On Personal Preference and Favorite Beers

One of the things that makes sites like Ratebeer and Beer Advocate work is the fact that, by and large, human physiognomy is a bit same-y. We’ve all got approximately the same number of arms and legs and we’re fairly similar in terms of the amount of sensory data we can process. It’s why, given a large enough sample, consensus can develop based on beer ratings. It’s almost certainly why flavor and aroma account for 32/50 points on the BJCP rating sheet. I don’t pretend that there’s not a significant amount of knowledge involved. People using this rating system are highly trained and are judging the beers according to style and also based on the amount of knowledge they’ve gleaned over the years. At the core, however, there’s a significant argument to be made about the idea that olfaction is derived from long term evolutionary processes which affect our genetic makeup.

Researchers have discovered that Phenylthiocarbamide and Propylthiouracil, chemicals which are incredibly bitter, are sensed differently in humans based on the presence of common alleles. Periodically, there are articles released about the idea that this phenomenon may be related to sex. Supertasters are more likely to be women, after all. There’s potentially a biological explanation for why beer has developed to be the way it is in the modern era; why large companies are so successful marketing products that will offend the smallest percentage of the population.

I am totally, utterly, unequipped to make that argument, so I’m going to talk about my favourite beer and the development of personal preference.

Truth be told, I’m not a very good Canadian for the simple reason that Canadiana tends to bore me to tears. It’s probably because I grew up in an environment with a significant Anglophonic bent. My grandfather was from Manchester. From the age of about four, I had a nanny who was from Manchester. In fact, I remember listening to Ray Sonin’s shows on CFRB in Toronto long after I was meant to have gone to sleep. (He used to sign off with the line “This is your old china Ray Sonin saying TTFN…Ta Ta for now” and play music hall novelty songs like Yes, We Have No Bananas which is, at the very least, an improvement on Raffi’s Banana Phone).

I went to private schools whose structure was based on English public schools. Instead of grades, we had “forms.” Instead of detentions, we had “gatings.” One day during music class, we had to stand at attention while Prince Philip surveyed us. He managed not to say anything particularly inflammatory and then gave us the rest of the day off. If you can find anything more prone to instilling a spirit of Empire and Commonwealth in a thirteen year old boy than getting to miss a science class, you should bottle it.

I read Arthur Conan Doyle and Douglas Adams and P.G. Wodehouse and Ian Fleming. I listened to Goon Show bootlegs and watched Monty Python. To this day if I’m talking to an English person, I tend to unconsciously mimic their inflection and accent. It’s a miracle I haven’t been laid out by an annoyed Scouser or Geordie who thinks that I’m taking the piss.

Given all of that, it’s not particularly surprising that for the first vacation I ever took as an adult, I decided to spend a couple of weeks in England. I did quite a bit of research before going, deciding what I needed to see. Apsley House was high on the list; The National Gallery; The Tate Modern; The Victoria and Albert Museum. Then I started to think about how far away these places were from where I was staying in East Dulwich and how it might be a good idea to have a mental map of where to stop for refreshment along the way.

I’d learned a little bit about cask ale from hanging around Volo, but it hadn’t really made any sense to me at that point. It was certainly a departure from what I was used to, and I sort of liked it but I didn’t really know why. I eventually twigged to the idea because of two pubs and Hook Norton Old Hooky. I’d love to tell you exactly what Old Hooky tastes like, but it’s been nearly three years since I’ve had one. It’s somewhere between a brown ale and an ESB, with a lot of malt character. It’s reservedly fruity. According to the website, it’s about 4.6% alcohol. It’s not overpowering, but it is vaguely reassuring. It’s what you want in an English real ale.

The first time I had it was at The Gowlett in Peckham. It’s meant to be an area with a high crime rate, but there was none of that in evidence (possibly because it borders on East Dulwich). It’s a very nice pub with four casks on hand pumps. Everyone knew each other. Everyone talked competently about the things they were drinking, arguing politely about which cask was in better condition that day. There was a real sense of community.

The second time I had it was on the patio outside of The Eagle in Cambridge. I sat there on an unseasonably warm day in February, sipping a second pint of Old Hooky and reading Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy; 30 feet from the RAF bar where World War II airmen burnt their squadron numbers into the ceiling; 25 feet from where Watson and Crick announced the discovery of the double helix over what must have been at least a three pint lunch. I was sitting on a spot where there had been a pub in some form or another for 600 years, with no plans for the evening other than attending evensong at St. John’s College. Tradition!

This is why Old Hooky is my favourite beer. It helped me to make sense of a lot of things, not the least of which was just how annoyingly, affectedly bloody British my tastes are due to a lifetime of media exposure and upbringing. It also helped me to understand that one of the reasons cask ale is so important is that it helps to build communities of people who know about beer and because it carries forward a sense of tradition.

We don’t have 600 year old pubs in Ontario. We don’t have breweries that have been around for centuries. Much of our brewing history is lost due to the success of corporations like Molson and Labatt. Brands like Arkell and Frontenac are long gone. But, we do have cask beer. And we’re starting to have communities of people who enjoy well crafted beers and each other’s company. And we’re building new traditions. Eventually, if craft brewers can educate the public, it may even become commonplace. It’s a matter of nurturing their interest and giving them more opportunity to try things. Clearly nurture is as important as anything else in terms of developing personal preference.

If it wasn’t, it would never occur to me to use a phrase like “I’m off down the rub-a-dub for a pig’s ear.”

Which I am.

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