With so many styles out there these days, the beer world is a subjective minefield, which makes it more important than ever to understand what we're really talking about when we talk about bad beer.
I’ve endured plenty of bad beers in my life; as a beer writer, it comes with the territory. Narrowing down the absolute worst is impossible, but to give you a taste, I once encountered a pour during a tasting flight that immediately reeked of gym socks and tasted like funky cheese. Purportedly a California Common, the beer was literally “bad,” infected with some unwanted microbe.
Yet, when we talk about “bad” beers, rarely are they actually these types of flawed products. Thankfully, truly “bad” brews are few and far between. Serving beer with serious flaws—whether the aforementioned gym sock beer or more subtle issues like strong notes of creamed corn (dimethyl sulfide) or nail polish remover (ethyl acetate)—will hurt a brewery’s reputation, and usually brewers either fix these mistakes or go out of business. But at a time when beer comes in a wider range of flavors than ever before, it’s important that we tease apart those that are literally brewed incorrectly and those we simply dislike.
With a huge range of styles from chocolatey imperial stouts to tart and salty goses, beer is a subjective minefield, and when beer drinkers use “bad” to denote personal preferences, they run the risk of doing a disservice to the industry.
This distinction is already understood at beer competitions where products are attempted to be judged as objectively as possible. Brews are broken down by style, and trained judges are given specific guidelines on what to look for. However, casual conversations aren’t so standardized, and sometimes entire styles get tossed into the “bad” category.
On the beer rating app Untappd, millions of users rate beers on a zero-to-five scale, and a quick look at two of the industry’s most popular styles shows an immediate discrepancy. American light lagers are, by far, the county’s best-selling beers. Untappd’s top-rated offering in that style, Shower Beer by Fieldwork Brewing, has a composite score of 3.79. Compare that to the top-rated American IPA, the de facto signature style of the craft beer movement: JJJULIUSSS from Tree House Brewing scores a 4.65. Notice a difference?
As a whole, the beer community inevitably ranks some styles higher than others. That’s fine—an IPA is probably objectively more interesting than a light lager because there’s more room for variation. But what can be problematic is when a perfectly acceptable beer is dismissed as “bad” simply because it doesn’t reach some subjective benchmark of excitement.
As an example, look no further than Miller Lite. Like many mainstream brews, America’s third most popular beer brand often gets tossed into the “bad” category. Its Untappd average is a paltry 2.43. But is Miller Lite actually “bad” beer? Just ask a professional beer judge: The brew took home the gold in the American-Style Lager or Light Lager category at the Great American Beer Festival as recently as 2014.
“I think people sometimes confuse intensity of flavor with quality,” explains Jason Pratt, Master Cicerone and Senior Marketing Manager, Innovations, for MillerCoors. “If you’re expecting any light beer to measure up to a Russian imperial stout or imperial IPA on flavor intensity, you’re going to be disappointed. At the same time, if you’re looking for a beer that’s light, refreshing and balanced, a light beer is probably a better fit. When you look at Miller Lite, it checks all of the boxes for what a light beer is supposed to be. That’s why it consistently wins medals when compared to its peers.”
Whatever your personal preference is when it comes to light beers, “bad” is a frustratingly vague descriptor for a beer that, from a technical perspective, may be totally fine.
In his forthcoming book, Drink Beer, Think Beer: Getting to the Bottom of Every Pint, certified beer judge and Senior Editor of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine John Holl specifically addresses the difference between personal tastes and actual quality in a competition setting. “Long ago I realized that there are certain beer styles, such as Belgian tripels and quads, that I just don’t prefer,” he writes. “Professionally, I learned how they were supposed to taste and the processes used to make them, but if I had the opportunity to judge a beer contest where they were offered, I’d beg off unless there was no alternative – in which case, I’d give it my honest shot to make an assessment uninfluenced by my personal bias.”
This same lesson can be applied to casual drinkers as well. “There's a lot of choice with beer these days and not every style is going to suit everyone,” Holl told us via email. “And when it comes to ‘rating’ a beer online, it's unfair to give it a low score because it doesn't suit your tastes. It's unfair to the brewery and your fellow drinkers.”
Of course, we still need to openly express when we dislike a beer. But drinkers should use this opportunity to provide more context. Maybe the beer’s not to style: a valid complaint that regularly prevents perfectly drinkable, sometimes even delicious beer from winning competitions. Maybe it’s boring, or maybe the opposite: Its flavors are too intense. Maybe it's something even more ethereal: You don’t like the can’s artwork, the brewery’s politics, or the brewer’s cousin. All fair—just reserve that term "bad" for when it's truly flawed. (And if you haven’t yet delved into brewing flaws, it’s an incredible way to learn about the flavors you probably already know you don’t like in a beer.) If you ever encounter a beer that actually tastes like gym socks, you're going to wish that everyone rating beer would stick to the proper descriptor.