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. 

11 comments:

  1. Hop extracts aren't always a bad thing, the new-style ones made by CO2 extraction are way better than the old ethanol extracted ones. I've not a problem with brewers using IKE if they want, after all there are no rules!

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    1. I agree with you no the "no rules" thing. But at the same time I must admit that had I learnt about those things a few years ago, before I knew that beer, I would have most likely not thing so highly about it.

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  2. This is partly about the power struggle: we want to know more about our beer because big brewers, historically, have preferred us to know nothing.

    CAMRA and others fought hard to get British brewers even to disclose the strength of their beers in the nineteen-seventies, which they resisted because they wanted the right to make beer weaker, or change the recipe, for their own financial benefit, customers be hanged.

    So, yes, you're right -- swotting up on a beer before you drink it can reduce the 'pure enjoyment', but it's still necessary while brewers have an incentive to sell you bad beer as lambic, weak beer as strong, light beer dyed with colouring as 'dark', and so on.

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    1. And that is the whole point I want to make. Knowing about the beer you are drinking right now isn't necessary, but knowing about beer as a whole is; it makes you a more responsible, demanding and less gullible consumer.

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  3. With regards to the TAP X, I had it on draught and in bottle, in Groningen and Rotterdam and was sorely disappointed with both. A friend was at the launch in Germany and said it was just ok there. Ho-hum..

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    1. TAP X has disappointed many people. In fact, I don't know anyone who actually liked it. :)

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    2. Well I do like it. A lot :)
      and looking at Ratebeer, actually many people like too:)

      Honza, Czbeer.cz

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  4. Replies
    1. High Gravity Brewing. Basically, they brew a stronger beer and then they water it down to the desired strength. It saves a lot of costs and increases capacity without a bigger brewhouse.

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  5. This is all spot-on except for your egregious failure to get on board with the sour thing. I actually had the experience you describe at a brewpub in my town. What they served me was a tart porter--but that's not what they brewed. The tart was unintended wildness. Whether intentional or not, that's an inoculation of wild yeast. Usually it tastes horrible, but I loved that beer.

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    1. That is very similar to an experience I had with a rotten rauchweizenbock... My enjoyment of sour beers is exceptional, really.

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