The first thing that strikes me about Robertson's latest work is its sheer bulk--the book is as fat as a phonebook for a large city. The pages aren't filled with white space either--each page contains anywhere from about 10 to 20 reviews of the myriad commercial beers from around the world.
The book begins with an 18 page foreword by beer style guru Fred Eckhardt. Fred talks about the evolution of styles and portents of the changing world of styles (he suggests that styles will become less important in broad ways as we start focusing more on regional emphasis). As always, Fred's writing is at once entertaining and informative.
Robertson then provides his introduction, which establishes the framework for his reviews and the methodology that he uses to come up with a score. He also presents information about perception of qualities and off-flavors.
Then it's on to the reviews!
If you're familiar with the way that BJCP beer judges rate beers, then Robertson's ratings will take a little getting used to. For one thing, he uses a 100-point scale, and when he uses it, he USES it! None of this holding back from giving high scores because something better might someday come down the pike, and none of this avoiding low scores because somebody's feelings might be hurt. Robertson does give scores as low as 1 (e.g., Seneca Red) and he does give scores as high as 100 (e.g., Scaldis Noel).
One of the positive aspects of this book is that Robertson rates EVERYTHING! He has evidently tasted things that I could never, in my most horrific nightmares, pay money for--things like Budweiser Ice Draft Light (scored a 7, proving that Robertson is indeed generous with his points). He has also tasted thousands of craft beers from around the world that leave me salivating like Pavlov's dog.
While I generally like Robertson's 100-point scale, it is too fine-grained for the numbers to be meaningful between beers that are fairly close in score. I would guess that the ratings only become significant when the scores differ by more than about 10 points.
One thing that I noticed about the ratings is that there is quite a bit of unevenness in them. Some beers seem to be rated not according to Robertson's professed methodology, but on more of a whimsical basis and sometimes on a strictly hedonic scale. (I also can't imagine that he really did have a panel taste all of those brewpub beers--these scores probably reflect Robertson's own opinion on a single visit). There are quite a few obviously mediocre beers scoring very high, and quite a few obviously superior beers that receive mediocre scores, so comparing beers based on score alone is meaningless. For example, he gives Anheuser Busch Natural Light a score of 45, yet gives De Groen's Maerzen a score of 41. Bizarre! For those unfamiliar with these two beers, it's like a Yugo getting a better Consumer Reports rating than a BMW.
One other negative that I see in this book is that the ratings are not all current. Of course that's to be expected in a book that evaluates and describes some 6,000 beers, but it's still a bit unsettling to see reviews of beers that I have not seen for sale in several years. (Some thankfully...I'm not sure I'm missing anything by not seeing Cool Colt (a mint/menthol flavor malt liquor). There are a few other minor facts that are outdated as well (for example, the Ushers brewery in England is no longer part of the Watneys conglomerate). I also see that Robertson has not yet tasted beers from quite a few of the smaller craft breweries--I know of one that is missing that has been open for 4 years now. This is probably pedantic nit-picking on my part though since the new craft brewery players come into the game everyday and it's really very difficult to keep up with them all.
On the positive side, most of the beers that Robertson rates highly really *ARE* good beers. I certainly appreciate beers like Grimbergen Triple (score 98), Bridgeport's Old Knucklehead (score 98). Also, for beers that vary considerably, Robertson rates them year-by-year. For example, Sierra Nevada Bigfoot has several evaluations, each with a different score (1995 got a score of 99, 1991 a 91, 1990 a 84, and 1988 a 49. This last score brings up another point I noticed--sometimes beers are reviewed when they are obviously damaged examples and not representative of the product a consumer might get. I have never personally gotten a bottle of Bigfoot that I would score as low as 49, and some of the other beers where Robertson comments on oxidation, skunkiness, and other symptoms of mis-handling seem to be scored lower than they might if a fresh sample were obtained.
The reviews do vary a bit. Some are short and pithy, others are long and detailed. Here are two representative reviews that give you a taste of Robertson's reviews:
"OTTAKRINGER HELLES BIER -- gold, huge hop nose; flavor is mostly malt; hop finish, dry light hop aftertaste. [B, 37]" "DUBLIN STOUT -- brown, roasted barley and chocolate malt nose and flavor; light flavored, but well-balanced; medium body; long good tasting aftertaste reflects the flavor; nicely made; made with two-row, Munich, caramel, chocolate malts, black barley, Northern Brewer, Fuggles, and Cascade hops; specific gravity 1.050, 5.9% abw. This has been called Doublin Stout, but that may be a misprint. [S, 67]"
Overall, the book is an interesting and informative reference and one that I enjoy browsing regularly. I disagree with many of the reviews and their scores, but I can still respect Robertson's dedication and his very widely-traveled palate. Do I like the book? Yes. In spite of the nits and the caveats I've mentioned, it's interesting and fun to read.
If you're not familiar with James Robertson's work, you should be. Robertson is one of the grand old men of the beer aficionado set. He was tasting and evaluating beer when many of us were still in diapers. He has a depth of experience that few of us will ever match. Robertson has been writing about beer for almost two decades. His "Connoisseur's Guide to Beer" was published in 1982 and he has been a regular contributor to magazines such as "All About Beer" for many years. His evaluations now appear in each issue as part of the panel of experts that includes Fred Eckhardt, Charles Finkel, and Charlie Papazian.