In January, American Craft Beer published an article entitled "In Defense of All Craft Beer", written by Dallas correspondent Amber Medin. In it, she discusses the idea that if a brewer tags any given release with words like "imperial" or "barrel-aged", that beer is likely to get better reviews. Reading this, it reminded me of two things.
First, I recalled a conversation I had with a local brewer, who while pouring festival samples noted that requests for the one with "hop" in the name far outweighed those of his other beers. Second, it encouraged me to revisit a side project I had been working on, involving a study of whether or not a correlation exists between a beer's alcohol percentage and its online rating. Curiosity got the best of me, so I decided to compile some data and let the numbers tell the story.
To do this, I took a weighted average of ratings posted on Beer Advocate, RateBeer and Untappd. I stuck to products brewed in the Metroplex, not only to gain insight into the kinds of beers the locals are drinking, but also to see how the "big" versus "little" debate would shake out in a city whose climate lends itself towards more sessionable brews.
Taking the simple case first, fitting a trend line to the raw data shows beers with higher ABV rate as much as a half-point higher on a 5-point scale. Surprised? You probably shouldn't be, especially in light of what a more detailed analysis tells us in the graphic to the right.
Breaking things down further in terms of style or buzzword (items in quotes), barrel-aged beers tower above the rest, followed closely by stouts and brews that have been imperialized. It's worth noting that stouts are biased upwards by the likes of Deep Ellum Darkest Hour, Lakewood's Temptress (both regular and barrel-aged versions), and Rahr Snowmageddon, all of which also happen to carry the "imperial" designation.
Moving down the list, hop-named brews edge out English/Scottish styles, which get a boost from Rahr Iron Thistle, along with Great Scot!, Wintervention and Royal Scandal from Peticolas. From there, though, things descend more or less according to strength and flavor intensity, with standard pales, lagers and lighter hybrid brews falling in towards the bottom. The only exception being IPAs, which rank a bit lower than you might expect due to prevailing opinions on Stormcloud from Rahr & Sons.
Summarizing these results, the numbers appear to confirm what we've suspected all along. When it comes to the ratings game, the bigger and buzzier the better.
Asking a similar question that Medin poses, should that imply that big beers are the only ones worth drinking? Hardly. It's no secret that beer geeks go for certain kinds of beer, and you could argue that these types of people are more likely to consistently use an online rating system. That, and there is an undeniably subjective element in all of this. Online commentary suggests many rate strictly based on personal taste and their own expectations, without due diligence as to what the brewer is trying to achieve. Just because a brew isn't to one person's liking, it doesn't mean it's not a good beer and/or doesn't represent a style or the brewer's intentions well.