17 Jun 2013

On the importance of knowledge

I've been thinking for awhile about beer knowledge and its importance. It's something that started going around my mind ever since I drank that Otley 08. I had almost forgotten about it until 2D2dspuma and Beervana somehow dealt with the subject a few weeks ago.

The question I have now is not only whether it is important to know about beer in order to be able to appreciate and enjoy all its diversity, but also whether all this thing about beer knowledge isn't a bit overrated when it comes to the experience of the consumer.

A bit over two years ago, I helped the then Chef at Celeste to put together a beer dinner. They guy drawn the basic outline of the 7 course menu and, based on that, I brought a bunch of beers from which we would choose the ones that would pair with each of the courses.

The remarkable thing was that, despite his relationship with beer being that of a casual consumer, the Chef had no problem to appreciate the, sometimes nuanced, differences of the beers that we tasted, without the need of any explanation on my part (in fact, after this experience, which he enjoyed a lot, I don't think this excellent cook was much the "wiser" about beer as it was before). Granted, as a Chef flavours are his livelihood and therefore, his palate it's well trained to pick certain things that most of us might miss. But that's not based on any X-Men-like mutant superpower, but on paying attention on what's in the glass.

Paying attention to what's in the glass, that's all there is. If you get a beer "double-blind", i.e. without having any information about style or even brewery, your senses will be more than able to determine if you like the beer or not; and if you like it and want to drink it again, the name and where to buy it is all the information you would need. How was the beer brewed, by whom, where and what with is information that your senses don't need. In conclusion, you don't need to know fuck all about beer in order to appreciate what you are drinking.

Of course, there are people who do not agree with that. Joan, from Birraire, in a comment on a loosely related post, said that he had been able to enjoy more a beer that he had found very strange after knowing its ingredients. Good argument, no doubt, but I believe it's confusing a bit correlation with causation.

I find spontaneously fermented and other traditional sour beers fascinating because of their history, traditions and processes, and I understand why there are people who are their fans. However, and though I have enjoyed a few sours, I'll never be among them as many of the ones I've drunk ended up reminding me of Czech lagers gone off*.

The opposite happens with Svijanský Rytíř, still one of my favourite beers despite having learned that it's brewed with tetrahop and allegedly with HGB. I liked the beer a lot before knowing this, and I'd be dishonest with myself if this relationship had changed after getting this info. What we have in both cases is the senses predominating over the intellect.

But back to Joan. What would've happened if that strange thing in that beer (which I assume he was enjoying) had been the result not of an unusual ingredient, but of a contamination? He would have probably changed his opinion of the brewer, but not of the beer he was drinking and liking. The intellectualisation resulting from the information on those ingredients didn't suddenly improve the beer, it helped Joan understand what was that he found so attractive and understanding is, by itself, something satisfactory, but at another level.

And here is the key! "Understanding".  There it is when knowledge about beer becomes useful and important. It can help us understand why we like (or don't like) a beer, which in turn helps us have a better criteria when it comes to making a purchase decision, minimising the risk of buying a well polished turd. In conclusion, knowledge helps us choose better, and choosing better helps us to enjoy more.

It's important though, that this knowledge doesn't generate false expectations (or, in some cases, prejudice). When Schneider came out with their TAP X, I was expecting something like TAP 5 (Hopfen-Weisse), but with the characteristic notes of the Nelson Sauvin hops that I had so much liked in other beers. In the end, the beer disappointed me (the fact that it was considerably more expensive than the other one didn't help things, either). That knowledge didn't make my experience more pleasant, and it might have been an obstacle for that.

Here is one of the problems of intellectual knowledge. Many times the lead us to overly simplified conclusions that are themselves based on a good dose of ignorance. Many of your are probably able to identify different hop cultivars, and you may even have some favourite ones. But how many know how well your favourite hops work with different sorts of malts, let alone yeasts or processes? For that, of course, it'd be necessary to know quite a lot about malts, yeasts and processes and how each of them can affect the quality and character of a product, something that is well beyond the knowledge of most of us.

The results in a sort of over dependence on the word of experts. That is not itself the problem, there's nothing wrong in listening to people that know more than you; the problem is that, on the one hand, many of these experts turn out to be not quite so, and on the other, that often this "experts" are people with some vested interests and agendas who will spread the sort of information (if not disinformation) that will best fit those interests. (e.g. the bollocks that unfiltered beers are by default better because the "evolve").

But all this shouldn't discourage us to keep on seeking and demanding information. Valid information, concrete: figures and data without any false esotericism. What we must bear in mind, though, is that nothing can replace the knowledge acquired empirically. You can read the best books, magazines and blogs, you can go to talks, presentations and guided tastings (though you'll be wasting your money with those), but, and as long as you pay good attention to what you have in the glass and trust your senses and ability to learn, nobody will be better than you when it comes to determining whether a beer is good.

Na Zdraví!

PS: The strongest case for knowledge are, perhaps, serving temperatures. But they is usually something received as an almost absolute truth with hardly any questioning, when the fact is that it is still largely based on personal preferences.

*This reminds me of that brilliant line in that brilliant satire "Sh!t Beer Geeks Say": "That's hideously infected - unless it's a lambic, in which case it's awesome!", which is a great of the way prior information can influence and affect what our senses when evaluating a beer. But that's another topic altogether. 

