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Monday, January 07, 2013

The Language of Beer

Anyone who has attempted to speak a foreign language, especially during adulthood, has encountered the phenomenon of language-as-thought:
For example, the Australian Aboriginal language Guugu Yimithirr doesn’t use egocentric coördinates like “left,” “right,” “in front of,” or “behind.” Instead, speakers use only the cardinal directions. They don’t have left and right legs but north and south legs, which become east and west legs upon turning ninety degrees. Among the Wakashan Indians of the Pacific Northwest, a grammatically correct sentence can’t be formed without providing what linguists refer to as “evidentiality,” inflecting the verb to indicate whether you are speaking from direct experience, inference, conjecture, or hearsay. 
Each language is a reflection of the world as seen by the speakers of that language. As I was reading that captivating article (one of the rare New Yorker pieces posted online in its entirety), an analogy occurred to me.  Beer styles are a bit like language.  Of course, culture in general is, too--cuisine, art, religion, all these things have their own vernacular.  Cultures don't possess different hardware, but the software of culture makes one group like unspiced boiled meats and another fiery curries.  I know I often chalk love of different styles up to an unexamined sense of culture: eh, the Bavarians love their helleses, what are you going to do?

By chance, I had just been writing about Bavarian dunkel lagers, and noticed that Americans on BeerAdvocate weren't smitten.  Not a single dunkel gets a rating of even 4.0.  The analogy of language later presented itself, and I now think it's a pretty good one.  When a culture develops a proclivity for a certain thing, it simultaneously becomes blind to dissimilar things.  When IPA-lovin' Americans get ahold of a dunkel, they don't know what to make of it.  They judge it against their own preferences and, of course, it comes up wanting.  (One can imagine that in an alternate universe where Bavarians dominated a version of BeerAdvocate, the double IPAs and imperial stouts would score dismally.)   But this is the thing--Americans don't speak the language of dunkel lagers. 

How do you learn to speak the language of a different beer style?  Dunkels are a good example.  Ostensibly a style with little range, they could be taken to be an undifferentiated blah style.  Not, however, if you travel around Bavaria and try, say two dozen of them.  Probably ten of those will be undifferentiated blah--that's a pretty standard proportion for any style.  Some will be actively poor, but some will be excellent and, wonder of wonders, as your palate becomes attuned to them, you will begin to understand the differences between these excellent lagers.  They will become vivid to you.  (It really helps if you talk to brewers, too, for they will speak in forceful terms about what makes a good dunkel lager.  It will differ from what the guy down the road says, and it will really differ from what the guy in the next country says.  And in that way, you will further appreciate the distinctiveness of the style.)

I will go so far as to say that if you don't enjoy a style, you're probably not speaking its language.  (Mainly I'll go that far to see if I can provoke some dispute.)  Beers can be bad, but styles not so much.  They have stood the test of time and found converts.  If you encounter a style, you are by definition finding a constituency.  I have spoken to a number of people around the world who don't like American hoppy beers.  It's not that they don't like certain beers; they just think we're idiots who are making a mockery of a fine art.  It's the same thing as Americans who don't speak dunkel. 

So, the next time you feel the inclination to dismiss a style (as I have often wished to do with helles bocks), think of the sea of people who have, for decades, slugged it back joyfully.  What is this strange language they speak, and where do I learn the vocabulary?


  1. Exactly. For a long, long time I (an American) was of the same mind as Europeans with regards to high hops because I just hadn't found something that spoke to me. When I finally got my hands on a bottle of Pliny the Elder and saw how it could be great when done correctly, I became appreciative. I got it. I needed to find that right example to speak to me.

    On the flip side, I've enjoyed just about all the dunkels I've tried.

  2. Excellent points. I love dunkels and am always bemused to see their 'ratings' here and there (though perhaps part of the fault lies with me, as I have not felt motivated enough to rate those I enjoy myself); the same goes for many other styles that don't necessarily stand out on ABV and/or whatever 'otherness' is in vogue at present.

    On the other hand, I can see how a rauchbier is well-crafted, but I just can't get to liking any of them. Using your language analogy, I feel like I can read the words most of the time, but that's not to say fluency is always there or that I'd be able to write poetry (or even decent prose) when presented with some styles.

  3. I'm inclined to believe that the issue is unrelated to variations in international tastes or misunderstandings of beer styles, and all to do with assigning credence to data generated by a beer rating site.

  4. It has always appeared that people rate beer based on how "Extreme" the character. If you look at most of these "rating" (I use the term very loosely) web sites, you'll quickly see that all the highest rated beers are big beers. Big alcohol, big hops, big malt... big, big, big! Stouts and big hoppy beers! That instantly says most of these raters can only appreciate the big obnoxious beers vs. a more subtle less boisterous beer.

    There's a huge spectrum of different beers, brewing styles and nuances... big to subtle. Lets not even take into account the art and skill factor, which the average guy probably has no clue. True seasoned aficionados would probably be able to appreciate the large, as well as, the subtle notes with any style.

    It's a shame quality brewing craft and skill is only rated high based on big flavors and styles. A lager in itself requires equal, if not more dutiful attention and skill as any big obnoxious ales.

    These "rating" sites are purely subjective, being rated by anybody and everybody. It's not like all those ratings are coming from qualified seasoned beer aficionados and veteran beer judges. They're just everyday people who like beer and want to give there 2 cent opinion. Fair enough...

    I've noticed over the years that within these rating sites, you can't always find a 5 star rating within a beer style... As you noted, Dunkel. How can there NOT be a 5 star Dunkel? There has to be one that is a pinnacle prime example of a Dunkel!

    I guess the point is... Who cares!? You take it for what it's worth, which can be little to nothing. Rating sites are like reading a People magazine. You read, look at the pictures, you're amused and you're done.

  5. Don't get too caught up in the ratings site analysis--I was reporting how I started thinking about things. The point is, people do have very different regional tastes. Forget the BeerAdvocate--Bavarians are going to be appalled if you give them a 100 IBU double IPA. Oregon breweries have a hard time giving away dunkel lagers, English milds (or any sessionable cask beer for that matter--if you see anything on cask, it's liable to be a hop bomb), and so on.

    The point is less to do with what beer geeks think than regular drinkers.

  6. You may want to check the beer rating site archives to determine how they rated dunkles ten years ago. I suspect that, as this era of hoppiness had not truly begun, the distinction would not be as great.

  7. My only comment is I suspect there are many traditional styles that are missing in action or under-appreciated due current hop-centric tastes. Kolsch is another terrific style that is, in my mind, largely overlooked. Just one more reason to love Occidental.

  8. Please, what are the 14 non-blah Dunkel(s) you found among the 24 in Bavaria? This expat Oregonian needs to know.

    Augustiner's is at least drinkable, but....?

    Thing with German beer is, as that say, "Geiz ist geil", cheap is fabulous. No One wants to pay much for their Dunkel, so brewers don't want to invest much in their production.

  9. I reckon you'll find most drinkers, everywhere, would be appalled by a 100 IBU double IPA. That's why it's not the dominant style of beer in the world. I'd hazard that IPA is not the biggest-selling style in Oregon either.

    Yes, there are regional tastes. But I don't think you can extend that to say there are discernable regional distastes as well.

  10. Sometimes what you like (or even what you believe) is influenced by your surroundings and the people you hang out with. I'd say it's more likely one grows up to be a democrat in Portland than, say, Omaha. Likewise, I'd say you're much more likely to favor American lagers in Omaha than in Portland.