Is It Even Possible To Be A Beer Expert?

monkey4Jeff wrote an article for All About Beer this week called “Why Beer Experts Matter”. I commented by Twitter that it set out a “good argument by @Beervana but expertise is key, not the “experts” – personifying a body of knowledge just limits it.” Discussion ensued. I meant it. Good. It was not snide code. It good – and good can be, you know, good. And it got me thinking about experts, expertise, professionalism, experience and interest… and interests while we are at it. And Lars asked for more detail. So, In this post, I am going to try to explain myself to myself, Jeff, Lars and to you if you care to follow along. It is, however, not mandatory reading, there will not be a test and it is Saturday.

Let’s think about what these words mean: experts, expertise, professionalism, experience, interest and interests. One way or another they are all about being clever. Having amassed a body of information. But then they represent doing different things with that information. It is interesting to separate the threads to discuss each but it is really important to keep in mind how much they overlap. Things like this are not neat and tidy. That being said, let’s have a look:

Professional: A professional is not someone paid to do something. A professional is someone whose opinion you can act upon as presented without interpretation. Lawyers, accountants and doctors are professionals. Engineers, too. They… we… carry errors and omissions insurance in case our opinions are wrong and cause harm to those who relied upon them. It is not to say that that those who are not professionals are highly skilled or deserving of significant pots of money. But every time I hear someone mention professional baseball players, I ask myself where fans can file the claim against the Chicago Cubs for undue emotional reliance. Similarly, I can’t see any brewers getting errors and omissions insurance to protect drinkers against negligent brewing, especially given the amount of that going around. Are there beer professionals? Not that many. Not most of the folk you might hear calling themselves professionals.

Expert: Not all professionals are experts and not all experts are professionals. As a professional lawyer, I hire experts and I challenge experts – both pros and not pros. People don’t like us for that. Lawyers don’t really care. It’s the job. No, it’s the profession. Me, I have done enough work in certain specific areas like history and heritage related matters that I peer review the work of experts myself. I challenge the content of their reports. Even reports by experts who are professionals which I am supposedly not required to go behind. Thankfully, it happens rarely. Mainly because (i) professionals who are not experts in a given field should be aware of their incapacity and do not tread beyond their specialty and (ii) true experts are so focused on the particulars of their particular topic. Because experts are experts in niche topics. Can there be a beer experts? Not in my opinion. Because, for one thing, “beer” is too big a topic and, for another, so much about beer and brewing is so self-evidently shallowly researched. So far. Example. Stan asked where Cicerones fit in. I responded that it was an example of “expert creep – trained as top notch wait staff they take on more status.” I should have written “some” take on more status. The niche training works in the niche. Beyond the niche… well, things get wonky.

Expertise: This I think is the most important point. The body of knowledge is collectively the “expertise” in that topic. It also means the skill of an expert. I am interested in the first meaning. “Canada’s expertise in coconut production is lacking” is something that can be said. Similarly, we can correctly say that the western worlds collective expertise in all aspects of beer and brewing is not as sophisticated as its collective expertise in public health or the economics of international trade. Beer and brewing is (i) not as complex topic to attract a body of expertise and (ii) where it is complex it is not well researched… yet. There are reasons for this lack of complexity that are obvious. It is only beer. But there are also reasons for the lack of detailed study that are not as obvious. I call these factors “interests” and they are not all alike.

Interests #1: This is where things get truly odd with beer. Dr. Johnson in the 1700s once stated, “We are not here to sell a parcel of boilers and vats, but the potentiality of growing rich beyond the dreams of avarice.” He was an executor of the brewer Henry Thrale and spoke the truth. There is a lot of money in beer. Micro and craft brewers work incredibly hard to avoid discussing that. In 2007, it was so shocking to point this out that one risked a playground pile on and perhaps a cherry belly, too. Many excellent points were made. Tomme Arthur and other brewers chimed in mainly defending price inflation. I think that time has passed. We are more realistic about brewers as Andy’s recent article about Jim Koch and the reaction showed. We are no longer “all in it together.” Financial interests are exposed and being discussed. Which is good. Many beer fans won’t be taken as suckers any more. AND brewers will be able to describe the well deserved rewards for their efforts… even if a well informed consumer base means the less than realistic brewers out there may end up paying for their own experiments and self-assigned artistic status from their own pocket, not mine. Money is good but we all benefit from real information as much as we want honest beer at an honest price.

