Anyway, while I was reading Gladwell’s article — which delves into the subjectivity involved in setting “objective” standards — Pandora managed to feed me song after song that I didn’t feel the need to skip. It’s been a while since The New York Times explained how “The Music Genome Project” works, but it’s still a fascinating story. ... Would it be possible to do something similar for beer?In a word: yes. But it wouldn't be easy. To create a "music genome," Pandora employed a team of musicologists to break music down into elements and code them. If you've ever done qualitative research, the process would be familiar. They looked for objective, technical features, like major or minor key tonality, rhythm patterns, vocal harmonies and so on. But then they bravely tackled the subjective as well, looking at, to quote that Times piece Stan linked: "To what extent, on a scale of 1 to 5, does melody dominate the composition of 'Hey Jude'? How 'joyful' are the lyrics? How much does the music reflect a gospel influence? And how 'busy' is Stan Getz’s solo in his recording of 'These Foolish Things'? How emotional? How 'motion-inducing'?"
What results are a series of markers that form the song's "genome." I booted up my account and looked at the first song that played. Pandora described why it selected this song:
"We're playing this track because it features rock influences, off-beat style, highly syncopated drum beats, use of modal harmonies, a slow-moving bass line, dominant use of piano riffs, affected synths, an acousti-synthetic sonority, trippy soundscapes, prevalent use of groove, and many other similarities identified in the Music Genome Project."Note what it doesn't include: genre. This is part of the genius of Pandora. For decades, radio stations have played certain genres of music, conditioning us to partition our tastes off using this criterion. What you find when you tune into Pandora are certain qualities of music that you weren't aware you liked. Apparently I'm big on syncopated drums and complex rhythms. I like electronic influences, but I couldn't care less about vocals. The music Pandora selects for me has an amazingly referential quality. Without realizing it, I was setting up "channels" that were effectively the same channel--the music was related closely enough that I kept getting the same music no matter which band I stared out with. (That's on my indie-based music, anyway.)
A Beer Genome
So how would a beer genome work? Pandora wisely started with musicologists; amateurs like me trying to code music would have missed whole layers of subtle markers. To construct a beer genome, you'd need people with sophisticated palates and a substantial background in beer tasting. From there, I think you'd follow the music method pretty closely. There are a lot of objective qualities in beer--the beer flavor wheel offers a nice template. You'd probably expand it to capture a few more qualities like color and effervescence and perhaps strength.
Then, to capture the essence of a beer's nature beyond mere descriptors, you'd need to come up with a list of subjective qualities, like "sunshiny lightness," or "intense greenness." (And this is where you'd come in for a lot of hell: so many beer geeks and homebrewer types hate anything that isn't quantifiable; they wouldn't just disagree with the categories, they'd disagree with the subjectivity principle.) My guess is that it is these qualities that would help you overcome the conceptual rigidity of style--which, obviously, would need to be abandoned, just like Pandora abandoned music genre.
Maybe you'd come up with a description like this:
"We've selected this beer because it features a light but round straw-colored body, gentle cookie malt sweetness, perfumy, floral hop aroma, fruity notes of citrus and melon, piquant, lively mouthfeel, a clean, crisp finish, sunny brightness, and many other similarities identified in the Beer Genome Project."(I was trying to describe Sierra Nevada Pale Ale from memory there.) Part of the reason Pandora succeeds is because it has scores (hundreds?) of markers. What seems banal in the particular begins to sort out into pretty small categories. If you like SN Pale, perhaps the qualities would lead you to try a wit, say, which wouldn't be expected if you hewed strictly to style. More to the point, it would guide you not just to other similar styles, but particular beers. And this is where the genius of such a project would lie. If you tune in a radio station, you select one based on the blunt dictates of genre. You might end up enjoying 75% of the music and really liking 25%. But with Pandora, that number goes up quite a bit--I enjoy probably 90% of the music and really like half of it. If you could reliably find a way to navigate the tens of thousands of beers produced every year in the world, the same thing would happen.
In terms of implementing it, well. As Stan says, it's a pipe dream. You'd need to get a team of trained tasters who could assemble a list of say 2000 beers at launch. It would be a great app--you could easily charge a few bucks for it. But the list would have to grow quickly; since beer is regional, you'd need ten thousand or more to ensure that everyone had a decent selection of options. That would require some kind of serious investment. I'd be happy to take some calls from VCs, but I don't expect them.
Ah, but imagine, you're in the mood for something like, oh, say Hair of the Dog Adam. You boot up your Beerdora, hoping to be able to scratch the itch. Adam--that'll be a tough beer to match, you think, but no, there they are, a dozen suggestions just waiting for you.