drinks and thoroughly enjoys wine, too. Get over it.) The email was hyping the arrival of several wines from the same producer, including the two following:

****** **** Cabernet Sauvignon 2009

Mendoza, Argentina

PRICE: $45.95/btl


92 Points, Wine Advocate


****** Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

Mendoza, Argentina

PRICE: $19.95/btl


92 Points, Wine Advocate

I’ve omitted the names because they’re beside the point, which is that these two wines, made from the same varietal and from the same region and the same producer, merit the exact same score. Yet Wine 1 is more than twice the price of Wine 2, which, absent of actual tasting notes – as many of these scores are presented on shelf-talkers – is enough to make one wonder why in heaven’s name anyone would pay $46 when they can get equal quality for $20.

(The same offering, by the way, also included a Cabernet-Malbec blend from the same producer for $109.95 with a Wine Advocate score of 98. That’s a six point difference over the $20 wine, or $15 per point.)

Now, granted any rating system is going to run into the same problems, but it is my view that: a) Words are always better than points; b) If you offer people a scoring shorthand, they will almost always use it; and c) If score you must, four or five stars provide a similar indication of quality with a broader margin for inclusion. For instance, Hugh Johnson’s rating system from his Pocket Wine Book:

*                      plain, everyday quality

**                    above average

***                  well known, highly reputed

****                grand, prestigious, expensive

Not necessarily the scale I would use personally, but certainly something more descriptive than an arbitrary 92 or 89, I think.

Late to the “Why Beer Matters” Party

A couple of months ago, Evan Rail, a Prague-based writer of considerable merit, self-published a long essay — or mini-book, whichever you prefer — entitled “Why Beer Matters.” Well, “published” might not be quite the correct word, as it was and remains available in only e-book form, purchasable through Amazon for a mere $1.99.

I read Mr. McL’s review of it and was suitably impressed, but not to the point that I was willing to go out and get an ereader in order to view the thing. (I hate reading lengthy missives on my computer screen. Something to do with spending too much time in front of it on a daily basis, I think.) Some weeks later, I had reason to email Evan, who I have never met but have in the past communicated with electronically, and mentioned in passing his work, after which he kindly sent me a review copy in PDF.

And then it sat on my hard drive. And sat. And sat.

Until, this morning, I decided to finally print it out and read the damn thing! I’m glad I did, and you should be, too.

Because, ladies and gentlemen, I am now here to tell you that procuring and reading Mr. Rail’s 22 page treatise is the best use you’ll make of two dollars this year! It will make you smile; it will make you think; unless you’re a stuck-in-the-mud bore, it will make you nod your head in agreement; it will make you want to jump on a plane to go somewhere for the express purpose of drinking beer; it will make you want to track down the author’s favourite Prague pub so you can raise a glass with him; it will make you happy to be a beer aficionado; it will make you dismayed that you have not sampled more of what the world of beer has to offer; and above all, it will make you thirsty.

What’s it about, you might ask? Well, the answer is in the title, but at the same time that is more the take-off point than the complete raison d’être. “Why Beer Matters” is about more than just why beer matters, it’s also about what makes beer important, how it relates to our modern world, why we are able to derive such pleasure from it, and pivotally, why we all probably take it all a wee bit too seriously. Add to all that Rail’s winning style and wit and you have a most engaging bit of prose.

For two bucks you can buy a bottle of water on a sunny day, a glass of beer during Happy Hour at a disreputable bar, or scratch-and-lose lottery card, none of which I’m betting will deliver the enjoyment of “Why Beer Matters.” So just buy it, okay?

Gift Idea #8: The PDT Cocktail Book

Do you really need me to tell you anything more about Jim Meehan’s new PDT Cocktail Book other than Gaz Regan has called it the best book of its kind published thus far this century? You do? Okay then, here’s a bit more.

Let’s start with the fact that it works for amateurs and professionals alike, since in addition to a massive collection of well-laid out drink recipes, a surprisingly large number of which can be easily executed by anyone with a reasonably stocked bar — as opposed to so many cocktail books that call for esoteric ingredients you can only find on the south coast of Bali — there are also sections on bar design and setting up the back bar. Add in the fact that the recipes all call for name brand spirits, an implicit acknowledgement that rums and tequilas and whiskeys can vary greatly. And garnish with a layout so friendly to the eye that it makes you want to read the book like a novel.

That should be enough. If it’s not, how about this? Dale “King Cocktail” DeGroff likes it enough to add it to “Recommended” list, the first such addition he’s made since the 2010 publication of Tony Abou-Ganim’s The Modern Mixologist.