Interests #2: There are other sorts of interests at play which put pressure on access to real information about the beer we like. In my 12 years of writing about beer nothing as stupid has ever been written as the article from 2009 “Sober Thoughts On Writing About Beer” in which it was suggested that fewer people ought to be writing about beer. I reacted strongly. I won’t repeat the discussion but point out that while Jeff did not say the same think, he could be taken for being in the same neighbourhood when he argued “[w]hy should you bother seeking out an expert? Because beer experts do some things even 900 laymen together can’t.” What he was not saying, however, is that the 900 lay folk should shut up. He made a different argument. But I still think it was flawed for the reasons about seeing as he based much of the argument on this idea he wrote “[a] good expert opinion will draw on several threads of information—science, process, history and culture—and bring all of that knowledge to the discussion of a beer.” The trouble is not the validity of the idea itself but its applicability. For two reasons: (i) the science, process, history and culture of beer is not yet well studied and (ii) those holding themselves out as experts in beer generally have self-evident disinterest and even disdain for knowledge about “science, process, history and culture of beer” not to mention the economics of it, the health implications of it, public policy related to it etc. These are the people who might tell you all English beer was smoky before the use of coke in beer. They say so because they have not bothered to do two hours of studying. We need to be honest. There is much greater interest in protecting the status of expert in many of those who suggest they or others are experts than there is an interest in gathering and building the collective expertise. Beer is money. And the shallow PR wading pond needs to be fed. But note I said “many”. To be abundantly clear, if I am looking for information about current trends in the global beer retail market, I seek out Mr. Beaumont‘s opinion. If I want to know as much as I can know about hops, I ask Stan. There are others with that sort of focused understanding who have not only earned but absolutely resonate with the necessarily broad, deep and detailed awareness to be respected as experts in their field. And each of these guys would also guide me and you to others of whom they might say are the expert’s experts. I would estimate them to total about 10% of those who have an interest in you thinking they are beer experts. Sorry to break the news.

Interest: we all have an interest in beer. I would not be writing on this keyboard if I did not. I would not be sketching out a number of alternative choices fourth book on beer if I did not. Everyone who wants to experience a greater variety of the deliciousness of beer, the exquisite comfort of pubs or the vast and particular history of brewing through time has an interest. It is lovely. It is worth doing. It’s participating in part of a bigger thing across culture and centuries. But the beer itself is experienced one person and one beer at a time. Beer is experienced only in the theatre of the mouth. With time and practice, anyone can hone their skills and create a deep body of experience which gives them greater and greater pleasure. Along with this they can write reviews of the beers they taste, write blog posts about the themes they see developing and a few can be lucky enough to be asked to write articles and books. Which leads to requests to be quoted. And called an expert. Hmm. It also leads to cherry syrup laced, bourbon barrel aged, sea salt infused gose. Which sucks. But the “expert” told you you should like it… except you just don’t understand. Sadly, you buy it and drink it and feel bad about yourself for (i) being not smart enough and (ii) having that crap in your mouth and (iii) having just dropped ten bucks to affirm you are not smart and to place crap in your mouth. This is a terrible thing for one simple reason. Beer should make you happy.

So you see how this works? It all relates the thoughts of Ivan Illich in fact. And do you see what I just did? I made you feel odd about the whole Ivan Illich thing. I just experted on you. I didn’t mean to. Sorry. This essay is in no way intended to be a sword of Zorro moment, a triumphal flourish in which the topic is summed up so completely you need not think further. That is not my point. I only propose the above. It is just something I have been thinking about. If I took more time, I would weave in more links with illustrations of the points I may be making. I’d add in Andy’s discussion here. But I didn’t. This is not a professional opinion. It’s not the statement of an expert. It’s just something I have an interest in triggered by the excellent thoughts of Jeff and Lars related to one corner of the whole body of knowledge related to beer and brewing.

