What do we taste when we drink a glass of beer or wine?
Are we imbibing the liquid itself? Or is there more to it?
What about the conditions under which we consume the beer? Are we with friends at a pub? Is the beer part of a sumptuous meal? Or does the beer conceal its identity as part of a blind tasting? Are we consuming an aura? The reputation of a brewery? A BeerAdvocate or RateBeer score? Hype? Marketing?
These questions are aesthetic questions that begin with, but go well beyond, the liquid in the bottle. What is both in and on the bottle leads invariably to judgments of taste, that shifting terrain of sensation giving rise to pronouncements based on our subjective dispositions. But does this mean that “it’s all subjective,” a pronouncement I’m sure you’ve heard on many occasions? Well, not exactly.
Taste, according to German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, is an eminently social process whereby we attempt to put forward our reasoned judgments as if they were universal pronouncements. At stake for Kant is the search for the grounds of pure, disinterested judgments of taste based on reason. Rather than remain in the realm of mere opinion, or à chacun son gôut, Kant wants to move us to the firmer ground of what he terms “subjective universality.”
Before we can bracket our opinions and pronounce judgments of taste with the lofty status of subjective universality, a potentially insurmountable obstacle remains to be confronted: the extent to which our tastes are always already shaped by and derived from outside influences. When we make statements along the lines of “IPAs are the best beers in the world” or “lagers are naught but insipid yellow fizzy water,” it’s worth noting that taste concerns not only what’s in the glass. The aura that surrounds a particular beer or style of beer (Heady Topper, Pliny the Elder, BCBS), even the way a beer is packaged and marketed –– these are but a few of the factors that shape our perceptions in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways. Taking this one step further, the social and the environmental frames that affect perception and sensation often upset reason’s best efforts at pronouncing disinterested judgment. Inasmuch as taste is subjective, it is also subject to the culture and environment that surrounds us.
Canons of Taste
Taste defines communities. Taste communities engender distinctions by dictating what’s in “good taste,” and what’s not. Canons of taste are born when enough writers at X Magazine or judges at Y Competition suggest that certain styles are the embodiment and ethos of American craft beer. For a myriad of reasons concerning the relationship between power and aesthetics, certain individuals or groups of people are able to promote their conception of art, fashion, music, or alcoholic beverages as the standard of good taste. Wine is the drink of the refined sophisticate, beer the drink of the working masses. The rise of craft beer disrupted this distinction, but new distinctions have risen up to replace the old. If you doubt this, just break out a Bud at a craft beer event.
What constitutes “good taste” in the craft beer community? Is a given beer “good” only if it has received the imprimatur of a large portion of the craft beer community tuned in to BeerAdvocate?
Against the Grain: Challenging the Canons of Taste
French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, theorizes the culture of everyday life in terms of what he calls habitus. Cultures like tasting communities envelop us to the point that it is difficult to gain a vantage point free from the embrace of a particular context. North American hop varieties and intensely flavoured beers are the signature notes defining the dominant culture of contemporary craft beer. This has a profound effect on how we rate and evaluate beer. Can the casual contributor to a beer ratings site separate him- or herself from this cultural context? To what extent is the skilled or certified beer judge aware of unconscious cultural dynamics that have molded his or her palate? Is Ayinger “better” than Stone? Are hoppy beers “better” than malty beers?
How can we simultaneously challenge the dominant canons of craft beer taste and expand our own taste horizons? Drinking mindfully is always a good start. Beer appreciation is nothing if not an education of the senses. And at a fundamental level, educating the senses involves a resistance to hype, marketing, and the prevailing doxa that defines taste according to geographical origin, provenance of the hops, or levels of alcohol.
In recognizing the extent to which our tastes are received notions that bear the stamp of the culture that surrounds us, we’ve come that much closer to pronouncing the kinds of judgments of taste at which Kant aims. From here it’s just a matter of stepping out of the long shadow of canonical tastes and asserting the reasoned validity of our own tastes in beer, be they for fruit beer or lager.
Just as culture itself is not a static entity, canons of taste are temporally contingent. If the transformation of communities of taste rests on persuasion, persuasiveness is borne of experience. So drink on, fellow imbiber, drink on!––For the cumulative experience of drinking all that beer, wine, bourbon, Scotch, and Armagnac plays no small role in the validity of a judgment pronounced in favour of this double IPA or that Pilsner.
Related Tempest Articles
Pierre Bourdieu. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (1979). Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.
Immanuel Kant. The Critique of Judgment (1790). Trans. J.H. Bernard. New York: Prometheus Books, 2000.
With the exception of the Ayinger Weissbier, all photos by F.D. Hofer.
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