It has to be said that I’m spoiled as it relates to beer.
For the last couple of years, my local pub has been Bar Volo, just north of Wellesley on Yonge street. The owner, Ralph Morana, has been able to import a huge number of really interesting, high quality beers from around the world. In the last year or so, the place has become something of a destination for beer snobs within a reasonable drive. This is partially because of the ambience and partially because of the incredible selection of beers available. Most Fridays for the last couple of years I’ve been down there with a crowd of beer snobs, many of whom I’ve become friends with. Sometimes they have things that are unavailable anywhere.
Like Westvleteren abt 12, a Belgian Quadruple brewed by monks, generally accepted amongst beer snobs as The Best Beer In The World.
From what I understand, the process involved in getting this beer is extraordinarily convoluted. It involves actually going to the abbey in Westvleteren. You have to call the abbey and set up an appointment to pick it up. At the time of the call, you’re asked for the registration number of the vehicle in which you will be picking it up. You’re only allowed a certain number of cases. On the receipt it points out that the beer is not for sale, but is only for personal use. I won’t attempt to describe the flavour except to say that it gives one pause to consider seriously a vow of celibacy and whether or not monastic robes are very likely to chafe.
So, for a very small period in the summer of 2009, it was possible to get The Best Beer In The World at the best beer bar in Canada. Just about anyone who went there and ordered one at that time was aware of the fact that something fairly unique was happening. People showed up ready to enjoy the beer, make notes about the experience and think about this extraordinarily rare beverage in terms of a mental framework that they had spent years building up, casting their minds back over other beers in that style which they might have enjoyed decades earlier. Some of these people managed to wait until the Westvleteren abt 12 had gotten to the optimal temperature before even judging the aromas coming from the snifter. These people are pretty largely definable as alpha beer nerds.
For all geeks, experience is related in terms of comparison. This is essentially because the disparate, but similar, experiences form a lingua franca. Whether it’s dungeons and dragons, playoff games, or crochet patterns a common language of shared experience develops in nerd communities. The D&D comparison is not even a stretch. Those are some 24 karat, grade A, bonafide nerdlingers. Although, if you claimed that decades of memorized batting averages or the ability to relate verbal instructions for a 3-dc mesh is any different you’d be kidding yourself. Can you explain how slugging percentage is derived? You are a huge freaking nerd.
Baseball fans might create a fantasy team, buy season tickets or support a Triple A team. Crochet enthusiasts might know the people at the yarn store by name, have a preference for a variety of Aran Wool or follow blogs in order to choose their next project. In those cases the scope of the thing is relatively limited. Beer, on the other hand, is served just about everywhere. Everyone has their preferences and opinions on the subject.
Try explaining the fact that people are willing to go schedule a visit to Belgium and make an appointment with monks for the opportunity to buy a case of beer to someone who unironically enjoys Laker. I’ve tried. The look I received was somewhere between astonishment and disbelief. It may have been tinged with pity due to the perception that I was gullible enough to believe this was a possibility in the first place. The conversation then quickly degenerates:
“Why would you do that?”
“Because it’s The Best Beer In The World.”
“Oh Yeah?” the person inevitably asks at this point. “Says who?”
What are you going to say at this point? You can’t look witheringly at them and proclaim “people who know about these things” without looking like a schnook. To someone without a significant amount of experience with different beers, it probably sounds like you are demeaning them because you think the quality of your experience is better than theirs. Just the fact that experience is something that can be quantified is a disturbing revelation.
Westvleteren abt 12 currently has a rating of 4.48/5 on Ratebeer.com Laker is somewhere around 1.64/5. That’s a margin of 2.84 between what is considered by geeks to be The Best Beer In The World and a generally reviled inexpensive lager. Westvleteren abt 12 is in the top percentile and Laker is in the bottom percentile. It’s not just better. It’s 2.73 times better.
Does that mean anything? Well, probably not to the person drinking Laker. You’ve just told them that if their beer of choice was a movie it would be a direct to DVD release starring Steven Seagal. They’re likely going to walk off in a huff having decided that you don’t know what you’re talking about and possibly uttering dubious things about your parentage.
I’ve observed that rating beer is a useful exercise for geeks for a few reasons. Firstly, the idea that beer geeks are constantly craving new experiences is a quality that defines them. Some of my friends have rated over 3000 beers, making careful notes: Was it on tap? Where did they acquire the bottle? Style, colour, body, aroma, glassware, even the amount of head retained on the beer in the glass is a subject for thought and discussion.
Even if you started drinking those three thousand beers with a photographic memory, it’s not unrealistic to suggest that it may have suffered some light brain damage somewhere around beer 1700.You need a spreadsheet, or possibly some kind of large internet site which comes with a purpose built template. Something that allows you to create a record of the things that you liked, what you gave them out of five and, above all, something that allows to you remember which beers are to be avoided in future.
Secondly, 3000 beers is a lot of beers. The fact of the matter is that these pioneering poindexters have gone out and done a lot of the legwork for you. Because of the enthusiasm of these people, you can get a list of the top 100 beers in the world and the list has been vetted by some uniquely qualified and rabidly fanatic candidates. The thing is essentially an experiential map. The best part is that they in no way agree with each other about what the best beer in the world is. It’s not some monolithic entity. The score is an average based on the scores that are entered by thousands of globetrotting professionals and enthusiasts who seek out the best. Whether or not it’s entirely accurate simply isn’t worth debating. Given a large enough sample of data, it evolves into common wisdom.
For non-nerds, the site is worthwhile because it lets you hear about things you wouldn’t hear about otherwise (like Westvleteren abt 12) and experience things you wouldn’t experience otherwise. Anything that results in sitting happily on the patio in the sunlight in the late afternoon with a snifter of a truly excellent Belgian Quadruple while poking fun at people staring rapturously into their snifters and then scribbling frantically on notepads cannot be a bad thing.