Tuesday, December 14, 2010

On taste, why I don't judge your music, and good beer

It's time to talk about my favorite thing in the whole wide world: Taste. Specifically, why your tastes are so important.

You remember college? Oh, college. College, the land where an unnecessarily common icebreaker is "So, what kind of music do you like to listen to?" One of my very favorite things in the world is to see whether the answerer comes up with a specific genre or replies "Oh, you know, a little of everything", as well as which answer will make the asker scoff in response. Friends of mine who would happily describe themselves as music snobs would scoff at college girls that said "everything", assuming they meant "everything currently playing in this college bar". Friends who were into specific genres of music would turn their noses up at people who said the wrong genre. Occasionally funk nerds would find other funk nerds and then only be capable of communicating with one another for the rest of the night. So it goes.

Me? Here's where it starts to sound really hip and obnoxious, but I think I fall into a sort of weird camp. I generally like just about anything. I'm also generally really boring. When a new Girl Talk album comes out, I probably loop it mindlessly for at least six months. When I drove, I would keep the same CD spinning in my car for easily a year until someone else pointed it out. My home Pandora station is based on "Lovely Day" by Bill Withers. My favorite album in college - in the mid-2000s, mind you - was Bone Thugs-N-Harmony's E. 1999 Eternal. I don't know how to answer the question; most importantly, I really don't care about your answer to the question.

Lest you think I'm trying to turn this into a music blog - which I hope the previous paragraph proves that I shouldn't - I promise I'm getting somewhere. As I was growing out of the phase in my life where I wanted to listen to every kind of music ever so that I could be happy with almost whatever music is on wherever I am (and get a little education along the way, because learning is super fun), I started to transition into the type of person who wanted to know a whole lot about beer. Just as it makes me cringe how much good hip-hop I was missing in the late 90s because I was too busy obsessing over musical theatre, it drives me crazy now to think about the five years I spent in college drinking a whole lot of Miller Lite and Blue Moon in the face of really, really good beer bars.

I'm regularly asked by people who don't know much about beer what the "best" beer is wherever we are. This question is simultaneously endearing and infuriating. There isn't an answer. There are good beers. There are better beers. There are rare beers. That doesn't mean I'm going to recommend a single thing you'll like, unless you tell me what you're into.

The evolution of a beer drinker is always fascinating to me. How did you get here? Some people use the phrase "craft beer epiphany", and I think that's fairly accurate. Here's mine: My freshman year of college, we drank a lot of Blue Moon. You can put fruit in it! Cool! It was our "better beer" to Miller Lite, which cost about $5 for a six pack and was found at every single corner store ever. (Also, I was 18, and people bought my beer for me. Don't judge.) Every once in awhile someone would bring over a fancy six pack of Blue Moon. It was... well, it was different. It didn't taste "like beer", which is to say it doesn't taste much like Miller or Bud or any variation thereof.

Fast forward a little to sophomore year, when I was about to turn twenty years old, and a professor of mine sent us off to spring break with one request: Drink a Paulaner Hefe-Weizen. Pour it into a glass. Look at the gorgeous orange color. Smell it first. Then drink it and come back in two weeks to report your findings. (Professor's name purposely omitted in order to protect smart professors who give advice about booze to 19 year old students.)

So, I did. I drove down to a liquor store, found this weird beer he was talking about, and drank it as instructed. And I'll be damned if it wasn't fantastic. It was like Blue Moon, but it was... better. Would you believe it didn't even need fruit? For the next year of my life, it was all hefeweizen, all the time. This is a pretty common thread among newer beer drinkers - they're not offensive, the more common among them aren't that challenging, they lack the hoppy bitterness that you get from a whole lot of common beers, and they're easy to come across.

Fast forward to living in New York, where I visit my first bar that doesn't have a hefeweizen on tap. I'm instructed that Hoegaarden is pretty similar to a hefeweizen, so I should probably try that. It occurs to me at this point that this sweetness is pretty great. It takes far longer to occur to me that this is an indicator of what Belgian yeast tastes like.

And I hit the ground running. I spent the last part of college back in Ohio, in Bell's country. Oberon (Bell's wheat beer) was easy; Two Hearted was more challenging. Sierra Celebration was too much. Christian Moerlein's 5th & Vine came out and it was my go-to for a summer. It was everything I could find, all the time, with few reservations.

I don't think I would have gotten into craft beer if my professor had recommended picking up a 22 oz. bottle of Double Daddy. I don't think Pliny the Elder could have been my first beer. I don't think a bottle of Bourbon County would have done it either. You have to start somewhere. I drank exclusively sweet white wines until I was pushing 23, and now I want them as bracingly red as possible. Palates are like that - and I swear to you, that's okay.

What is important is to realize that food, wine, beer, even music are all the same. There was a time in my life where I could not stomach mushrooms, IPAs, or bluegrass - it takes time. Your tastes change, and it has far less to do with age than it does with education. You might try a stout and think it's gross, but what if you try thirty stouts? You'll start to notice their nuances. All beers are not created equal. Over time, those nuances start to mean something, but if you have no way to identify what they are, you're going to have a hard time figuring out what you like.

I am awful at talking to mechanics about cars. (There is a laundry list of reasons why I don't drive; this is among them.) When presented with a funny noise coming from anywhere in the car, it could just as easily be a fan belt as low tire pressure. I don't even bother trying to tell a mechanic that it's making a ca-CHUNK-a noise, I just hand over the keys and hope I'm right on whether it's the front or the back of the car. I'm hopeless. But I'm hopeless mostly because I've never really been a driver. I don't know how to work on cars. I bet you, though, if I took the time to understand an internal combustion engine, looked under the hood a few times, and listened to the mechanic when he rattled off what was wrong so that I could correlate it to that specific ca-chunk-a, I'd be able to talk about it more eloquently.

