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Wednesday, December 07, 2011

The Role of Star Power in Beer Appreciation

Connoisseurs are a funny bunch. And I mean here connoisseurs of anything--wine, dog breeds, indie rock. Embedded in their identity is a conflict of interest: on the one hand, they believe themselves to be the final arbiters of objectivity in their particular realm; on the other, there's a constant instinct to one-up everyone else by finding the new "best" or the obscurest rarity, but this can only be endorsed by the fellow traveler who is also in the know. Tribal objectivity; an oxymoron, but innate to connoisseurship. A few weeks back, the New Yorker had a wonderful piece on coffee, and writer Kelefa Sanneh captures its essence here:
Batlle resists snobbery, as any good evangelist must; she thinks that coffee salvation should be available to anyone who seeks it. But the coffee community she loves, where everyone knows everyone, wouldn't exist if the number of converts weren't so small. In order for connoisseurs to exist, they must be outnumbered by philistines, and if the connoisseurs are honest they will admit that they enjoy this state of affairs. The citric flavor of a Kenyan coffee might seem unpleasantly sour to a novice, and so loving Kenyan coffee is a way to show you are not a novice.
So it is with beer. Certain breweries have such bullet-proof cred among the geeks that their products enjoy a halo effect. Others are so scorned that everything they make is tarnished. This phenomenon was in play over the weekend at the Holiday Ale Fest--I think. You can weigh in if you think I'm off base.

Even before attending, I knew that the barrel-aged Velvet Merkin from Firestone Walker was going to be a buzz beer. Barrel-aged black ales are always loved, and few breweries enjoy such a solid reputation (an earned one, I'm happy to acknowledge) as Firestone Walker. Indeed, it was the fest's big buzz beer, and it was tasty.

It wasn't, in my mind, a perfect beer. The bourbon was overwhelming on the nose, and on the palate it was pure vanilla. I quite enjoyed it--the brewery describes it as "milk chocolate, smooth dark cherry, vanilla and coconut infused," which sounds absolutely delicious. I'd have preferred a bit more roast and beery balance, less Starbucks treat, personally, but hey, your mileage may vary. I enjoyed it, but.

Then I tried a beer from poor McTarnahan's, a brewery that suffered from years of wandering and neglect before finally finding its groove under some great brewers. Among beer geeks, few breweries have less juice than Mac's.The beer Mac's sent bore much resemblance to the Firestone Walker--a bourbon-barrel aged black beer, their Ink Blot Baltic Porter, steeped in Jack Daniels' barrels for a year. It was also not quite perfect--at 6.3%, it was a bit underpowered and thin. But overall, it was a quite lovely beer--the whiskey was milder and more integrated, the beer rounder and more complex. Of course, it got very little attention, and I, a classically conflicted connoisseur, ignored it most of the time I was at the fest.

Both were crowd-pleasing, tasty, slightly-less-than-perfect beers, and they had a lot in common. My guess is that if Preston Weesner had switched the kegs before the fest, the "Firestone Walker" would still have been the buzz beer. Loving Firestone Walker is a sure mark of the connoisseur, and the Mac's was a fantastic beer, so who wouldn't have been happy to laud it? We'll never know, but that's my guess.

As always, your dissents are welcome.


  1. In general: yes, it happens that our perceptions are skewed by our knowledge of who will make a good beer.

    In particular, about that keg of Firestone Walker and that keg of Ink blot: absolutely not. I have had Velvet Merkin before -- even bourbon-aged versions -- but the one served at HAF this year was fabulous, the best in show. The Ink Blot was very nice also, as you said, but it was far below the FW. No shame in that, there were lots of B+ or A- beers in the same boat.

    I would stand by my relative judgment of those two beers even if you told me Preston had swapped the kegs.

    Even though I strongly disagree with you about the relative merits of VM and Ink Blot, the bias you mentioned does exist. That's why it's so fun to do blind tastings -- to challenge our biases.

  2. Bill, I'd never had either beer, which is an important point. They were definitely different and distinguishable; anyone who'd had the VM before would recognize the difference in the way you can tell the difference between vanilla ice cream and chocolate.

    But it was definitely NOT best in show. Nor was it objectively better than Ink Blot. I know because I am an advanced connoisseur of beer.

  3. I think, unfortunately, Jeff is exactly right about this. There is a definite bias among connoisseurs of fine beer. A brewery name sometimes affects what we think about a beer.

    With respect to Velvet Merkin, I had not tasted it before. But I expected it to be good because I have a good opinion of Firestone Walker. And there was a buzz about this beer. Naturally, I found it to be of the beers I tasted, though I didn't taste everything. I wonder how much of that was my FW bias and how much was the beer. Hmmmm. Let me think about that.

    On the flip side, I had really no expectation in the case of the Elysian beer...Bye Bye Frost. I have not been a fan of that brewery, having had mediocre beer from them in the past. But Bye Bye Frost was quite good. Same with the Holiday Ale Fest Imperial Pils. I had no expectation at all, but found it to be pretty good.

    Anyway, don't mess with me on this stuff. My opinions are golden. I'm a beer connoisseur.

  4. I have it on good authority that this year's Tanninbomb, going on the pumps next Friday, will wollop any of the cask offerings at the festival.

  5. A beer industry professional discussing a certain brewery on another blog (redacted to prevent hurt feelings) had this to say, which I think is almost your point in a few less words:

    I think this is a hipster response to a shit beer. Breweries in Portland are like coffee shops and yoga studios. I am not complaining. I love the variety, and I love hipsters. However, because there are so many, everyone seems to look for the next best thing, even if the next thing is not the best thing it builds the stigma that it is because it is obscure.

  6. Perhaps I run with the wrong crowd, but I've never found a good beer drinker who was an elitist. I'm sure they exist, but it seems to me that the beer-drinking culture has a lower percentage than others. I think we've all had some mediocre beer from tiny unknown breweries just as much as truly excellent one-offs from the more 'mainstream' brands.