Shapes to Describe Beer

In November of 2009, I had a wild hair while attending a design gathering here in Portland. Based on some trouble I’d had keeping legible notes at beer festivals, and some inspiration in the form of a custom publishing platform called Scout Books, I came up with 33 Bottles of Beer. You know, the beer-tasting notebook that’s taking over my life?

My main requirement (other than the device being pocket-sized and battery-free) was speed. I wanted to be able to take notes quickly, so I could spend more time drinking, er … sampling. Here’s what I came up with.

Beer Review Page from 33 Beers

So I incorporated some quick graphic devices that made taking notes as quick as I could. Think checkboxes. Doesn’t take but half a second to make a tick.

But flavor threw me for a loop. Flavor is inherently fuzzy. Not binary, as in “checked” or “un-checked.” There are shades of flavor. Gradients. Spectrums. So, my graphic design brain started firing. How could you quickly describe varying levels of flavor, and do so visually?

I ended up with what’s called a “radar chart,” which I call a “flavor wheel.” Some people also call it a spider graph. I think it’s what makes 33 books special (yep, there are wine, cheese, coffee, cigar and whiskey versions, too), and it’s usually the thing people remark on when they look at the books for the first time.

But I wondered the other day (I was drinking some 9.4% abv Black Boss Porter) – if I were creating a new beer review book – what might some other tasting notation options be?

One option might be “Harvey Balls,” which are used by Consumer Reports for comparative data. Equally quick, but “flavor balls” doesn’t exude … well, it sounds gross. Sorry, Mr. Harvey. And frankly, it doesn’t look as cool.

How about a simple bar chart? Elegant, and that might allow for even more gradation. The flavor wheel is kind of limiting, with just five points. This option, which I’ve dubbed “the Flavor Grid,” while a bit longer vertically, allows for quite a bit more nuance – score beers from 1 to 7! That’s … huh … 20% more. Or so.

No, way too much ink to fill that thing up. I got tired after just two of the 16 descriptors! And eco-friendly is important to me. Plus, space is at a premium since the books are designed to be pocket-sized. Maybe if I had a little more space to work with, I could come up with something better. Or not.

2 thoughts on “Shapes to Describe Beer”

  1. The spiderwebs are cool, but I wish it was easier to look at a shape and say, “oh that’s a beer I would love”.

    Geeking out a bit, I suspect that trying to rank things on a circular graph makes it hard to grasp the difference between two graphs, for a few reasons: 1. a beer that scored straight 2’s on the flavor wheel would look to the eye exactly like a straight 4 beer (round circle). 2. We would probably perceive slight rotations as nearly the same, even though it’s really saying something very different. 3. The area inside the shape doesn’t convey much because each point depends on its neighbors to stretch the shape its way.

    Obviously I’ve gone on too long already, but I wonder if a kind of “graphic equalizer” view would make it easier to see patterns like that — “that beer has a thumping bass, I know I’ll like it”.

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