It's so important to keep trying. That's not to say you'll like everything you try, because you probably won't. There are good beers and there are better beers, and maybe the better beers won't even impress you. Just because a beer is popular and you don't like it doesn't mean that you're wrong OR that it's a bad beer; it means there is something about it that doesn't resonate with you. I don't like Guinness or Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, two beers that are commonly distributed and widely accepted. I just don't. It isn't that I don't like stouts or pale ales. It's that as a stout, I find Guinness to be lacking in flavor and consistency and making up with it in a roasty way that I don't care for, and I think Sierra relies too heavily on bittering hops without enough aroma and sweetness to balance it out. That's okay. They're not bad beers. They don't keep me from drinking pale ales or stouts.

This is where the "better beer" comes in. If you're not a beer drinker, you probably can't describe the effect that a specific yeast strain has on a beer, nor what hop character is, or what carbonation level is appropriate for a specific style, or how malty a beer should be. If you're on your journey toward being a beer drinker, all of that comes naturally, and over time you expect to go through phases. For being a person who rarely gravitated toward hops, I went through a very serious IPA phase this year. I probably drank my weight in saison. Last year was for stouts and porters, this year was for hops and floral. I am constantly flirting with Brett. I'll be in the midwest for two weeks very soon, so I expect all sorts of new things to be on my mind once I get back to San Francisco. It's when you start to know the how and why of what makes your beer so enjoyable that the world opens up to you, and when it does, it's unbelievably exciting.

It breaks my heart a little when people don't like beer, because I promise they do. Exceptions to every rule, of course, but it honestly makes me a little sad when someone walks into a beer bar, finds that they don't serve liquor, and walks right back out - or orders a cider because it's what they've learned to drink when their beer-drinking friends want to go to a beer bar. Or orders PBR because everything on the menu is named weird things that they've never heard of and it's easier to do that than ask the bartender what a beer is like. Don't do that. On a packed Saturday night, I might not be able to take you through an hour-long tasting lecture, but I bet if you tell me what kind of liquor you like, I can find you a beer to start with.

My mother is my very favorite person to drink beer with, because she hates it. She loves Bud Light - I come from a family of domestic beer drinkers. She knows how much beer means to me, however, so she always tastes whatever I'm drinking. Of course, she always hates it - but she tries. Good for her. This summer, when we were visiting family out east, they bought a six-pack of Anchor Summer to make me feel a little more at home. I handed my bottle to her and my jaw completely hit the floor when she took a second sip. She drank Anchor Summer all week - it was her first craft beer. When asked to describe why this one, of all beers, was acceptable, her answer? "It tastes like normal beer."

It would be so easy to laugh; to judge. It would also be easy to forget that's exactly how I started - Blue Moon tasted like normal beer, but it was just a little different. Not so different as to go from Miller Lite to something that clocks in at 100 IBU, just different enough to be enjoyable and palatable. Blue Moon to Paulaner to Hoegaarden to Oberon to Two Hearted to everything. What a fun experiment.

I know that this is pretty stream-of-consciousness, and for that I apologize. There's no huge payoff here. It's just so easy to judge other people for their outlook and preferences, and forget that those things come from a place of education, experience or lack of either. I won't link to it here because it irritates me, but if you haven't seen the news clip basically mocking the Rare Goose Island Bourbon County price, you might want to look it up. (Or don't. You won't be a better person for it.) It's awful. Early on, one reporter describes the $45 bottle of beer and suggests to the other to "keep a straight face". The next reporter puts air quotes around "connoisseurs" when he describes who the beer is for. It is at this point that I nearly tried to reach through the computer. John Hall, the president of Goose Island, is then asked if he knows what's happening with the economy, in a hugely reaching attempt to make him feel irresponsible for selling a beer at that price. It's followed by a series of man-on-the-street style interviews with random bar patrons around Chicago paying $3.50 for their beers, and one particularly irate man that suggests if you tried to charge him $45 for a beer that he would tell you to Get The Fuck Out. Later, the first reporter asks if it's kind of Guinness-like.

I have described it well. You don't have to watch it.

It's infuriating, you know? 22 oz. (the size of the Bourbon County bottle) is about 650 mL, slightly smaller than a standard wine bottle, which is 750 mL. Doing some really basic math, let's say that a 750 mL bottle of Bourbon County would run $52. Are news commentators getting up in arms about $60 bottles of wine? No? Are they going into dive bars and asking people how they'd feel if they ordered a glass of wine and were told it was $75? Oh, that didn't run either? Because that's currently the price for the most expensive glass at Charlie Trotter's, one of the most well-known restaurants in Chicago. How about $8,750 for a bottle at the same restaurant? Perhaps a rare bottle of beer isn't quite the same as a 15 year old bottle of fine champagne, but you get my point.

It's time to start educating. It's time to be educated, if you want it. It's at least time to stop judging. I just don't believe in beer snobbery. You can drink your PBR if you want, but you should try something every once in awhile. I'm really glad I started listening to bluegrass. I'm really excited that my mom found a craft beer she likes. And even if it gets its very own four minute segment on a local news affiliate making fun of how irresponsible it is, I'm over the moon that Goose Island cares enough about their product to bother making a bottle that can command a $45 price point, economy or no economy.

Grab a beer, even if it's one you don't like, and figure out what you do and don't like about it. Go from there. I bet you'll learn something, and you might even end up happy. Apologies again for the lack of structure. I'll be drinking a blueberry fruit beer and seeing if I can open my eyes a little.

1 comment:

  1. Real clear writing with many good points. Thanks.