On Beer Tasting and Opinion

One of my beer drinking friends worries too much. Not about things like the number of calories in a beer or gradually developing dementia and cirrhosis or even that all important question: “How did my tab get that high?” No, this is a person that worries about the validity of their opinion when it comes to talking about beer and whether they belong at a pub full of beer nerds.

I suspect that it’s an intimidation thing. After all, Bar Volo is chock full of people who will strenuously voice their opinions about whatever they happen to be drinking at the moment, be it a verbal denunciation or a contented sigh. There are award winning brewers, both amateur and professional who turn up on occasion, not to mention pub owners and journalists. Many of the regular pub-goers have been enjoying craft beers for years and have had some time to think about the subject. Some have spent a lot of time making meticulous notes for online ratings. Some have holidays centered on beer and football, visiting as many as a dozen English pubs in a single day. One person has lived in different parts of the U.S. for work, and I don’t believe for even a second that it’s a coincidence that all of the places on the list are also micro brewing hubs.

If you ask whichever group of people occupying the bar area on a Friday afternoon what the best cask ale in Ontario is there will be dissent and discussion. If you want to know what the best Imperial Stout in Canada is, you’re probably going to have to order a pint to drink while you wait for consensus to build. Just about the only subject where they’re all on the same page is Trafalgar Korruptor.

There are cask events that cater to the assertion of opinion. This month Bar Volo is hosting an IPA challenge (http://barvolo.com/ipachallenge.html) in which the winners are determined by the people drinking the beer. They give you a sheet and ask you to grade the beers on a set scale of criteria to award a score out of a possible 50 points. It’s a blind tasting (which in this case means that the casks are numbered instead of labeled), so you don’t know what you’re drinking. Eventually, after what can be a bit of a wobbly afternoon, a winner is declared and some of the beers advance through their bracket to the next round. It’s like March Madness with hops instead of jump shots.

There are variables at play here. Maybe the cask isn’t in good condition. Sometimes travelling from the brewery can shake them up, disturbing whatever sediment the finings were meant to settle. Maybe the cask is over carbonated. Maybe the brewer just doesn’t have any experience creating cask beers. If you set all of these potential issues aside, though, what remains is a process in which your opinion is actively being sought.

Consider for a moment this relatively esoteric thought: You are, cognitively speaking, the sum total of all your experiences. You may not have as much experience tasting beer as other people, but everyone brings to the process a lifetime’s worth of sensory information and a certain amount of knowledge. Let’s say that you’re tasting a beer that has notes of raspberry in it. What do you taste? The heavily farmed and vaguely flat raspberries that come from Sobey’s in the little jewel cases? The chemical zing of a raspberry freeze pop from the corner store? The sun hot raspberries that grew on the bramble behind the house you grew up in? It doesn’t even have to be a sensory memory. Maybe when you were a kid, an escaped maniac in a raspberry costume beat you insensible and stole your tricycle. It never happened in my neighbourhood, but I’m not ruling it out.

On an individual level there are all sorts of reasons that you might like or dislike something, and they’re all perfectly valid because you have decided to engage in the process. You’re actively thinking about the beer that you’re consuming and ultimately, you’re the judge. Eventually, after doing this for a while and ingesting information, you start to develop a vocabulary. You might be able to pick out certain hop varieties by association with the aromas they produce. Even if, however, you don’t have the ability to verbalize exactly why you like or dislike something, you’re still completely right.

The best part is that you’re not the only one involved in the process; it’s discursive. The brewer who designed the beer that you’re drinking has also brought a lifetime of sensory information to the table. In the case of a cask festival, they’re brewing these beers as individual batches, adjusting the final product according to their own tastes and preferences developed over years of experimentation and thought. Ron Keefe from the Granite brews in a very English style because his experience has been informed by the time his brother spent at the Ringwood Brewery in England. Mike Lackey from Great Lakes was apparently raised in the wild by family of Columbus Hop Rhizomes.

If you’re paying attention when you drink a well crafted beer, you’re taking part in an experiential conversation. In the case of a cask event, everyone else taking part is doing the same thing. And at the end of the day, based on your judgment and the judgment of people around you, there’s even going to be a pretty democratic consensus about what everyone liked. The fact that a winner can sometimes be decided by several points means that there’s a large amount of common ground for everyone taking part. Many of the people partaking must therefore have a considerable number of similar experiences and while the individual opinions will vary, everybody gets to go home happy; preferably in a taxi.

Next time someone buys a bottle of some rare and expensive beer and decides to pour you a sample, remember that all they’re expecting you to do is bring your sense memories and experiences to the sample. It not only means that they’re interested in what you have to say, but they’re actually sharing the experience of that beer with you and helping to build common experience that you can reference in the future. Or, as one patron remarked in a rare and uncharacteristic flash of insight last time we were discussing the subject, “Well, do you like good beer?”

If you fit that criterion, then you definitely belong among the beer nerds.

Leave a Reply