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Monday, September 24, 2012

And Yet I Do Think It Matters If Monks Brew the Beer

To bring this miniseries on blind tasting to a conclusion (see here and here for earlier installments), let us reverse directions.  One thing about a blind tasting: all beer is equal in the glass.  No million dollar ad budgets, no beer geek hype, no pretty labels to seduce us.  We know what our tongues tell us.  And so a beer made by the monks at Westvleteren (one of the monasteries where monks have a hand in the brewing) gets no special treatment when compared against, say, a large commercial American brewery.  The virtue of the blind tasting is that it exposes hidden biases you use in evaluating a beer that are unrelated to the information your senses provide.  Most people have a firm conviction that they are judging only what their senses hand them, but blind tastings demonstrate the contrary.

Does it then follow that we should ignore extraneous information about a brewer?  If beer X tastes the same as beer Y, does it matter that X was brewed by monks in a monastery and that Y was made in a large beer factory in St Louis, Missouri?  I would argue that there is more to a beer than its sensory components and that knowing something about a beer can make it more enjoyable.  Pleasure and enjoyment is made of a whole lot more than nerve endings, so why should we be suspicious of enjoying beer for reasons beyond what our senses tell us?

Leave the monks aside.  Take instead one of my favorite Belgian breweries, Brasserie Dupont.  It may very well be possible to make a beer as good as Dupont's, with depth and rusticity and unique character.  But Dupont is a brewery greater than the contents of its bottles.  The long-time family owners have only very reluctantly updated any equipment or process.  Its mash tun, dating to 1844, lasted until 2008.  The water still comes from the well and the kettle is still fired by an open flame.  The family had a maltings on site until 1986.  The yeast dates to the 1920s.  For Olivier Dedeycker, the current master brewer, saison isn't just a style of beer the brewery happens to make.  It is a tradition that goes back generations.  When I crack a bottle of Dupont, I can't separate the unique flavors from my knowledge of this remarkable history.  It is one of the thinnest of threads that links us to rustic brewing, and the beer has the quality of living history.  If in a blind tasting I found a different saison preferable (and I think I would prefer Boulevard's Tank 7 along purely sensory lines--though that's a testable hypothesis!), it would in no way diminish my appreciation of this beer.

Other beers that I can't separate from their story include Sierra Nevada Pale, which only has thirty odd years of history but tastes like the blueprint of the American craft brewing scene.  What was a premonition in 1979 inside Ken Grossman's head has become a multibillion dollar market.  Fuller's, which keeps alive the tradition of parti-gyle brewing and makes the first beers I understood as authentically English.  Or here's an interesting one--while I should revere Pilsner Urquell for its history, it's actually plucky Budějovický Budvar that captures my attention.  I believe I enjoy it better than Urquell, but I also admire it as a company more, so how much is that coloring my opinion?  (Drinking a glass is a bit of a "screw you" to A-B, and that enhances my pleasure.)  I'll actually be visiting both breweries next month, so it will be interesting to see how first-hand knowledge of the breweries change my views.

Unique among the beasts, we have brains able to consider abstraction. More than that, our brains pretty much fuse abstraction and sensory information.  This software/hardware fusion isn't a bug, it's a feature.  Take our sense of smell.  As human brains evolved, the part that processed smells was located in the prefrontal cortex--the region associated with the highest cognitive functions. Humans have fewer smell receptors than dogs, for example, but we have gigantic processors. The neurobiologist Gordon Shepherd (Neurogastronomy) believes this makes humans unique in our ability to create and process the sense of flavor. 

There are other factors associated with our sense of flavor and the enjoyment we get from it: buried emotional memories, sometimes unlocked by scents, mood, satiety, and influences of thought, memory, and visual cues.  The judgment we make about a beer is a mixing bowl into which we pour all these elements, some noticed, others deeply subconscious.  The mixture that is our judgment seems purely rational and measured--the 91 points out of a 100 we give to a beer.  It's not and can't be--we are not scientific instruments.  (We're actually far more subtle and complex.) 

All of which brings me back to this place of "yes, but."  Blind tastings are fantastic for helping reduce the number of inputs so you're dealing with few subconscious factors in a beer tasting.  But: why would anyone want to reduce the joy of a good beer to just the flavor components?  One thing I didn't mention about that tasting we did a couple weeks ago.  After we learned the identity of the beers, we still had portions of each bottle left over.  We went back, now armed with the knowledge our senses gave us, and sampled the beers again.  Our brains processed and calculated and the mixing bowl spun.  We continued to discuss the beers, and as we drank more of them our appreciation deepened.


  1. The other thing about blind tasting is that it is a comparative, rather than absolute exercise. Beer A may compare favorably to Beer B because of intensity of flavor. This is magnified when you have 4, 6, or more of the same style in a tasting. Surely there are some beers that might not stand up to this sort of tasting, but actually be better *on their own* because of nuance (or something else.)

    Lets look at a musical analogy. Take a traditional blues musician like Howlin' Wolf or Muddy Waters. For those fortunate enough to see the Wolf in his prime, they talk about the sheer power and authenticity of the performance. But take the classic musician and put him in a (imaginary) festival format along side more modern players (let's say Jack White and Stevie Ray Vaughan) and the modern, rock-influenced player will blow the more nuanced classic musican off the stage. Because it's about intensity, not necessarily quality.

    I see this at beer festivals sometimes. I'll have an IPA that along side 20 other 2 oz samples tastes amazing. I'll buy the beer and drink a full pint of it, and it's just too much... give me something more subtle and complex, like a 2-Hearted ale.

  2. Jeff, I'm pretty much 100% with you on this one. Tasting is so completely based in our own experience - you can't get away from that. I agree blind tasting is useful, but I don't think blind tasting is "best" over other methods of tasting beer. We experience beers in different ways at different times. You can no more define a beer by its flavor components than you can capture a period of your life with a photograph. So, while blind tastings may force a certain level of "honesty" on us, blind tasting will likely never be how I choose my favorite beers. It may make me re-evaluate a beer, it may make me reconsider a beer, but it will never be the end-all be-all of beer experience.

    Thanks for your series, it's made for good reading and pondering.

    Cheers, Bill

  3. "one of the monasteries where monks have a hand in the brewing" (Westvleteren) sorry, Jeff, this is yet another example of poor research. And the proper information, incidentally, is also available in English.

    This post demonstrates, once again, how different the beer scenes in the US and Europe are. For example, when I travel to Bavaria, the Czech Republic, the UK, Belgium, I don't bother researching where to find good beer, because good beer is available widely in these areas. What I look for instead is a nice place to enjoy the beers. This is also easier to research since photos will give a good and an impartial insight into these places.

    I'm sure I'm in the minority here, but I see absolutely no need for beer ratings or beer tastings. OK, beer tastings, depending on the company, can be fun.

    I'll be leaving in a week's time for Bavaria and will be stopping at some fine-looking pubs. Several I've been to already, but the others I chose because they looked nice. I'm sure I'll have a fine time.

  4. Bill, thanks for the comment. It's very satisfying to be in harmony with you on this one.