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Monday, March 31, 2014

Zen and the Art of Appreciating Simple Beers

There's a famous Zen verse that goes: "First mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers.  Then mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers.  Finally, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers."  The insight has to do with the Buddhist concept of the two truths, but it can also be understood more simply.  At first, we accept the nature of rivers and mountains because we haven't thought deeply about them.  Once we do, we see that they are not as we thought.  However, once we see their true nature, then we understand their essence and "rivers are rivers"  once again.  It's a circle, but we arrive back at our starting point with a transformed view.

I would like to posit a similar lesson with beer appreciation.  A while back, Stan quoted from a post by blogger Eric Sturniolo, who described the process of developing a palate as evolutionary, with a beginning point of mass market lager and an end point of Westvleteren.  This prescription is as old as craft brewing, though the "evolved" state--Eric called it an apex, as if reaching the mountaintop--is particular to the times. 

It's a paradigm that assumes beer styles exist in relative quality.  Style x is superior to style y, so as one becomes more sophisticated in the way of the beer world, she will naturally grow to enjoy x.  In this prescription, "x" is almost always the more intense beer.  Belgian abbey ales are more intense than light lagers and therefore naturally and innately superior.  When you look at how beer geeks rate beers (compare beer x to beer y), this is borne out by mass acclaim.

But, going back to the koan, I'd describe this as the "rivers are not rivers" phase of beer appreciation.  In the pursuit of intensity, the beer drinker begins to narrow down the range of beers that can be considered sublime.  Whereas a novice might go to Munich and fall in love with hellesbier, to the beer geek, such products are trifles unsuitable for the serious palate.  For the geek, "hellesbier is not beer."

The true apex of appreciation is the ability to locate the sublime in any style (not, of course, any beer).  This means being able to pick up a glass of helles--or English mild or Belgian bière de table or even a characterful mass market lager (of which, admittedly, there are not a great number)--and find the flavors as pleasant and satisfying as when you heft a barrel-aged imperial stout.  It is possible, but not if the only flavors you can appreciate are intense.  You have to fine-tune your palate to appreciate the difference between a helles that has dull, simple malt flavors and one that has rich, fresh, and complex malt flavors.  The presence of subtle esters, the gentle scent of a particular hop, the weft and harmony of all these flavors working together.  It's not the kind of gesture judges make in a competition to reward one beer in a reviled or discounted class--the best of a lesser bunch--but the actual deep pleasure in the beer itself.  

It has helped that I traveled the world and tasted beers in several different countries.   In places like England, Scotland, France, and Germany I found serious beer people committed to styles Americans have long ago "transcended."  Travel challenges certain prejudices one wasn't aware he possessed.  But those are intellectual discoveries.  At the end of the day, to really grow to love a hellesbier is a private journey of experience.  You can't know it intellectually.  It dawns on you in the moment, as when I drank an Augustiner Hell in Munich and something changed in my experience of pale lagers.  

Beer appreciation is not linear; it's circular.  First you love beer naively, out of a simple joy.  Then your head gets filled with a bunch of crap about what's "good" and you begin disliking beer out of a blind prejudice.  Finally, you come back to appreciating beer for its own nature.  (And conversely, that appreciation makes you aware of how many intense beers are badly made and lack the harmony and integration that are the hallmarks of a good beer in any style.)  It may be facile to put it his way, but what is blogging but not facile?  Until you can appreciate all beer styles, your journey of appreciation is not yet complete.


  1. This is one of the best blog posts I have ever read. Period.

  2. Wow. As a young "evolving" beer drinker, this is quite insightful. My only concern is fruit beers and wheat beers. I'm not sure I'll ever really appreciate those.

    Any suggestions for a hop head?

  3. Why judge appreciation on such a recent and flawed concept as "style"?

  4. Just experienced this myself as I have been drinking, by choice, a lot of Mirror Pond and Black Butte lately and appreciating every sip.

  5. Steve and Al -- thanks!

    pjamesryan -- my experience is that, as with any language, immersion is the way to go. Pick a style and buy a bunch of bottles and start drinking. (Spending a week in the country of origin is the best approach, but that may not be in your budget/schedule.) When I was in Europe, I was not only drinking a lot of certain styles of beer, I was speaking to the (mostly) men who made them. It's possible that knowing something about the beer style is useful to get you over the hump, so maybe reading a bit about different styles is a good approach, too.

    Alan -- I know this is an old complaint of yours, but I don't think it really fits here. You could substitute the word "style" with your preference "type" and it still reads the same. I use "style" because everyone else in the world, except you, does. It's useful shorthand.

    Will's Dad -- Yeah, those are great beers to demonstrate the principle. Especially on tap at the brewery!

  6. Jeff, if I may speak to pjamesryan and his question...I consider myself a young beer geek, part of the recent flood of new beer lovers (I'm 28). About three years ago I started to go through exactly what Jeff is describing in this article. I credit my obsession with knowledge and learning as the cause of expanding my tastes into different "styles." As I read about hefeweizens, the English bitter family, Scottish ales, Belgian ales, etc. I became more intrigued about them and found myself wanting to taste and try them more and more. Skip ahead three years and now to me there is nothing better than a German Pilsner, Saison or a cask conditioned Extra Special Bitter. The wonderful history behind these beers and the passion by which more "seasoned" beer drinkers spoke about them was infectious.

    Knowledge truly is power (as is stepping outside of your comfort zone to try something new.)

    If you can one day, take Jeff's advice and travel to try new beer. While trying something new and amazing at home is great, nothing will ever compare to my first Helles in Germany or my first Cantillon at the brewery in Brussels.

  7. Great post, Jeff. As much as I love all those huge Belgian beers and hoppy IPAs, I think the beers that have brought me the most pleasure have been more "everyday" beers. Most often drunk with friends in a pub or beer garden.