Gift Idea #4: Craft Beers of the Pacific Northwest

One more book, folks, and it’s a good one!

I’ve been friends with Lisa Morrison, author of Craft Beers of the Pacific Northwest, for many years and have been anxiously awaiting her literary debut for most of that time. Thankfully she doesn’t disappoint. CBPN, as we will henceforth refer to this paperback, is an engaging trip from south Oregon through Washington state and across the border into British Columbia. It’s a beery wonderland and Morrison is a most adept guide.

Much like Max Bahnson’s Prague guide, which you might also like to get, Morrison’s…okay, I’m going to get all unjournalistic here and call her Lisa…Lisa’s approach is to put together pub crawls, within cities, between towns and along highways and coastlines. It’s the way most serious beer travellers plan their trips and makes sense in the vast majority of instances. (In BC, Lisa somehow manages to include Surrey’s Central City Brewing in a Sea-to-Sky Highway crawl, which any Vancouverite will tell you is more than a bit of a stretch.) The maps could sometimes be better, but that’s at best a quibble.

The real allure of this book, though, is Lisa’s voice, which is less guidebook-y and more let’s-go-drinking-together. Like Max’s book — which, again, you really should also get — it makes the reading pleasurable and thirsty work, drawing the reader to the locations in question like a moth to the proverbial flame.

The one thing I don’t like about CBPN is the colour scheme, which sees the sidebar brewery profiles and feature pieces, as well as the maps, illustrated in a yellowish-green that is none too easy on the eyes. But like the garish shirt your beer hunting buddy insists on sporting, it is a small price to pay for such good advice and company.

The Last I’ll Say About the Oxford Companion to Beer

I offer the following without commentary.

Garret Oliver on remuneration for the contributors to the book:

Of course, there is nothing I can do about the pay. Everyone here should realize that (1) academic presses never pay much – in fact, they often don’t even pay advances, and (2) OUP is a not-for-profit organization. Much of any surplus that may be generated by book sales goes back into education, including scholarships, other books and educational material, and the subsidization of massive works such as the Oxford English Dictionary. No one is getting rich here – everyone, myself included, has made far below minimum wage, and all the OCB writers I spoke to said that they did this partially to give something back to the brewing community. The fact that so many were willing to do so says something about that community. I understand that not everyone can afford to do this work, but I’m grateful to those who did.

Report published at about Oxford University Press:

Oxford University Press has described a surge in pretax profit by nearly 25% as “excellent”, but said it does not underestimate the challenges publishers are facing.

The academic publisher has reported pretax profits of £122.6m in the 12 months to 31st March 2011, up from £98.5m last year. The company also increased sales by nearly 6%, to £648.6m in that period, up from £611.9m last year.

Thanks to Evan Rail for the link.

Review: America Walks into a Bar, by Christine Sismondo

Disclosure 1: I am very late with this review. Reason being not the appeal of this read, but rather the odd way my life sometimes rolls. Basically what it boils down to is that I read AWIAB in two parts, then procrastinated dreadfully until now.

Disclosure 2: I know and like Christine Sismondo. She is a lovely lady with a wickedly sharp sense of humour. I have tried, however, not to let that influence my review, although of course it has.

Now, the review…

I have read more than one or two books about the history of bars and taverns in America, including the terrific but heavily academic Taverns and Drinking in Early America, by Sharon V. Salinger, which Sismondo cites in her extensive bibliography. My conclusion from this experience is that it is very difficult to be both illuminating and entertaining in such a tome.

Somehow, with the exception of the first chunk of Part I, Sismondo manages to do this, and it is to her enormous credit that this is a remarkably info-packed book that seems like a light read.

What AWIAB does is guide readers through the development of American society, cultural and political, via the barroom, and in this lies Sismondo’s greatest deception. For although this book is billed “A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops,” it is actually more a history of revolution and emancipation, suffrage and gay rights, all viewed through the prism of the nation’s watering holes.

So while we are learning about such barroom “innovations” as the trough in front of the bar that allowed men to – ahem! – relieve themselves without needing to abandon their drink, or the glass-free bar that charged only for as much booze as you could slurp through a hose in one breath, we are also getting the inside story on how America came to be what it is today. And also the inside scoop on the many, many interesting characters who got it there.

What may surprise readers is how closely American bar history and assorted other histories intertwine and, indeed, are to a large extent dependent upon one another. But despite the lengthy history of Puritanism, temperance and prohibition in the United States, the nation has never been able to divorce its development from the seductive allure of the demon drink, and as Sismondo teaches us in America Walks into a Bar, stands today as a better country for it.

