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Monday, June 28, 2010

Don't Forget the Pleasure

Let's try a thought experience. Imagine I put a liquid in front of you while your eyes are closed. I don't tell you what it is but ask you to investigate it. When you bring your senses to the task of discovery, they have no external clues to guide them. Your mind and your past experiences may begin to inform you immediately--you may taste it, feeling its texture and sweetness and conclude it's milk, say. If it's a beer, you may recognize the gentle fuzz of bubbles that form the head, or smell malt and hops. Still, your senses will have to guide you from there. Now, imagine I put a glass in front of you and tell you it's a Terminal Gravity IPA. How does the experience differ?

Yale psychologist Paul Bloom has a new book out called How Pleasure Works, and in it he discusses all the complex factors that go into creating the experience of pleasure. Here he is explaining some of these:
For food, it matters enormously what you think you're eating. Not just in sort of the abstract consciousness of what you choose to buy or what you choose to put in your mouth, but in how it tastes. The price of food, how natural it is, how healthy it is, are all considerations that affect your taste experience of it. Maybe the most practical application of this is wine. So there's now several studies showing that the more expensive you believe a bottle of wine to be, the better it will taste to you.
I was listening to an interview with Bloom and I thought--of course, this is true with beer, too. Long before we ever bring a glass of beer to our lips, we have made lots of judgments. These begin with opinions about the brewery that made the beer, preferences regarding style, preferences we may have about the ingredients if we know them, judgments based on the price we paid for the beer, and expectations formed by the opinions of others, possibly insecurity about not knowing enough to actually appreciate the beer. Many of these are useful at helping us focus our attention. If you have no idea what style a beer is, you can spend some time just trying to figure out what you're tasting.

On the other hand, for every bit of information we have, we also put in front of ourselves a potential filter. As Bloom reminds us, our senses aren't actually all that acute. We think our senses are telling us a lot more than they actually are; rather, our brain is synthesizing information from all these different sources and processing it with the information our eyes, nose, and tongue provide.

Now, we could go down the road of thinking about how this affects our judgment and get into some philosophical discussion about the nature of empiricism and experience. But as I was listening to Bloom, I was reminded that there's something far more valuable at stake: the pleasure of the beer itself. When we let those other considerations overwhelm our experience, when we don't allow for even the tiniest caesura between experience and judgment/evaluation, we cheat ourselves of pleasure. Even beers that we'll ultimately deem average may well be capable of providing intense pleasure. We are sophisticated beings, and we can evaluate whether that pleasure equals greatness, but it's a shame to let the pleasure be lost. At the end of the day, beer is all about pleasure. We shouldn't forget that.


  1. "...the more expensive you believe a bottle of wine to be, the better it will taste to you." Hmmmm? Don't think really works with beer. I could pay $15 for a six pack of PABST and taste it blind folded and it would still taste like shit.

  2. I thought of you a lot as I wrote this, Doc. Of all the bloggers I know, you speak less of the simple pleasure of beer than anyone. I hope that, privately, you enjoy it a lot more than you let on.

  3. Doc hates everything and missed the point by singling out one aspect of wine appreciation that doesn't apply to the more proletariat pleasure that is beer.