Stupid beer quizzes

If my sense of boiling indignation is ever dying down, I like to hunt out a “beer quiz” on the interweb. Almost inevitably they’re full of shite, looking as if they’ve put together by someone who seems to have read one book on beer and misinterpreted most of that. Now, I realise that the people who arranged this one are sincere, dedicated folk seeking only to educate the world about beer and how good it is, and it would be nice to be able to salute them for the crusading job they’re trying to do. Only I can’t salute them, because their “great beer test” is crap.

Take the question “In what geographic region was beer first produced for large scale commercial trade?” The proper answer is “North Germany”, where the brewers of the Hanseatic League in the early Middle Ages started exporting the new hopped beer to the Baltic, the Low Countries and other areas of Germany. This is not, however, one of the choices offered in the GBT. Instead it claims that

Evidence suggests strongly that the earliest large scale commercial brewing centers for export and otherwise were concentrated in the trading cities of the Nile River Delta in ancient Sumeria (present day Egypt). There were dozens of available beer styles that were exported as far away as Northern Europe and India.

This is so utterly, utterly wrong in every way it makes my head explode. To begin with, it confuses Sumeria, which is in present day Iraq, with Egypt, some 800 miles away. Next I know of no evidence of “large scale commercial brewing centers for export” in Sumeria or Ancient Egypt. Nor am I aware of “dozens of available beer styles” in either place – I mean, “dozens”? Unless you microslice beerstyles, there aren’t “dozens” available in most major brewing nations today. Finally, if either the Sumerians or the Egyptians were exporting beer to Northern Europe, they were travelling to places that the most intrepid Greeks weren’t going to get to for a thousand years, and the Romans regarded as the edge of the world. Evidence for this claim? None. So that’s five claims, not one of which is true, and one of which is a complete geographical howler.

Then there’s the question “The first mention of the use of hops in beer occurred in what year?”, with the choices given as 1067, 1516, 1796 and 1842. None of these is right: the proper answer is 822, at the Benedictine monastery of Corbie in Northern France. The GBT wants you to say 1067, because (it reckons) “The first mention of hops used in beer was in 1067 A.D. by Abbess Hildegard of Bingen.” This was remarkably clever of the old girl, because she wasn’t actually born until around 1097. FFS, guys – even Wikipedia can get her dates right. The most likely date for her mention of hops is somewhere around 1150. (I’m also deeply dubious about the “quote” from Hildegarde the GBT gives, “If one intends to make beer from oats, it is prepared with hops.” I know this appears in several current sources, but I’ve looked up a Latin version of Hildegarde’s Physica Sacra, which mentions hops in a couple of places, and I never found that sentence.)

As you might expect, the quiz’s questions about IPA are full of cobblers. “When was the innovative style of India Pale Ale (IPA) first shipped from England to India?” According to the GBT,

In the 1790s, English brewer George Hodgson began shipping a highly hopped and highly alcoholic version of the English Pale Ale to India. The high acidity from the hops and the high alcohol content both acted as natural preservatives, enabling it to withstand the long sea voyage to India. Initially called an “East India Pale Ale,” the IPA style has experienced a resurgence in the United States, and is now a staple among craft brewers.

Right: (1) we don’t know when Hodgson’s beer was first shipped to India, could have been the 1790s, might have been earlier; it wasn’t shipped originally by him, it was shipped by his customers, the East Indiamen ships’ captains; and there’s no evidence he was the first to export a highly hopped pale ale to India: he was just the best-known and most popular. (2) IPA wasn’t particularly alcoholic for the time – and “high acidity from the hops”? I know they’re technically called “alpha acids”, but I wouldn’t say the chemicals derived from boiled hop resins gave beer “acidity”. (3) It wasn’t “initially called an ‘East India Pale Ale'”, the expression IPA didn’t come into existence until the 1830s.

There are several questions on beer and food matching, of which this is a typical example:

Which of the following styles of beer best pairs with a cheeseburger with caramelized onions and sautéed mushrooms? Vienna Style Lager/Belgian White Ale/Cassis Lambic/Imperial Stout

Now, they want you to say “Vienna-style lager”, because of the caramelised malt flavours in the beer, which supposedly match the caramelised onions in the burger. But while I commend educating people about beer and food matching, any one of those beers would go with the burger: yes, even the cassis lambic. There is no “right answer” on matching beer with food.