CAMRA Dictionary of Beer Entry #2

More from Brian Glover’s CAMRA Dictionary of Beer, published in 1985:

Liefmans: Belgian brewery (surprisingly owned by Vaux of Sunderland)…

Of course, it wasn’t long after that Vaux ceased to be involved with brewing at all, becoming instead Swallow Inns and Restaurants, and Liefmans is today owned by Duvel. But I never new that the major regional British brewer once had holdings in Belgium.

All You Need for Prague Beer Drinking

This review arrives far too late. Max Bahnson, the Pivní Filosof, send me a PDF review copy of his book, the ineloquently titled “Prague: a Pisshead’s Pub Guide,” ages ago, perhaps as long as months. But my workload has been such that I simply haven’t been able to find the time to give it a review-quality read.

Now I have. And it’s good!

Forget the title, which might have you recalling that the Czechs lead the world in per capita beer consumption — by a considerable margin, 155 litres to Austria’s 106 — and focus instead on the content of this impressive read, which is arranged rather intelligently in the form of various pub crawls. Start here, drink this, then go there and drink that, followed by this other place and that other beer, finishing over here with that beer. That kind of thing.

You see, Max understands that while the beer we drink is important, where we drink it is at least of equal if not greater importance. Or, as he puts it, “I’d much rather drink Pilsner Urquell, or even Gambrinus, at a hotspoda where I feel comfortable, than Kout na Šumave at a cocktail bar.”

So this is a book about the pubs of Prague first, the great beers of the Czech Republic second, and Max’s idiosyncrasies third, with all three playing highly significant roles in the narrative. In fact, even without any firm plans to get to Prague soon, I very much enjoyed reading the Pisshead’s Pub Guide because it feels much like going drinking with Max, which I have never done in person, but now have a sense of what it must be like.

Complementing the narrative, which is divided neatly into pub crawl-sized chunks, are photographs, including some pretty great ones, and Max’s engaging hand-drawn maps. If you have any plans to visit Prague any time soon, or are even considering the possibility, this book is a must!

The Modern Mixologist

Since I’ve already been talking about Negronis and Tony Abou-Ganim (here, too), I figure this morning is as good a time as any to tell you about Tony’s new book, The Modern Mixologist.

This has been sitting on my desk for far too long, as I have repeatedly tried to figure out a logical place in which to discuss it. You see, most of my cocktail book reviews go into trade journals like Nation’s Restaurant News to be read by people already “behind the stick,” as my mixologist friends like to describe life working the bar. And for a couple of reasons, The Modern Mixologist doesn’t seem to me to quite fit within that space.

First off, there’s the fact that my editor at NRN says I’ve been talking about books a bit too much lately, which may be true. But more significantly, I don’t really see this as a book for established mixologists. Aspiring one, certainly, for reasons that will become clear below, but not necessarily those already in the biz.

(I should note that a lot of people in the bar business will be buying this book anyway, because Tony is a definite icon in such circles. And well they should, too.)

The Modern Mixologist is a bit of an enigma in cocktail books in that it is: a) fiercely personal; b) well-suited to the newbie cocktail aficionados; and c) a recipe book containing some rather advanced drinks, including ones made with relatively obscure spirits like arak and others that call for home-made liqueurs and infused spirits. As such, it slots neatly into neither the “bar basics” category, like the Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide, nor the “drink ‘n’ learn” class, like Dale DeGroff’s excellent The Essential Cocktail.

So what do I make of it, you ask? Well, after pouring over the book’s easy-to-follow recipes and gorgeous photography — cocktail porn is fast becoming as much an art as food porn has been for some time! — I have reached two conclusions. First, if, like the IT genius who helps me out from time to time, you believe that the ability to shake a proper cocktail can be a gateway to the fairer sex, then you should definitely seek out this book and read and reread the first 83 pages. If there exists a better, more concise and definitive primer to mixology, I have not yet seen it.

And two, in this lovely hardbound edition we have a cocktail book that may be more than simply referenced, but read from cover to cover. To each bit of advice, each innovative recipe, each admonition, Tony has added a usually highly entertaining story, some quite short and others more embellished, but each a worthy read on its own. All of which makes The Modern Mixologist an ideal book for the novice or advanced cocktail consumer. And yes, it does contain a recipe for a Negroni, made with Anchor Distilling’s Junipero Gin.