10 Jun 2013

Monday Musings

In an interview with Brooklyn Magazine, where he mostly talks about the 25th anniversary of his brewery, Garret Oliver, when asked about the "craft vs crafty" controversy, answers with the following:
“My outlook on it is somewhat philosophical. Am I annoyed? Yes. It’s very annoying to see people who are not you walking around dressed as you and claiming to be you, essentially, and using the advantages they have to try to get people to think, “beer is beer, it’s all the same,” etc. What I say to people is, take the big breweries, and anyone, anyone in the room I’m in, sometimes hundreds of people, can you name the brewmaster? Anyone got a name? No, there is no name. There’s no name. There’s nothing but money. And money moves, and this liquid moves around the world, and there’s nothing but money. If you want to understand what it’s about, it’s about money. And we are about something else.”
Let's not discuss the "craft vs crafty" thing, because by now it should be clear to anyone what it is all about. There are two things in that answer that caught my attention. The first one is that being able to name the brewmaster thing, as if it was something important. It bloody isn't!

As I've already mentioned, craft reweries started to use the figure of the brewmaster as a marketing tool is a way of compensating for the lack of proper terroir, but I might have been wrong. I think it's compensating for something else they lack, especially those from countries with not much of a brewing tradition to speak of, or those who want to distance themselves from the prevailing one in their markets: heritage.

This isn't intended as a criticism, it's not a shortcoming or a disadvantage in any way; it's a fact. If you look at the biggest and/or most renown craft breweries these days, even those who have been around for several decades, you'll notice that those companies are still run basically by the same people who established them. There hasn't been a passage of generations that would create that heritage. So, in a way, the face of the brewmaster, who will often be also one of the founders, replaces that. It's good marketing, it gives the company a more human face. It's a kind of marketing that I quite like, since the person who knows the beer better than anyone else should be able to engage with the consumers better than a spokesperson, but it's nonetheless marketing, not too different than having an ancient date printed on a label; and it's something that doesn't add any value to the beer. I had a great time the other day with Václav Berka, but that experience didn't affect in any way my opinion about the beer or the brewery.

What bothers me about Oliver's answer, though, is that it implies that being able to name and recognise its brewmaster will make a brewery better, that it makes it more worthy of respect. What a load of bollocks! Let's take for example, Polička, Schneider, St. Bernardus and Samuel Smith. Hardly anyone knows the names of their brewmasters, and even fewer people care. Those breweries have heritage, they have a continuity (albeit interrupted in the Czech case) and therefore, the consumer doesn't need to know who is in charge of making the beers, they expect the beers to be good because they trust the company that makes them.

Which brings me to why Oliver is missing the point so much. A brewmaster is one of the most important people in a brewery, if not the most, there's no arguing that, but he or she can be replaced. If Oliver decided to retire tomorrow, there's not technical reason why that should affect the quality of the beers; all the company would need is someone familiarised enough with the recipes and the equipment, which, I believe they already have. (what effect that would have in the way the company is run, that's another thing) and nobody would notice the change.

In conclusion, knowing the name the brewmaster of a given brewery means jack shit as far as the quality of the beer and the brewery is concerned. That leaves us with the second thing: money.

This is perhaps the part of the craftophile discourse that irritates me the most. That widespread belief, based on lies and hypocrisy, that craft brewers are not commercial, that making money is not the reason why they have a brewery.

Regardless of what made someone set up a brewing company, the truth is that anyone who does something for a living is doing it for money. They might love their job, feel really passionate about it, or whatever, but if they weren't earning enough money by making/selling beer, they would be forced to do something else. If their main drive was their love of beer, then they would still be home brewers, selling their production in order to finance their hobby.

On the other hand, this is especially disingenuous coming from someone whose beers have national distribution and are exported to several countries. If sheer financial gain isn't behind that, then what is it? Not that there is anything wrong with that, mind you, quite the opposite! What's bad is that someone as intelligent as Oliver feels it's necessary to come out with crap like that. He's well aware that a large part of beer geekdom is composed of people for whom riches and success lawfully attained after a lot of hard work is something to be frowned upon. I really don't understand those people, they are like teenage fans of indie bands who, after the object of their affections make it big and become mainstream, will accuse them of "selling out". That is already quite stupid all by itself, but it's even worse when it comes to brewers. How can people whose day job is to make beer and/or manage brewing companies be accused of selling out and loosing credibility? But don't come to them with those arguments. Their minds seem to be so fucked up that they believe that someone who does something "just for the money" has a somehow lower moral stature, than someone who is following their dream.

The problem is that they have their hopheads so high up their asses that they fail to see the most basic reality - a company needs to produce a certain turnover to at least stay in business, let alone make a profit and grow. That requires planning, budgeting, accounting, etc; and the bigger that company gets, the more complex all that will become. And that's why it is money that is running the show.

Perhaps it is that they believe that setting up a brewery should privilege idealistic home brewers, and that someone's doing it because they see it as a prospective business or, even because they want to cash in on a fad will ruin beer. Why should we give any fucks whatsoever about why someone decided to start brewing commercially? Yeah, stories of dreams followed and whatnot are nice and even inspiring sometimes, no one's denying that. But we should judge a brewery by the beers they make and not by the motivations of its owners. As far as I am concerned, if a brewery is able to offer me the sort of beer I will want to drink, I will be more than happy to give them my money. What the owners of that company will later do with that money is none of my business, nor should be anyone's.

Anyway, good beer is able to stand on its own two feet and speak for itself, it doesn't need any egos, personality cults or redundant bollocks to support it.

Na Zdraví!

PS: I don't think I need to explain myself, but just in case. I've got nothing against Garret Oliver or his brewery, I haven't had the chance to meet him in person or to taste his beers. In fact, I believe he has worked really hard to get his company where it is now, for which he deserves some respect. Besides, he's not the only who has said bollocks of this caliber; Greg Koch, founder of Stone has recently come out with a similar sort of nonsense.