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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Art of Appreciation

Barnett Newman, "The Voice"
Monet is easy. There's a reason his lush, bucolic scenes are reproduced as posters for dorm rooms everywhere. The colors, textures, and composition delight the eye; it doesn't take any specialized understanding to enjoy them. But try something like abstract expressionism, with splatter art and color field paintings. These works aren't easy; they're neither immediately accessible visually, nor are the compositions naturalistic enough to interpret intuitively. Why would an artist create a nearly-white canvas, as Barnett Newman did in "The Voice?" Simply looking at the painting is not enough. That's why other movement has been subjected more often to the critique, “I don’t see the big deal; my kid could do that.”

Monet and Newman illustrate the gulf between enjoyment and appreciation. Enjoyment is a naive act, one possible even in ignorance. Appreciation, on the other hand, requires understanding. Visual art, like language, has the capacity to organize reality in the viewer's mind. This is why it has been a war zone for centuries; each new movement reconfigures reality, becoming a political comment about former movements and their ways of seeing. Abstract expressionism emerged during and after the Second World War and trying to understand these works separate from this context neuters their impact. Even the impressionists were radicals. Their art may be accessible, but the movement deeply unsettled the art world in its nascent days. We can't appreciate art, accessible or not, without understanding the history and context.

This dichotomy between enjoyment and appreciation isn't reserved only for the high arts. It is true with simple and lowly crafts like beer, too, something I was thinking of when bloggers tackled "discomfort beer" for The Session a couple weeks back. The idea was analogous to dealing with abstract expressionism: what happens when you encounter a beer your naive senses can't interpret? When he posed the question, I think Alec Latham was curious to find how people got from confusion to enjoyment, but I think it makes more sense to separate these two things.

Beer is a lowly craft, and appreciation isn't necessary. I have spent many a conversation reassuring people that it's okay to like the beers they like. But for those drinkers who do want to go to the next level, to appreciation, the steps are pretty straightforward. Unlike visual art, which requires some training in aesthetics, appreciating beer is just a process of learning.The antidote to confusion is learning, but the destination is appreciation more than enjoyment.

For the last ten years, I've used writing books as my own little course in beer appreciation. I've found it enormously rewarding personally, though it has made that "what's your favorite beer?" question all the more impossible to answer. It is accessible to anyone who wishes to take the time to do it.
  1. Learn the history. Every beer type, from gueuze (the abstract expressionism of beer) to session IPA, has a story. Nothing emerges from the void complete, without antecedents. There are now many resources online, but beware: the history of beer is rife with error and myth. Books by reliable authors are better: Mosher, Cornell, Pattinson, and Hieronymus are workhorses. I'd put in a plug for The Beer Bible as well--for I cribbed heavily from them (and others). 
  2. Learn how they're made. This point is not entirely separate from the first, but it's important to get into specific technical details. Every beer type is marked by unique approaches to brewing, whether it be the way Americans use hops, the Czechs decoction, the Belgians bottle-conditioning, etc. These are not incidental to the flavors in the beer--they define them. There's a lot of information about beer-making out there, but make sure you find sources that connect the specific process with specific flavors. Again I would recommend Mosher and Hieronymus, with another plug for The Beer Bible.
  3. Drink the classics. Here we depart from the dry academics and begin the fun stuff--field work. Armed with some info about the history of beer and how it's made, start sampling. There's a reason certain beers have been lauded for decades--they're illustrative of the brewers art and great examples of certain beer types. And you really do need to drink the beer from the place the styles originated. Americans make beers they merrily call Belgian or Bavarian, but often don't follow the same technique as the originators. There's nothing wrong with an American kolsch or abbey ale, but in most cases they'll taste different than German and Belgian examples of those beers. Learn the classics first and then you'll see (and taste) where the imitators deviate.
  4. Travel. This one may take some planning and effort, but if you really want to know a beer, nothing beats drinking it in the place it was brewed. Bavarians don't sip one 12-ounce helles from a bottle and call it good. They go to the pub and drink three or four half-liters. This social and gastronomic setting is often the dimension that finally brings the beer into focus. (I chose helles intentionally; I know I never fully understood that style until I spent a week drinking it in Bavaria and Franconia.) 
There are gross and subtle benefits in developing an appreciation for beer. The gross effects are obvious enough. The subtle effect, for me, was unexpected. As I began to learn more about beer types in this deeper way, it actually altered my enjoyment. The beer styles I prized most highly ten years ago are not the ones I do today. Nearly every style of beer has a rich context that emerges from history, national origin, laws, war, agriculture, and brewing tradition. Learning those things, drinking the beer where it was brewed, spending time with the brewers who made it--all this somehow made the beer taste different in my mouth. Learning to appreciate beer is a dynamic process, and it will deliver you through a wormhole into some unexpected place of enjoyment.

It's a slow, incremental journey, one that never seems to end. I continue to encounter details that round out the picture, still make discoveries that alter my sense of appreciation. Sometimes I question whether I'll ever actually understand beer. But then I remember how pleasant the road is to travel, and it all seems fine.

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