4 thoughts on “Is It Even Possible To Be A Beer Expert?”

  1. [Original comments…]

    Beermat – January 18, 2015 5:44 AM
    The Institute of Brewing and Distilling in London offer the Master Brewer (MBrew) program, this isn’t something many Brewers or beer writers in the US seem to be aware of. It’s exhaustive and gruelling, taking somewhere between 3-5 yrs to complete (if all 5 modules are passed first time) and (as for the diploma below) is carried out alongside full time employment, see the sylabus link below:

    In order to sit for this exam you must already have the diploma in brewing or equivalent, this is what students at UC Davis achieve, exemptions would be an Msc/BSc in brewing. Again sylabus below

    Cumulatively you’d be looking at 5-8yrs study and that’s if you have a sound scientific understanding to begin with. I am working towards the MBrew qualification myself and once I achive this I will consider myself a master of brewing science, are these examinations not enough to call myself an expert?

    If we couple this qualification with the one below, would that not be enough to consider oneself a beer expert?

    Lew Bryson – January 18, 2015 10:32 AM
    This is exactly why I’ve always corrected anyone who called me a beer or whiskey expert. I’m not; I just write about them, and know more about them than the general population.

    Alan – January 18, 2015 1:18 PM
    Lew, did I ever tell you I was related to as close to a whisky expert as there might be? My mother’s cousin’s husband, David Wardlaw. He worked for the whisky broker’s McLeod and McLeod of Skye starting before WW2 into the early ’70s. My uncle described this summer how he had an office in Glasgow which had something like 500 numbered bottles on shelves on the walls. When Bells or Haig blenders ran out of a particular cask which gave a particular note, they came to the handful of brokers like Wardlaw who would discuss the matter and suggest that if that cask had run out they may need a third of cask #127 blended with two-thirds, say, of cash #322 to recreate the effect. I stayed at his house for a few weeks in the summer of 1977 when I was 14 and he was an incredible dapper man with a great sense of humour. In WW2 he was posted to a very quiet part of British West Africa, never heard a gun shot in anger and stuck labels on coconuts to mail them home to relatives.

    I am not at all suggesting there are not experts but that they are few and should be recognized as being few out of respect. Beermat, I would agree that the program you describe is well on the way to what I am thinking about but remember I have three university degrees including two in law and passed my LLM with distinction. More than a decade of higher learning. I also have 20 years out in the word working as a lawyer. I really don’t think of myself as an expert and, in fact, believe I may have only met one lawyer I would consider “an expert” in that rare way. Perhaps I am too hard on the standard. And, again, that sort of brewing course in the UK that you mention is the sort of thing I would believe is the proper sort of grounding for claiming that status.

    Jeff Alworth – January 18, 2015 10:47 PM
    Not sure how–or whether–to respond. This feels like you’re scratching of the layers of a scab and getting to something deeper–and largely unrelated to what I wrote.

    So I’ll keep it simple. If you want to redefined expert so that it fits a very narrow band–say hop breeding or the mechanics of brewing–I STILL think writers are experts. It is our job to explain and interpret. I spend a great deal of time talking to people about beer, and 95% of them have very little information about the subject. They don’t know the history of style development, the mechanics of science of brewing, they don’t have a sensory vocabulary or a critical apparatus–and on and on. Having a cell phone and access to BeerAdvocate does not give you these things.

    There are a number of people who do have these things, and can construct sentences well enough to convey their meaning. By conventional definitions, these people are experts. They will tell you something hive mind can’t–and that was my point.

    Mark Lindner – January 19, 2015 2:27 PM
    I like a lot of your argument here, just as I appreciate the work you do on beer here and elsewhere, along with all the interesting things you link to and bring into a discussion … but seriously you believe that “”Canada’s expertise in coconut production is lacking” is something that can be said.”?

    Of course it can be. But it is meaningless. Metaphorical? OK. But Canada is simply not the kind of entity that can have expertise. No idea where you fall on corporations as people but Canada has no expertise. Neither does the “western worlds collective expertise” actually mean anything as it is entirely metaphorical and is not something anyone can act on.

