Tag Archives: Stone Brewing Co.

Tasting Against the Craft Beer Grain

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?IMG_1078 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.IMG_0985 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.Ayinger Ur-Weisse (ayinger-bier-de) 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.

(It’s always about the lager, isn’t it?)IMG_2512

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

Drinking Lager in an Age of Extreme Taste

The MaltHead Manifesto

Let Us Now Praise Famous Lagers: Your Saturday Six-Pack (Vol.3)

Every Day Is Craft Lager Day at Kansas City Bier Company

Sources

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.

© 2015 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.

Save

The MaltHead Manifesto

A spectre is haunting the craft beer world –– the spectre of Sir Maltalot. Laid low by a tsunami of IPA, the wild yeasts have set in to consume his legacy. Extreme beerists have entered into an unholy alliance with sharp-fanged sours, enlisting sturdy barrel-aged beers to confine Sir Maltalot within their cavernous depths. Buried under layer upon layer of rum, oak, bourbon, and peppers, his spirit lies in wait.

Like an illumination of the darkest night, the repressed memory of Sir Maltalot’s lush aromas has begun to stir. Lovers of Scotch Ales and Doppelbocks, aficionados of lagers light and dark, let us band together to fight for a craft beer world in which value is not measured by the bitterness unit,IMG_0152 in which a hundred IBUs does not automatically equate with one-hundred Beer Advocate points! A revaluation of values! A world in which brown ales are not cast aside for their seeming ordinariness!

Maltheads, conceal your views and aims for not a moment longer! Emerge from the shadows and proclaim with unfaltering voice your affinity for Munich malt, crystal malt, Maris Otter, Pilsener malt, and Golden Promise! And let the lovers of the Seven Cs tremble at the prospect of a Malthead revolution. Maltheads of the world, unite! Come together to break the bitter tyranny of the IBU imperium. We have nothing to lose but our scythes.

PostScript

Installment #94 of The Session comes to us courtesy of Adrian Dingle at DingsBeerBlog, and inquires after our perceived role in the beer scene. Friday took me by surprise,Session Friday - Logo 1 as did December in general, so I wanted to write something short that was playful yet pointed at the same time. Hence my Malthead Manifesto.

I love sitting down to a rich imperial stout (as a matter of fact, I’m drinking one with chilis as I write), and my fridge is stocked with Belgian sours, American wild ales, and all sorts of beers containing ingredients that would make the crafters of the Reinheitsgebot roll over in their graves. But I do think that some styles have gotten short shrift in recent years. Lager of just about all stripes springs immediately to mind, along with other styles that don’t push the proverbial envelope in any appreciable way.

Anyone care to join me for a glass of Munich Helles later?

High ABV, high IBU, intense sourness, and anything else “extreme”: these are the discursive markers that dominate the contemporary North American craft beer landscape. What’s more, these markers have become conflated with quality. (A glance at any of the “best-of” lists making the year-end rounds quickly bears this assertion out.) People new to the community enter a world of predetermined codes, a canon of taste that prescribes which beers are worthy of attention, and which ones aren’t.

Anyone up for grabbing a six-pack of brown ale this evening?

Aside from the pleasure I derive from writing about the stuff I like to drink, I suppose one of the main reasons I approach writing about beer in the manner I do is because I’d rather not see our choices diminished by powerful taste trends. There’s a certain irony here: Our current range of beverage choices in North America could not be more extensive, but with increasing competition for shelf space and tap lines, I’m wary of a consolidation that favours the dominant tastes I mentioned above. And I’m wary of perfectly good beer styles –– beer styles excellent in a subtle way that doesn’t call forth a cascade of adjectives to describe them –– being eclipsed by certain styles deemed “better” merely be virtue of having higher this and more intense that.

Maybe we can order a few pints of Scottish ale when we’re done with our English mild.

I drink with a catholic embrace. I drink wine, bourbon, Scotch, and tequila. And I drink saké. I even drink my share of IPA. Better yet, make it a double IPA. But when we’re in Berlin, let’s head to a pub in Neukölln instead of lining up at Stone’s new location.

The first round of Hefeweizen is on me.

Related Tempest Articles

Let Us Now Praise Famous Lagers: Your Saturday Six-Pack (Vol.3)

Every Day Is Craft Lager Day at Kansas City Bier Company

Celebrating Craft Lager Day with a Landbier from Kapsreiter

Drinking Lager in an Age of Extreme Taste

Hefeweizen: A Beer for All Seasons

Brown Beers Get No Luvin’: Your Saturday Six-Pack (Vol.2)

Becoming Munich Dunkel.

Becoming Munich Dunkel

With the exception of The Session logo, images by F.D. Hofer.

© 2014 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.