Beer Town: An inside view of the Paste blind-tasting series

Paste staff writer Jim Vorel and editor-in-chief Josh Jackson finish tasting a batch of pale ales. CONTRIBUTED BY BOB TOWNSEND

Headquartered in the Atlanta suburb of Avondale Estates, Paste was founded in 2002 as a quarterly music and entertainment magazine.

Since then, its digital coverage has broadly expanded to include comedy, games, books, theater, design, visual arts, tech, food and drink, travel, politics, media, business, science, health and even wrestling and soccer.

But right now, one of Paste’s greatest claims to fame is its beer writing, which tends to celebrate millennial-loving trends in headlines such as “New England IPAs are Officially Mainstream and It’s Awesome.”

Led by staff writer Jim Vorel, with the help of founding editor Josh Jackson, its blind-tasting series highlighting various beer styles has become a signature.

It began with an audacious ranking of 116 American IPAs for a piece published in April 2015 that declared the Brew Kettle White Rajah IPA No. 1. And it has continued with even larger sample sizes, including a blind tasting of 247 American IPAs in August 2016 that passed the mantle on to Prison City Pub & Brewery Mass Riot.

On the other side of the equation, “30 of the (Best?) Cheap Macro Lagers, Blind-Tasted and Ranked,” published in March 2018, was like a bit of comic relief, naming Hamm’s, now owned and produced by MillerCoors, the unlikely winner.

To get a better idea of how the tastings work, I recently stopped by the Paste office in Avondale Estates, where I talked with Vorel, and joined that day’s American pale ale panel as a participant-observer.

Besides giving me an opportunity to relive my undergrad sociology studies, I was fascinated by how the tasting was organized.

There’s a strict method of keeping the tasting blind. An intern catalogs, photographs and sets up each day’s round of beers. But there’s a more liberal attitude about the sensory side.

Honestly, as a germaphobe, especially during flu season, I was taken off guard by the fact that the 16 beers we tasted were poured into 16 style-appropriate glasses from Spiegelau, and we drank from them in turn, sometimes returning two or three times to a sample.

We were each asked to mark a score sheet, rating each beer from 1-100 and writing down our tasting notes. Full disclosure: I was confused by the method, and much slower to take to “loving cup” sipping than the other three judges, so I asked that my score sheet not be used.

“This will be our third-largest blind tasting ever, after IPA and Double IPA, with over 150 beers,” Vorel said when we sat down in a lounge area in the open, newsroom-style office where the tastings are conducted around a long high-top table.

Vorel is from Chicago and has a print journalism degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. He worked at daily newspapers and freelanced for Paste before becoming the news editor, and then a staff writer, mostly covering film and beer.

“They had already been doing beer tastings before I was here,” Vorel said. “Craft beer coverage was always a part of Paste from the beginning. But everything changed when we decided to do IPA in 2015, and we did it blind for the first time.

“I was really worried about the prospect of doing it blind because you risk your own credibility if you choose beers that are not well thought of by the world. If you decide this random large regional brewery’s IPA is the best in the country, people are going to say, well these people can’t taste. If you ignore and fail to recognize the really hyped ones, same thing.”

As it turned out, though, Vorel and Jackson were pleasantly surprised by the results, which they felt linked up well with their non-blind appraisals.

“As time has gone by, I have gotten far more confident in our ability to taste blind and be sure of the results, both at the times when we don’t necessarily praise something that is praised wildly, and at the times when we elevate something unexpected,” Vorel said.

“I feel like those results are almost always replicated when we have those beers again. The good beers and the good breweries continuously come back and rise to the top, whether they’re hyped or not.”

Depending on the category, the tastings can stretch over multiple days or even a week or more. Each round always includes Vorel and Jackson, but other tasters come and go at random.

And unlike more formal home brewing and professional brewery tastings conducted under the auspices of the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) at gatherings like the yearly Great American Beer Festival in Denver, few Paste panels include certified judges.

“Most of us don’t have tasting credentials,” Vorel said. “And we’re clear to say this is not a BJCP-style tasting. We’re not grading to any style guideline. We don’t have anything in front of us that says American pale is supposed to taste like blank.

“That’s helpful to us because in a style like pale ale, any guideline you gave would screw a certain category of the beers. Like in this one, the Northeast style and the hazy ones would all get low scores. We’re capable of giving a good score to a classic example or to a newer example. Ultimately, we’re more a guide from beer drinkers for beer drinkers.”

At the end of the tasting, there was one beer everyone agreed on. And in the final reveal, we were all pleased to find out that it was Han Brolo, a contemporary hazy-juicy pale ale from Atlanta’s Monday Night Brewing.

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