  8. Actually it is a new observation. I understand you are looking for completeness of understanding but whether you say style or type you are still lumbered with an arbitrary construct which is as decontextualized as the periodic table of elements is from an appreciation of life. If you focus on this corner of the beery world with its problems you will either learn to appreciate the style guide or not but you will only get that far. It is not wrong to do this but will only give you a part of the available understanding.

  9. I like this article. I've found on my beer journey I moved to northern Germany and the only river flowed with Pilsner, and I had to cross a mountain to find another source of beer. I can occasionally appreciate this simple water, but it would be easier to do if my well water came from a Belgian abbey.

  10. Years ago (more than I care to remember now), I did a 6 week wine tasting course with my brother and a few mates. Just for fun (and it was). The guy delivering it was a Master of Wine, and he said that many wine drinkers start with whites then "grow into" bigger bodied reds, but eventually, if they really got into their wines, would return to whites, and the range of subtle flavours that await discovery there. That always stuck in my mind after I moved to Germany, and suddenly could not easily get the big IPAs, or even Pale Ales, or decent stouts or porters. So I learned to appreciate subtle again.

    Well, maybe that's all going to hell now with the new wave of German "craft brewers" :)

  11. Excellent stuff, and reflects something I've been saying for quite some time. There's beauty and greatness in simplicity.

    Maybe living in a place where good to very good lager is the norm has helped me see things in a different way.

    But I guess big beers are a product of these times when (some) people with short attention spans need instant gratification. Big Imperial Stouts or DIPA's will hit you with flavour right away, whereas a Helles or a Desítka will need more of your attention to say their bit, while at the same time will demand hardly any of it if you want to concentrate on some other stuff that often is a lot more interesting than just drinking - let alone tasting - beer.

  12. I have found this to be true as well. However, I think I was always open to more styles as a homebrewer. In fact, the first 4 years I spent homebrewing, I tended to brew things that I could not get commercially in case quantities, such as dunkelweizens, Scottish ales, Weizenbocks, and others. When I found that I enjoyed drinking IPAs, Pale Ales, and various lagers, I decided in my 5th year to only brew what I really enjoyed. My wife recently bought me a case of New Belgium beers, which included 12 Fat Tires. I was not looking forward to those. However, I poured one the other night, and kind of forgot what I was drinking and thought, "Wow, this is actually tastes pretty good, it's not as bland as I told myself it was." I'm hoping the Belgian thing rolls around again. I haven't been into those as much as I was 4 years ago.

  13. Excellent article Jeff. Much like Buddha's path to enlightenment, the picture of complete understanding isn't clear until the end of the journey. And that is what craft beer is right now, a collective journey. Though some have just begun, some are apexing and some are already full circle, I believe as a collective species we are still in the infancy of appreciation and understanding in this new age where styles, appellation and preference are quickly converging and available for study.

    or something like that. anyway, good article.

  14. Steve -- Great comments. I wish we could teleport everyone to Brussels and Munich for a day.

    Alan -- you've pretty much lost me. Seems like it's a post you need to write.

    Barry -- that's fascinating. I'm apparently not the first guy to think of this. But in terms of wine, I'm still not able to appreciate them all equally. I like the reds more. I guess that means I have some work in front of me.

    Max -- it's one reason I didn't mention the Czech Republic in that list of places I've visited where they brew styles the geeks eschew. For some reason, Czech svetly lezaks get all kinds of universal love. I don't totally get that--I also totally love those beers, but they don't seem like radical departures from the beers of Munich, London, or Cologne. (Well, maybe Cologne. But not Dusseldorf!)

    Jez -- I think you're right that homebrewers have pretty open minds, but they also tend to experiment with expressive beers. Interestingly, I've never attempted a helles; although I brew a pilsner every year, a helles seems too hard.

    Dan -- thanks, and beautifully said.

  15. Agreed - you spun me off in another direction. I have a four dimensional thought going on.

  16. Frankly, this is purely an American problem and I've written many similar things, like these;

    It's not a coincidence that you talk about experiences outside of insular America! In the US, everything has to be taken to the limit, ALL of the time. The subtle, nuanced and understated are hopelessly unappreciated, and the beer scene here is worse off for it.

    As a non-American, who grew up in REAL, grassroots beer culture (rather than one driven by consumerism and hysteria and hype), your comments are blindingly obvious to me.

  17. Jeff, really nice article!

    I get asked 'what is your favorite style?' and always say, 'anything made well'.

    I really like you koan. I also like the Heraclitus (Greek, go figure!) quote "You never step into the same river twice" when I approach a beer with this open perspective and let the window dressing fall away, I find a lot more pleasure in it regardless of style. Taking the blinders off broadens the perspective of the drinker as well to see flaws, like how banged up hoppy beers get traveling or with age and ties into beer as an agricultural product. not just the farmhouse styles. I don't know if there are more temperamental beers then IPAs in terms of keeping hop aromas.

    I think it is important not to drink with you mind (hype/'sophistication') too much, if that makes sense, and give your other sense a shot. for example, do you like the 'idea' that the beer is wild, imperial, sessionable, ipa-ish or whatever, or are the flavors/smells/appearance in the glass turning you on.

  18. I would amend what you state at the end Jeff to say the journey is not complete until you experience, not necessarily appreciate, all beer styles. I would further amend it to say, …until you experience all brands. There are subtle differences and sometimes major differences between beers of the same style. Urquell is night and day different from HB's helles, say. One may be complex, another simple. I've had a lot of simple APAs and Impy stouts. It really comes down to taste, an indefinable which escapes constraints or style or brand. The rest is classification and orientation: useful unto itself but not more.