They Keep Asking Me: “What’s Your Favourite Beer?” 10


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:

  1. What’s your favorite beer?
  2. 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.

Photo courtesy of Robin LeBlanc. Ugly shirt courtesy of my own colorblindness.

Photo courtesy of Robin LeBlanc. Ugly shirt courtesy of my own colorblindness.

 

 


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10 thoughts on “They Keep Asking Me: “What’s Your Favourite Beer?”

  • Jeffrey Poulin

    Had the Side Launch Mountain Lager the other night at Ted’s Range Road Diner outside of Meaford. Both it, the pickerel and the boar, and the view of Georgian Bay, were spectacular. This brewery is now an anchor for our tastebuds, and the region it represents.

  • Tom Schwerdtfeger

    My favourite beers are often tied to great memories and timing. One memorable moment took place on a hot July day at the cottage. I was working hard all afternoon clearing brush and restoring our beach (it had been invaded by teabrush while we were away in Alberta for a few years). Finally I called it quits and joined my wife and father in law on the dock to take in the late afternoon sun. The beer I chose was a Side Launch Pale Ale. It was one of the best beers I’ve ever had! I’ve had it since but never as good as on that summer day.

    I also get asked about my favourite beers, and have a hard time with it. I can’t just pick one. In fact, I would have a hard time picking one from each classic style, and that doesn’t even cover all the interesting hybrids and one-offs. I’m not as sophisticated in my ability to pick apart beers, so perhaps can more easily just enjoy them. Of course that’s pretty easy for a superfan!

    • admin Post author

      It’s absolutely mnemonic. Because smell and taste are such powerful triggers for memory it’s entirely likely that a good sensation at the right time will fix a positive idea in your head.

      I’ll give you an example: I had Beau’s St. Luke’s Verse the other week. I don’t think it’s the same as the first time. Less lavender, more rosemary. Whatever. Thing is that the combination of rosemary and thyme threw me back to Revelstoke. We were on a cross country RV journey through the Rockies on some summer vacation and had spent the day looking at the dam (which should be a Pink Floyd album cover, BTW). For dinner we went to a place called Tony’s Roma. Not too busy in mid summer. They had this incredible foccacia and because we asked nicely they sent us away with a tray of it and we made sandwiches with it for days. Beautiful stuff. Is it a great beer? I don’t think it is, but it did trigger that sense memory. Everybody’s are necessarily different, but the thing that I recommend to people is to try and cultivate them. See if you can fix a spice or a fruit flavor in your mind.

      I remember reading I think it was about Dumas Pere, who didn’t have a regular sleep cycle and who was recommended by his doctor to eat an apple every day at the same time under the Arc de Triomphe. It provided structure in his life. If you can structure sensory experiences like that by associating them with a place or a moment, everything will be more real.

  • beercanuck

    Thanks for this. I have similar issues when I do beer education stuff. My approach – right or wrong – is to respond by saying my preferences are irrelevant and ask the person what their favourite is. That usually leads to a conversation about other beer that are similar to that one that they could explore and most people seem to end up happy because they have some new suggestions to try. On my end I have avoided what I think is clearly an uncomfortable question that has no upside for me given what I do. I respect your answer – it makes sense – but I mostly try to avoid directly answering the question.

    • admin Post author

      It’s true that it’s an uncomfortable question, and to be honest, if you have to think about the answer for more than a few seconds you absolutely should be answering it the way that you are. The thing is that I don’t have to think about it. I have been doing this a while and although I used to answer the question very politically, I think I’ve probably earned the right to not have to do that. That sort of abnegation of preference is a pose, I think. While you can try to be objective in the context of say beer judging or writing a guide, it is really only your best attempt at that in the interest of accuracy and fairness. We’re not objective creatures. To be fair, I’m quite lucky that objective quality and subjective preference sort of looped around on that one.

      Your preference isn’t irrelevant; it makes up a significant part of your value as an educator. You wouldn’t be doing it if you didn’t have preferences. That said, people ask that question so they can tell you their answer, so in many ways yours is immaterial to them, so I’m not sure it matters.

  • Kevin Herman

    Interesting that you might have to define love of a “normal” beer in a Helles Lager when Germans might have to do the same for liking an IPA. While “big” beers can provide amazing experiences, there is certainly satisfaction in not having to (or wanting to) think about your beer. It’s the peace of mind of knowing the beer is perfectly fresh, well-made, and ticks all of your boxes on desirable flavor. Your only job is to drink and make incoherent sounds of satisfaction. Broadehead Grindstone Amber is that beer for me for much the same reason. Cheers!

  • Rein Taul

    Hi Jordan,

    I have to say I’m a little conflicted by this post. I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, but a well made Helles, much like Pilsner, gets so little respect. Suggesting you don’t have to think about it kind of got my back up. Yes, these and some other styles get lumped into the ‘non challenging flavor department’ (EXTREMELY UNFAIRLY), but the more I have learned about and experienced beer, the more I admire well made examples. You simply cannot hide bad brewing with one of these. Contrast that with so many of the current adjunct beer fads and sour/rotten hack jobs where anything but a brewer’s skill can be going on.

    For the record, probably my favorite Helles, in this country anyway, is brewed by L’Amère à Boire in Montreal. To your idea of context, I have had many opportunities to watch the street life and the sunset from their terrace while enjoying this beer. Yes it definitely goes together, but I’m pretty sure every time I’ve had it, I’ve stopped to think about how it was made as well as what choices and motivations went into brewing it.

    It’s also possible that I’ve only given it so much thought because I’ve learned so much from their beers as I have been developing my own homebrew recipes.

    • admin Post author

      So what you’ve done is rather badly missed the point.

      It is a well made enough beer that I know there are not going to be flaws in it. I trust the consistency implicitly. I am not going to have to think about flaws. It’s excellent. Try it sometime.

      I suppose I could say the same thing about MacLean’s Farmhouse Blonde, if I’m honest. I just prefer the sharp hop bite of the Mountain Lager.

      • Rein Taul

        It is excellent. Perhaps that’s why I end up thinking about it as well as any other well crafted beer. It gets my attention.

        I guess you are employed to look for flaws. As an enthusiast, I look to learn from flawless examples.