One of the inescapable realities of writing the history of American fine wine is Robert Parker. He was, for a time beginning in the mid-1980s until just after the dawn of the 21st century, the most powerful wine critic in the world (for the beer people out there, a kind of Michael Jackson of wine, though with the foresight to charge $28 or more for a bimonthly newsletter of his critiques). Parker’s hallmark—aside from one heckuva nose and a formidable work ethic—was the 100-point scale, which he and a friend ginned up in the late 1970s in suburban Baltimore for their soon-to-launch newsletter. The friend bailed and the newsletter became The Wine Advocate.
And, though it’s not entirely clear whether Parker, pictured, and his friend actually invented it for wine (I’ve found evidence an Australian and another American had the idea before, likely unknown to the Maryland pair) it became de rigueur in rating wine. It, in fact, took on a life of its own, dwarfing anything Parker had to say in the tasting notes of various wines. His competitors adopted it and tens of millions of Americans understood it immediately for what it was: a mimic of the grading scale they endured in high school. A 92 from Parker, or a 95, or a coveted 100—those became the drivers that moved wines all over the world.
Except he rarely gave those. Most of his scores—and I’m eyeballing here—were in the 80s or the 70s; and, if they were in the 80s, they were in the low to middle 80s, not 88s or 89s. Which is what (I think) gave the 90s or the rare 100 such commercial power, never mind critical. Beer criticism, more or less, by and large, has adopted the 100-point scale. Yet, unlike its progenitor, beer critics tend to lean rather heavily on the 90s and the upper 80s. Every beer sold, if not made, in America, seems to rate a B+, an A-, an A or damn near an A+. Nothing is average or slightly above average; nothing is passable. And, as far as I can tell (again, eyeballing), nothing ever fails. Ever.
I’m not arguing the merits of whether to use the 100-point scale in critiquing beer (others have done so more eloquently) nor am I suggesting that some beers in the States just aren’t that gold-star-90-and-above worthy (nor do I review beers myself, I don’t have the palate or the patience). The meta-theme of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution is that the U.S. has, in fact, surpassed the rest of the globe when it comes to beer quality and diversity. But not every last one can be a winner, and it would appear to dilute the criticism of each if all are given a high B or above (88, say, and up). Perhaps take a nod from Parker, then, and start handing out some 70s and low 80s, even the odd fail.
And, if the beer critics out there really want to channel the man once called the Million-Dollar Nose (for his insurance policy as well as for his commercial power), then adopt some of his more unsparing tasting-note zingers for these so-so and failed beers. Might I suggest describing such a beer as Parker once described such a wine? As “having the finesse of a horny hippopotamus.” No one would buy that.
· Beer by the Numbers: Bad Idea [Appellation Beer]