You love the blog, so subscribe to the Beervana Podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud today!

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

"Getting" Saisons--and Other Styles, Too

From a man with a name like the beer philosopher, you expect comments like this, rich in ruminative grist:
I just don't get Saisons, and I know it's my problem. I want to understand them and (other than going to Saisonland, which won't happen any time soon) the only way to do that is getting a few bottles and drink them until I get Saison.
Pivní Filosof arrives at the ultimate destination of true understanding--experience. You don't know a style until you've spent sufficient time with it. That means sampling several examples as well as returning to a few beers more than once.

On the day the Brewers Association released their new style guidelines, it's worth spending a paragraph or four on these twin questions of knowledge and identity. I am currently thinking a lot about French ales, the most widely misunderstood categories in beer (when anyone's bothering to understand them in the first place). They are misunderstood both on the level of knowledge (biere de garde is but one expression of French brewing) and identity (biere de gardes are closer in [recent] lineage, brewing, and profile to bock than saison).

Apprehending these twin elements seems to be where we all fall down. History is important, but both more and less so than we think. Less so because it explains how a style got from there to here. If you attempt to understand British, Belgian, or French beer without knowledge of the world wars, you will get the how wildly wrong. This is interesting and illuminating, but it can be misleading. Stories are powerful, and we tend to shape knowledge and identity to fit them. So in the case of biere de garde, we talk falsely about their connection to saison (accurate if this were 1892) rather than the vastly more important 20th century influence of lagers. And since funny spiced wheat ales are the purview of Belgium, we tend not to notice that they are far more prevalent in France. More so because history also has the capacity to correct the faults of crappy history.

Perhaps more important is understanding process. I recall what a revelation it was to read Stan Hieronymus's Brewing With Wheat and learn the mechanisms of banana and clove production in hefeweizen. Not knowing that slender, boozy Belgian ales employ sugar is like putting a color gel in front of a camera lens. You may not know it's there, but it shades your experience.

As to identity, I think the senses know, if only we would trust them. If you direct your powers of observation to the experience of drinking a beer, you can learn a great deal. I don't mean this in the sense of diagnostics, like a beer judge, but more on the level of epistemology. My least favorite style of beer is helles bock. When I started writing about beer, I ended up drinking a lot of it. I had to spend time rolling it around my tongue, inhaling it, thinking about it. At a certain point, I "got" helles bock. I understood the intention and the achievement. I learned to appreciate and, on rare occasions, even to crave it.


  1. And that is why I believe that, as a consumer, style guidelines are utterly useless, or at the very least, unnecessary.

  2. I am starting to think that understanding tastes is like understanding friendship. It is not that it is elusive but perhaps that it is not something to understand but more analogous to understanding, too direct to be dealt with at that level. Do we "understand" touch or sight?

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. "Understanding" perhaps is not the most proper word. Beer isnt't like a film, a book or a lecture in macroeconomics. It's not conveying information that needs to be interpreted properly so you can profit from it in some way. Beer is a consumer product and your whole experience with it can be basically reduced to "I like it/I don't like it", which should be perfectly acceptable as an opinion. Personally, I like to see beer in a holistic way. Yes, what's in the glass is, at the end of the day, the only thing that matters, but there are other factors that can and will affect your relationship with that alcoholic beverage and those are the things that can be understood, not the beer itself.