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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Beervana Derangement Syndrome

Over at The New School, Ben Edmunds describes a fascinating experience he had recently when Travel Oregon asked him to walk some travel writers through craft-brewed beer. He chose a list that would make any reader of this blog salivate:
I was asked to do a flight of beers from Portland breweries, so I chose six, well-respected beers that highlight the full range of the city’s offerings: Upright Brewing's Gose, Hopworks IPA, Laurelwood’s Portland Roast Espresso Stout, Cascade Apricot Ale, Hair of the Dog Adam, and Full Sail Top Sail.
You know what came next, right?
I couldn’t have misread my audience more. While these folks appreciated the unique flavors—their favorite word to describe the beers was “curious”—they were quick to say that they didn’t really enjoy any of the beers.
Ben reflects on a bunch of possibilities about why things went sideways, but he gets it exactly right with this comment: "This tasting’s failure to impress makes me question that approach and burst my beer geek bubble."

We do live in a bubble. And by "we" I mean humans. We tend to associate with people who share our values, interests, and backgrounds. The result is a misleading feedback loop that our views are mainstream. This isn't quite as obvious in the beer world, but in the other world I inhabit--politics--the truth is stark. Pollsters periodically ask people not only about their views, but about whether they believe others share their views--almost uniformly people do. Since everyone around us shares our views, we assume the rest of the country does, too. Classic sample bias.

With beer, what has happened to us is that our views have gradually changed, but since all the people we know are changing, too, we don't notice it. Another example. When I was in grad school, there was this wonderful professor of Indian religions named David Knipe. He was an American-born scholar, but had been studying Hinduism for over forty years and spent half his time in India. By increments, as his understanding of Indian religion deepened, he began to forget what it was like not to know. Concepts like karma and reincarnation became so natural they were like water to a fish. Because he was the resident India expert, the school asked him to teach an introductory religions course, but he was terrible at it. Eighteen-year-old farm kids from Fon du Lac sat with their mouths literally gaping while he spoke. He might have been lecturing in Telugu for all they knew.

Beer geeks in the Pacific Northwest suffer from this problem--call it Beervana Derangement Syndrome (BDS). We forget what it was like when Heineken was a challenging beer. When we think of "beer," the range goes all the way to Pliny the Younger and Boon Gueuze, but doesn't include Hamm's. When we think of a mild, approachable beer, we think of a light saison. Only under the influence of BDS could a person think of introducing a travel writer to beer via Upright Gose.

The truth, of course, is that less than five percent of the beer sold is craft beer. Soured ales and imperial IPAs? So little of these beers are sold that, statistically, they don't exist. We might as well be talking about quarks for all the rest of the world is concerned. In the bell curve of beer, we're so far out in the tail that most charts don't even go that far.

Ben probably should have chosen a list that went from the familiar and then took people gradually into the deep end of the pool. Something like Session --> Widmer Hefeweizen --> Black Butte Porter --> BridgePort IPA, and finishing up with the big shocker --> Hair of the Dog Adam. Next time.

On the other hand, there are a lot worse ailments the Beervana Derangement Syndrome. We suffer from a kind of zymurgic dysphasia, but it doesn't affect our lives unless we encounter outsiders. Even then, the worst symptoms are confusion, disbelief, and pity. Oh, and the medication is amazing.


  1. This tasting failure is the result of one simple mistake, "Know your audience, don't assume." It's a classic Salesman's 'Song and Dance.' Play to the audience!

    When asked to provide a tasting for a group, the first question I think of is "Where is their palate?" "THEIR PALATE not MY PALATE" Doesn't matter if it's cheese, wine, food, beer, etc. Do you like Kraft Orange Rubber American Cheese, Gouda from Costco or Taleggio from Italy. More than likely Taleggio person will not appreciate Kraft American Singles, nor KAS appreciate Taleggio. Basic understanding of human nature and a little common sense? ;-}

    Asking, What does this group normally drink would have solved the problem, even if the range of palates were diverse, which obviously these people were not. ;-} A nice selection of semi boring gateway beers would have done fine for this non-refined beer palate group. They may have been more impressed with the subtle differences of color and taste. Pouring a BMC drinker an Adam or an Espresso Stout?? I think we all know what the result of that tasting will be. Then again, maybe some people have no clue of the obvious?

