As I went around the province talking to people at breweries and festivals over the course of the last six months, I was asked the two questions that I’m always asked. I have decided to answer them on the blog this week in the hope that it might avert some of the curious when I’m out and about.
The two questions are, in sequence:
- What’s your favorite beer?
- What do you think is going to happen?
Unsurprisingly, these questions are asked by different groups of people. The first question is asked by folks that are consumers of beer who are outside the industry, but it’s the one I intend to answer today.
For the most part, people who work in the brewing industry don’t ask you what your favorite beer is. It is probably impolitic to expect a straight answer or even to give one. Even bloggers or instagrammers who have been doing what they do for a couple of weeks have gotten that question so frequently that they are sick of it basically out of the gate.
When people get asked that question they have a standard response or they prevaricate a little, hedging the answer. The other day when I was talking to Paul Dickey and said I was going to write this piece, he commented that it really depends on his mood. That’s a totally honest answer and a completely fair one, because it certainly can.
Other responses that I hear frequently that I think are less reasonable are things like “The best beer is the one in your hand.” Well, it sort of depends on what’s in your hand, doesn’t it? The answer sort of presupposes that you’re going to be grateful for a really bad beer. I can’t get behind that. I have long since reached the point where I pour out beer I don’t like. There is always more beer and besides which, that stuff has calories. I don’t want to burn off something I am not going to enjoy.
Speaking of more beer, another pat answer I hear a lot is “the next one.” That sounds a little more like barfly desperation than preference. I think we can all admit we’re looking forward to the next beer without making ourselves sound quite so dependent on the loopy juice.
My answer is an actual beer, and if you follow me on social media you probably know what I’m going to say. It’s Side Launch Mountain Lager. It’s an honest answer on my part and rather than simply toss it out there, I figured I’d explain why.
There was a time in my mid 20’s when beer was a reward at the end of a long week. I didn’t write about beer and I got to order whatever I felt like ordering all the time. That’s not really the case anymore. If you write about beer in any professional capacity, you’re sort of obligated to go out and try new things all the time. The new things might be very good or they might be dreadful and most are somewhere in between, but you need to know about them. It’s informational. I’m frequently taken aback by how little beer is about beer. There always seems to be some manner of abstract informational connection to the economy or ingredients or agriculture and always people’s lives.
I would guess that I probably thought critically about 1200 beers last year. That includes thinking about flavour profiles, the character of the brewer, the decisions the brewer made, the ingredients, off flavours and textures. The thing is that I really can’t turn that mechanism off, so if I’m going to drink beer as a reward (passively judging it instead of actively judging it) I want something that requires the least amount of thought.
If you have, say, a pale ale or an IPA, both of which seem like they might be good choices in this context, those are products with a lot of variability. I have been able to pick out yeast strain differences and subtle changes in hop profiles between batches and that’s not great for the purpose of relaxation. A very talented brewer can really dial that in, but I’d still be left thinking about what hops are in there.
Similarly, while barrel treatments and myriad novel ingredients might float your boat on a recreational basis, I find myself asking “Hey, how did they do that?” or “What were they trying to accomplish by putting sage in this?” or “What exactly is the difference between a cognac and armagnac barrel?” If drinking something involves the Oxford Companion to Beer or Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, it’s probably not exactly recreational.
That’s why I like to drink a simple lager. Michael Hancock up at Side Launch makes a really excellent Helles style lager consistently enough that in my experience the only variable is how old the can is, and I can answer that question to my satisfaction by looking at the date code. If I want to ask “How did he do that?” I know the answer is “He put in about a quarter of a century on getting it that way.” That’s not to say I know exactly what’s in it, nor really do I want to. If I thought about it, I could probably figure it out, but I like it enough to allow it that little mystery. I like the gentle herbal spiciness and the light lime rind character and I like the slightly gingery retronasal sting. I like that it is relatively low in alcohol and that I can therefore have two or three of them without feeling significant caloric guilt. Also, for the quality $2.80 a can is a total bargain. Since the book wrapped, I’ve been keeping it in my fridge as a staple and that’s the first time I’ve kept a staple beer around in six years.
Mostly what I like is the mnemonic space it puts me in.
One day in about 1996 when I was on a high school band trip to Hong Kong and Tokyo, we were going to Macau. Two of the kids on the trip had families with yachts, which is a handy way of getting to Macau. The yachts had stewards and after we were out of the harbour they started circulating with cans of Heineken. It all happened so fast that the chaperones didn’t really have any option but to basically make sure no one got more than one beer. I would guess that probably they also wanted to sail across the South China Sea in the beautiful weather with a cold beer in hand. There we all sat, students and teachers, discipline suspended for the sake of a universally pleasant experience, in the summer sun on a yacht on the way to spend an afternoon sightseeing in a Portugese colony. A little island of time without consequence spent clambering about the ruins of St. Paul’s and Monte Fort.
I don’t mean to compare Mountain Lager to Heineken, by the way. That’s not what I’m saying. At that time I didn’t know anything about beer, so there was nothing to turn off. It’s maybe the best compliment I can pay to Mountain Lager to suggest that it is so good that I don’t have to think about it at all. It facilitates a kind of empty minded enjoyment like drawing a mandala or basking in the sun. It’s an odd way to have come full circle in terms of appreciation.
Of course, that’s not really what people mean when they ask “what’s your favorite beer?” What they mean is “tell me what to drink.” In which case, I still think you should drink Mountain Lager.