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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Knowledge Curve

On my almost-daily constitutional yesterday, I was walking down Belmont Ave when I looked up and saw a Hoegaarden neon sign in a cafe window. It bore the legend (paraphrasing) "Belgium's original witbier." I continued down the road, arguing to myself with the sign. It's actually not the original--far from it. Hoegaarden is a revival, and one quite separate from the beer made by spontaneous fermentation in the town of the same name back in the 19th century. In fact--

And then I stopped. In this little narrative in my brain, I was haranguing some poor imaginary person--probably Sally--who would have, at that moment in my tirade, have given subtle clues that she did not care. It is a wonderful thing to write a book about beer, to immerse yourself so deeply into a topic that you understand particulars on a granular level far finer than even the average beer geek will ever have the interest to go. There is a downside to spending too much time digging into this minutiae (beyond irritating family and friends): it can drain the subject of its vital energy. A rule of thumb: if you're arguing with imaginary wives about the history of Belgian witbier as you walk down the street, you're not having fun with beer.

In economics, there's a disputed (discredited) concept called the Laffer Curve that purports to identify the ideal amount of taxation to both generate revenue without suppressing economic activity. While the Laffer Curve is more an advocacy concept than explanatory, I postulate a similar curve that measures the ideal amount of knowledge about beer and its appreciation. Imagine a line from complete ignorance to god-like omniscience about the history, methods, science, and stylistic multiplicity measured against the pure joy of drinking a beer. We all remember how learning enhanced the experience. Understanding the difference between an ale and lager, beginning to recognize esters and phenols, knowing a bit of the history--it deepens and enriches the act of tasting beer.

But there's also a point at which you've become so stuffed with details and facts that they, and not the sensual aspects, begin to dominate the experience. Stephen Beaumont has another of the "do styles really matter?" posts up at his blog, and it provokes this kind of reflection. Where styles inform the experience, they're useful. Where they become the gladiatoral arena for mortal combat about the importance of extremely fine distinctions, not so much.

I'm not really going anywhere with this except to say that I look forward with relish to a time where I can set a lot of what I've learned lately aside. I want to be able to walk down a street in Portland without having to argue about beer with myself.


  1. I understand where you're coming from. Deep research does strange things to the mind. We'll be happy to have you back at 100 percent once the book project is complete.

  2. I think, as with most things, it's about balance. I've had similar dialogues with myself. Those "Bass - The World's First Pale Ale" packages have prompted a few. I think as long as you don't go too far down the path, you're fine. The claims Bass and Hoegaarden make are incorrect, and they deserve to be pointed out. It's our journalistic duty. But a mere mention should suffice, while keeping your sanity intact.

  3. As a cheeky example, I would point out that there is evidence in Unger's works of Hoegaarden being an autonomous little place with an autonomous way of brewing in the 1500s if not earlier so whatever was revived in the 1900s of what was being done in the 1800s likely had not all that much to do with the original. But, really, it just does not matter other than as an interesting fact unrelated to the tastiness of the fluid.

  4. Had a sensory professor say he suffered from a similar thing. He spent his career associating flavors with compounds and the reactions that created them. He said that it had gotten to the point that whenever he ate a meal he analyzed it as a human GCMS rather than ask himself "Do I lke this or not?". He couldn't turn his analytical mind off and thus lost a lot of the pleasure one gets from eating.