The GBT also has far too many questions that are US-specific trivia with no relevance at all to appreciation of beer: I know not how many 12oz bottles are produced in the US every year and neither do I care; nor do I care whether it was Abraham Lincoln or Theodore Roosevelt who said some dull quote about beer and the people. Even if I did know, it wouldn’t help me know about beer.

There are other problems with the quiz: mentions of “Belgian candi sugar” (no such thing), claims that malting is “Soaking followed by the rapid drying of grain” – it’s rather more than that – and a declaration that “lager yeast activity occurs on the bottom of the fermenting vessel”. Unless I’ve misunderstood what I’ve read, yeast activity takes place in the middle of the wort, with cold-fermenting yeast types then settling to the bottom, and warm-fermenting ones (mostly) settling to the top. But I’ve written a thousand words now: that’ll do. My message to the GBT compilers: I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but do try to get your own answers ruthlessly correct before you perpetrate more errors.

13 thoughts on “Stupid beer quizzes

  1. That brightened up my afternoon, thanks.

    Here, I saw a new citationless ale quote today: “‘Give my people plenty of beer, good beer, and cheap beer, and you will have no revolution among them.’ – Queen Victoria”.

    Ring any bells?

  2. Hmmm, lovely example of what not to do indeed…
    On a similar note, just yesterday I came across a promo piece by Brasseurs de France which claims that Chrismas beers were invented in Norway, for the (pre-christian) Jol festival, in honour of pagan god Odin…
    Am I missing something here ? ;o)

  3. “…There is no “right answer” on matching beer with food…”

    Thank you for putting that so clearly and firmly.

    One teensy quibble or perhaps just question. According to Hornsley, Egyptian society was awash with a beer and was a prime commodity in trade from labourers all the way to the royal family of the Pharaohs. Is that not describable as an internal commercial market even if not for export? And is it possible that it was exported to far more local neighbours?

    1. Well, beer was a staple of Egyptian society, certainly, but this was a pre-money civilisation, where people were paid in kind, and from what I have been able to read there just wasn’t the economic set-up to maintain commercial “large-scale” brewing. Any large-scale brewing there was would have been associated, it appears, with large institutions, such as forts, palaces and temples, rather than “commercial” brewing in the sense we know it today, and the only reference I have been able to find to beer trading is of a fort trading with the local population. I know of no evidence at all to say that the Egyptians traded beer abroad.

      Incidentally, Egyptian beer brewing techniques appears to be another one of those areas where the previous orthodoxy has been overthrown by more recent study, and the idea that the Egyptians made bread-beer, similar to Finnish sahti, has been set aside by evidence that it was a more complicated process than that: see Delwyn Samuel’s chapter on beer brewing and bread making in Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology by Paul Nicholson and Ian Shaw, which has just come out in paperback.

  4. Oh, there’s much worse nonsense about beer on the internet than that. Look at the articles on beer that (if I understand their business model correctly) is trying to pimp to actual publishers for real money. They read like they’re written by fifth-graders. How about this:

    “Most IPA’s will have a higher alcohol content than traditional beer. This is because the hops is more easily fermented than other ingredients in the beer and therefore produces a more intense alcohol content. Hops also tend to be on the bitter side, and when a beer has more hops than what people consider “average”, the flavor with all other things being equal will be more on the bitter side.”

    I don’t think we have any hope of countering the rubbish written by lay people who don’t understand the brewing process in the first place.

    It’s a much more serious problem that inaccurate myths are still being put about by people who are touted and widely regarded as beer experts.

  5. Hi Martyn!

    I was developing – guess what – a stupid beer quiz for a podcast. I got very curious about the answer “The first mention of the use of hops in beer occurred in what year?”, that you assigned as proper answer “822, at the Benedictine monastery of Corbie in Northern France.” Most of my references (Cicerone course, beer books) quote Physica Sacra by Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, despite the fact that There are a few quotes that refers to wrong dates.
    Could you share the source of the right answer?

    Best Regards from Brazil! I really admire your work.

    Ps: Oh, we have been together last march at Brazil Beer Contest (CBC) but we did not speak – unfortunately!

    Stay safe.


    1. Richard Unger’s Beer in the Middle Ages is one source – here. There is also a very good discussion here . However, the problem with all of these references is that they statethings like “hops were being cultivated in the Hallertau in seven hundred and whatever” without giving the exact documentation, detailing precisely what is said, how we know it is from that year and so on, which frankly makes we dubious about them.

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