Leading the charge into a beery 2014, this month’s session is hosted by Rebecca over at The Bake and Brew. The topic? “Against the Grain – How much is our taste or opinion of a craft beer affected by what friends and the craft beer community at large thinks?”
The American craft beer community owes Herman Melville’s estate some serious royalties. Beer drinkers have, with the help of limited regional distribution and internet hysteria, revitalized the idea of the phantasmagorical white whale, resurrected the self inflicted psychological torment that comes from bending one’s mind and will to a singular, oft unattainable pursuit.
I’m talking Pliny the Elder. Heady Topper. Bourbon County Brand Stout. Those highly rated, near flawless, crafted wonders by which the quality of the rest of the culture is measured. Beers made elusive by design. The bottled and canned Pollacks and Picassos. Works of art that somehow, through the neural network of the collective unconscious, most drinkers can objectively identify as “great,” even if they’ve never actually tried it.
They’re out there, lurking below the surface, dodging whaler’s harpoons, appearing for a few seconds to those lucky few, disappearing just as quickly for anyone actively looking for them. They’re evil only in that they won’t play nice, that they won’t just show up on the shelf in our local beer store at a reasonable price, whenever we want them.
We know the hype for these beers exists. We’ve all seen it on Twitter, or in magazine features, or as a that shining perfect 100% gracing BeerAdvocate or RateBeer. But the question Rebecca asks is simple: does hype represent reality? Are our brains pre-wired to assume rare and expensive means good? Is it possible that we’re psyching ourselves up and in turn perceiving the beer to be better than it really is?
Subjectivity swims in everything we eat and drink. Everyone’s tongue is a slightly different patterned plot of budded farmland, harvesting different kinds of flavors in different yields, ultimately resulting in what we understand as taste. Our noses, too, make unreliable organs of comparison, as we’re all dealt a different olfactory hand at the beginning of the game, and that hand can change from exposure to other chemicals, physical damage, or even just competing local smells.
We’re already at a disadvantage, biologically, because we can’t even use our senses to establish a singular ideal. Our “taste” is as unique to us as our fingerprints, as beautifully random as each snowflake in the flurries of a nascent blizzard. We’re destined to disagree about the things we lick and sniff, because our individual anatomies are about as congruent as 113th Congress.
But like art, objective good has to come from somewhere. Like say, from an established set of basic rules that do their best to form a consensus among those who’ve spent their lives fighting their unique perspective of the world. Painters are measured by their mastery of medium, or composition, or realism. Brewers are determined good by virtue of defects, or a lack there of. Our human standard for “good” is artificial, manufactured, a best guess created by experts in hope of wrestling down subjectivity and triumphing over our physical limitations.
In some ways, when considering that the rules are doled out by man, and the word of trained experts is taken as a baseline, hype and perception do become reality. If a person who has dedicated their years to hovering their nose a few centimeters above a settling head to pull out individual lupulin notes in a hop melody or the malty chords of Cigar City’s fifth concerto, who am I to tell them their educated opinion is wrong? If they say that Pliny the Elder is objectively the best beer in the country, I’m loathe to disagree. If a large majority of my beer peers also agree, by the time I’ve got the brew in hand, chances are I’m already expecting a pretty positive outcome.
So yes, while the quality of the beer is obviously what garnered the reputation in the first place, the hype trickles down through all our conversations, wriggling deep into your brain-meat where it sits and surreptitiously informs your opinions Our expectations are already tainted by what everyone else thinks and says, even if we try our best to come at a situation with the most neutral of biases.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It gives us all something to look forward to, a giddy little glee to exhale when we do get our grubby mitts on that beer we’ve so long coveted. But it also gives brewers a goal. A point of perfect that can be aimed for, met, possibly even beaten.
All that hype gets people talking about beer – and excellent beer at that – which I think we can all agree, is a great thing for our whole community.