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Friday, December 06, 2013

Aesthetics of Flavor

A day chilled by arctic air and a dusting of snow (in Portland, anyway) seems the ideal moment to settle in with a cup of hot, black coffee and begin stroking our chins.  Today's philosophical discussion: the aesthetics of flavor.  (See here for a discussion of the concept of aesthetics.)  In my effort to learn about the nuances of cider, I've been looking as deeply as possible into the various compounds that might appear, giving the different national traditions their characteristic flavors and aromas.  These may include those present in the apple or made during fermentation.  ("Cidery aroma" was fairly recently isolated as "the dioxane resulting from condensation of acetaldehyde with octane-1,3,-diol.  The diol itself is a relatively unusual alcohol that is known to be present in apples and pears in a glycosidically bound form..."  As one example.) 

But all of this takes us back to a more elemental question: what should cider--or anything--taste like?  It turns out this is a question philosophers have been considering.  Naturally, they've turned their focus on wine, the most haughty and overrated of all the fermented beverages, but it will do in a pinch.  It turns out that for some philosophers, even wine is too lowly a subject for proper discourse.  Roger Scruton, for example, makes this argument:
"Philosophers have tended to regard gustatory pleasures as purely sensory, without the intellectual intimations that are the hallmark of aesthetic interest.  Sensory pleasure is available whatever your state of education; aesthetic pleasure depends upon knowledge, comparison, and culture.  The senses of taste and smell, it is argued, provide purely sensory pleasure, since they are intellectually inert.  Unlike the senses of sight and hearing, they do not represent a world independent of themselves, and therefore provide nothing, other than themselves, to contemplate....  It was important for Aquinas, who distinguished the cognitive sense of light and hearing from the non-cognitive senses of taste and smell, arguing that only the first could provide the perception of beauty."
If you're a Buddhist, this may seem a bizarre distinction.   To Buddhist philosophers, all senses are inert--it's only the nearly-simultaneous action of the mind that makes them appear to have "cognitive senses."  But let's stick with the western canon.  Recently, another philosopher, Cain Todd (yes, those names are in the correct order), mounted a spirited defense of the aesthetics of wine. I will not quote lengthy passages from his paper.  Instead, very briefly, what Todd argues is that contra Scruton, wine appreciation very much does depend on knowledge, comparison, and culture--"strong normative standards of evaluation and interpretation."

In other words, we appreciate wine--or beer, or cider--because we have a collective set of standards against which to judge it.  This is why, in art, a painting by Mark Rothko (a Lincoln High grad) can be judged aesthetically in the same manner a Warhol, Hopper, or Kandinsky can: we have standards and norms against which to judge them.

 This is obviously the case with beer, wine, and cider.  As with art, the norms evolve and change.  An artist producing an abstract piece like Rothko's in Italy in 1600 would not probably have found an appreciative audience--much as pop art in the mode of Lichtenstein or Warhol is now considered derivative, if it's considered art at all.  But there are norms, clearly, and we debate them all the time.

In this framework, you could easily argue that beer has the most sophisticated aesthetic framework of any beverage.  Context is critically important.  In a cask bitter, a sour note is considered an off-flavor, but it's central to a lambic.  Nearly every flavor or aroma compound that is appropriate in one style is considered a fault in some other.  This is where I'd add a plank to the argument.  When considering flavor, these norms don't emerge randomly: they take into account the consideration of harmony and balance.  A cask bitter finds harmony and balance among the qualities of bready malts, zippy hopping, and round low-carbonation.  Gueuzes, on the other hand, are effervescent, tart, and hop-free.  One can blend the styles easily enough, but that also risks disturbing the aesthetic balance.

In the world of beer, this is pretty intuitive stuff.  It's much more interesting when we consider cider which, in America, is going through a period of testing and change.  There is so little traditional tannic-rich cider fruit in the US that people are experimenting broadly with different techniques and ingredients.  Some of these will come to be normative: hopped cider has a very good chance of becoming at least a regional style.  Some will vanish.  And when that happens, the norms will have shifted again. 

But aesthetics of flavor?  Obviously.

1 comment:

  1. You may have another philosophical strain to add into the mix, the English common sense best exemplified by Dr Johnsons rock. In that world, taste and sense are cognitive or at least full of information from the rest of the world around that rock in which things grow. Beer can be about its parts when, like wine and actual terroir, it tastes like its sources. Having had a wine region appear to my west in Prince Edward Co over the last decade, it is interesting to be made much more aware that the Riesling or the Pinot noir tastes like the smell of the roads, the beaches just like an oyster from certain bits of Atlantic Canada taste like idle Saturdays in my teens spent by the shore. Beer is like this when the water in the luscious brown is soft like in around Syracuse or maybe the IPA smells like hop yards in your part of the world. As we have more and more completely local beer this may stand out more and more. I can't imagine this wouldn't be so much more the case with cider, the drink in the glass drawing you back to the sensory experience of that orchard on that perfect day.