3 Sep 2012

Tasted conclusions


Over the weekend I thought a bit more about tastings and their contribution to beer culture (I still haven't made up my mind whether "beer culture" is a real thing or not, but for the sake of the argument, let's say it is) and I've reached some conclusions.

More than once I've seen the word "learn" mentioned, that at these events people "learn". Learn what? Learn to drink? Don't we learn that when we are 2? Learn to enjoy beer? Are they expecting me to believe that until I was told about the proper serving temperature and glass for a Barley Wine I wasn't enjoying my beer, or I didn't know how? Are they morons or have they got their heads so high up their own arses that the fumes have made them idiots? (and this goes to my couple of years ago self). Learn how to appreciate beer? This is not modern art, it's beer! All you need to do in order to appreciate beer is to pay attention to what you are drinking, that's pretty much the secret.

What these events offer is information and advice given by experienced people who know what they are talking about (or at least that's how it should be). But drinking beer isn't a creative activity where you need to follow certain procedures in order to reach the desired results, it's consumption. If I fancy putting that proverbial Barley Wine in the freezer for half an hour and then drink it straight from the bottle, the beer will not change, it's a finished product, the experience will, and if the experience satisfies me, then I haven't done anything wrong.

This doesn't mean that the stuff about temperatures and, to a certain extent, glasses is nonsense. By no means. It makes a lot of sense, but at the end of the day, all is subordinated to personal taste. I remember when I told the head brewer at Pardubický Pivovar that I liked drinking their Porter at "room temperature". He couldn't quite understand it, perhaps he thought I was a little mad. He said that the beer was better when colder. Who was right? Both of us. This bloke knows that beer better than anyone in the world, but nobody knows my tastes better than I, and experience has dictated that, at least for me, Pardubický Porter is better at "room temperature".

But regardless of how valuable and practical all this information and advice can be, they are just knowledge and having knowledge isn't the same as having culture. I might have studied religions for many years, I might have read and analised sacred books and I might even be able to explain the meaning of their liturgies and symbols (I wish), but since I'm an atheist, I don't have religious culture; unlike a person who is a believer, who actively takes part in the rituals and the festivals even though (or maybe because, but that's something else) they know little, if anything about their history and symbolism. It's similar with beer, you can be someone who has read a lot, who has tasted and rated thousands of beers from all over the world, who attends, and even organises and hosts, tastings and courses, but who drinks only certain kinds of beer and almost exclusively at home or together with other similar people. Perhaps you believe you have "culture", but if you don't take part in the rituals of beer, you don't have it. Culture, by definition is something public and participative, and there's the key.

These events rarely (if ever) take into account a most important factor, that beer (its enjoyment and eventual culture) is not only about what you've got in the glass, but also about the moment, the situation, the place and the company in which the beer is consumed.

I've already told you about the best commercial beer I've drunk in my life. On Crete, an Euromacrolager served the Greek way, ice cold in a mug fresh out of the freezer. Those who know will say, and not without reason, that beer shouldn't be consumed like that. Those who know didn't walk 16km in the Samaria gorge with 30ºC in the shade. That beer at that moment and place was delicious and I'd gladly drink it again in a similar moment and place. Closer to home: as brilliant as the house IPA is at Pivovar Strahov is, it's no match for Kozel at U Černého Vola.

The thing is that drinking beer isn't a science, there are no absolutes or even rules. The other day I read someone saying that beers should only be drunk from glasses, he explained very well why and he was right. Now go to Franconia and have a Kellerbier drawn in an earthenware mug and you'll see how those arguments loose much of their strength (I've recently discovered the pleasure of drinking lager at home from an earthenware mug and I swear to you, I like it better than from glass, and look at this picture and tell me it's not a beauty). In fact, I must confess that under certain circumstances I've got no problem with drinking from a plastic cup or even straight from the bottle or can (sorry Martyn), if only because it's more comfortable or because I can't be arsed with looking after a glass that I might end up breaking or loosing. If I was drinking from a glass in situations like these, I wouldn't be enjoying the moment so much and therefore, neither the beer.

It's not the intention of this long rant to say that tastings, etc. are something negative. I might see them as something forced, or even alien to beer and its culture, but I must admit that when well done, they can be interesting and even fun. They are also excellent marketing and, more importantly, there's nothing wrong in offering information and presenting alternatives to the consumers.

But regardless of what each of us might think of these events and their contribution to beer culture; regardless of whether beer culture actually exists, there's an almost universal truth that I believe we will all agree on: drinking always beats tasting.

Na Zdraví!

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