    Sure. We can reference these “things” and they may help us discuss certain ideas but they are functionally meaningless and if you are building your idea of expertise on a completely functionally meaningless idea then ….

    I realize you have more experience and training than me most likely in some of these areas, but (as a librarian and reader) I humbly suggest having a look at Patrick Wilson’s Second-Hand Knowledge. He may not be entirely correct but he has a good definition of these ideas that actually does some work. Or maybe just use more concrete examples in the first place. There must be plenty. 😉

    Thanks again for stimulating thought!

    Alan – January 19, 2015 8:27 PM
    Getting to something deeper is the point, Jeff. I don’t suggest reiterating statements ping-pong-wise. I am just suspicious of the construct you propose to illustrate this use of expert when I compare it to other fields of understanding. More useful to apply it, therefore, where there is greater validity to the achievement, the sub-specialist. Otherwise, anyone can affix the gold star to their own lapel.

    Mark, the coconut was just an illustration of the usage of the word. One might in the alternative stated “Scotland’s expertise in Engineering during the industrial revolution was self-evident” to demonstrate that the word can be considered distinct from the person of the expert.

    Mark Lindner – January 19, 2015 10:08 PM
    I agree that it can, Alan. I just don’t think it really gets one much anywhere, nor do I think it is the kind of expertise others are interested in discussing in the context of beer. But I could easily be wrong. Cheers!

    Martyn Cornell – January 19, 2015 10:17 PM
    The problem is that “beer” as she is talked about is such a huge arena, encompassing everything from palaeolithic archaeology to microbiology to sensory analysis, that it’s simply impossible to be an “expert” on everything you might need. There’s been a lot of rubbish talked about early brewing, for example, because with certain extremely honourable exceptions, archaeologists aren’t brewers, and misinterpret and fail to understand what they find. In a more popular but equally difficult area, almost nobody who talks about the taste of beer has any idea of the influences that can make one glass of beer taste different to another glass of the same beer, for example, because this is written about only in obscure and expensive books. There are many similar issues that emean the true beer “expert” would have to be a polymath of unimaginable breadth. We are also severely hampered by beer being so international: three of the areas I really really want to know more about are (1) the High Medieval development of hop growing and usage (2) the earliest years of cold/bottom fermentation in Bavaria and (3) the history of hops in central Asia, but since researching that stuff would require excellent knowledge of German and Russian, at the least, as well as access to appropriate sources … no chance.

    Alan – January 19, 2015 10:29 PM
    So you stopped by to say that you don’t care, Mark? If you don’t mind me saying that’s a bit weird seeing as folk I respect cared enough to make intelligent comment above and elsewhere. Good luck to you.

    bailey – January 21, 2015 5:40 AM
    Martyn — not sure if you’re comfortable with collaborating, but it sounds like the three interesting projects you list could all work if you found the right writing partners in Europe/Asia.

    Jeff Alworth – January 21, 2015 1:17 PM
    Actually, I meant that [em] you’re[em] getting to something deeper. This seems to have provoked a series of thoughts in your mind, which is good and fine. (The shallowness attributed to my post is somewhat belied by how much discussion it has provoked.)

    I personally won’t sign on to the idiosyncratic definitions you prefer, but that’s fine. If you leave me out of it and follow the thread of your own ideas, we don’t really need to be in conflict.

    Alan – January 21, 2015 2:06 PM
    But there is no conflict! I am not sure why you throw in “idiosyncratic” gratuitously like that when they are not but that is up to you? It’s not like they are made up and neither you or I control the language. Beer is too little thought about to put up a fence.

  2. Exactly. You want to stick the “expert” label on your chest, get specific. I’ve made a decent amount for my marketability but, as we know, most folk earning money aren’t experts.

    Seems mostly something the B-graders use to big themselves up, most often in connection to some money making process. I think they are too humble. They should use “gifted” expert to really express what a blessing they were to society: “Max is a gifted expert whose writing has enhanced the taste of every pint downed by humankind.” That sorta thing.

    My favourite related incident was soon after the death of Michael Jackson, a few beer writers enhanced their self-labelling to suggest they were Britain’s leading beer writer given, you know, how the actual best one had snuffed it.

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