    You're pretty much correct, Jeff. It's about looking outside ones "OWN" bubble. It's something that seems to be lost these days. We all don't have the same likes and dislikes, it's humanity. If we were all the same and thought the same, where would society be? Ayn Rand's 'Anthem', Logans Run, Red China or the mid-west? ;-} Boring faceless drones wandering through life on the coat tails of the next guy?

    This was simply about asking the right questions and not assuming we're all the same. Sounds pretty obvious to me.

  2. What surprises me is that Ben was surprised. Living here and entertaining visitors from other places (like in-laws, etc.) I have become reasonably adept at introducing new beers to the uninitiated. One of my favorites is Rogue Juniper Ale. Very mild and approachable but a great way to get folks to start thinking about ingredients. The much maligned Widmer Hef is another great one for the macro pilsner set.

    And this reminds me of an amusing story: one time when my father-in-law was visiting he reached into my fridge and grabbed an unmarked bottle. It was a homebrew from the Beerax himself, a lambic (and a darned good one). He thought something was horribly wrong - it has gone sour! - and I had to finish it for him. The thing is he is great and always eager and ready to try new things, but you gotta go slowly and prepare.

    I have vivid memories of trying to be cool and choke down Full Sail Amber and Anchor Steam and pretend I liked them when I was a teenager ... er ... new 21 year old. They seemed overwhelming. I am amazed now that I ever thought so, but palates develop slowly over time and you can't and shouldn't expect immediate appreciation of new, bold beers. I mean, good god, Adam?!? I would never try Adam on a newbie.

  3. A stout and IPA seem like fairly tame offerings to me. They are travel writers after all and should have been at least exposed to these kinds of flavor profiles.

  4. I agree wholeheartedly with Patrick, and would even go a bit further. I'd be apprehensive about pulling out some of those beers even for locals. I've had many experiences with groups of "normal" (non-beer geek) Portlanders where I open up a bottle of Cascade, or a barrel-aged imperial stout, or some other special treat from my cellar, only to end up drinking it all myself because everyone else prefers a Mirror Pond or a Full Sail Amber or what-have-you.

  5. Let me add my voice to the Widmer Hef chorus. I've seen more than one novice beer drinker get really excited when they first tried it. If you're a jaded deranged Beervanan and haven't had a Hef in a while, try one on tap somewhere, especially with food. It's good stuff.

  6. Excellent post. Portland is a bubble in many many ways. There is good and bad in that.

    I visited the family of a life-time Portlander the other day. He drinks national macrobrews, often out of cans. I think he'd have much the same reaction as these travel writers.

    It was a reminder to me that craft beer is challenging or downright weird to most people. And to the friend I visited, I gathered that it's a bit intimidating as well. Staring at 30 taps of craft brew, he might not know know where to begin. I'll do my best to help the guy....

  7. I think Travel writers write about...How many chairs are in your hotel room? Does the hotel have a restaurant? Are the bathtubs dirty? When do the local attractions open and which ones are worth seeing. Are the sheets cleaned everyday? Does the hotel have a pool? Which restaurants are generaly good for the average guy and gal; Then one high end and one bargain. Where do you find local transportation?

    Every once in a blue moon, some travel writer who likes beer will write an article on Beer in whatever city. The article is usually simple enough for the average Joe to understand because their beer knowledge is limited. For the most part, most travel writers will be lucky to mention if a restaurant serves beer.

    It's just not part of the travel writing gig. It seems to me like traveling is their job. Drinking quality beer isn't.

    Even the Foodie TV shows rarely talk about beer. Anthony Bourdain will drink any fermented swill beer, he doesn't care as long as it quenches his thrist and gets him socialy lubricated.

    Maybe the host should have gotten them a little liquored up first? :-)

  8. I'm late to this; but, two comments:
    1. Interesting, well written, elucidating post.
    2. @Anonymous said...
    "craft beer is challenging or downright weird to most people . . . a bit intimidating as well. Staring at 30 taps of craft brew, he might not know know where to begin."

    This really rings true to/resonates with me.

    I believe any purveyor of craft beer is well advised to provide a description/tasting notes for each beer offered; eg, the Brass Horse and my Salem local, Venti's.

    Further, at least one 'gateway' or 'cross-over' beer is appropriate; a Hef or Golden Ale or Extra Pale Ale or mild Pilsner Lager.

    Nice job-Alworth; worthy comments.