I’m a big fan of knowledge & experience. A little background story, a little awareness of the style, a little informational context, can help with one’s appreciation of a beer. Those things aren’t necessary to enjoy a beer – all that’s required there are a working nose & tongue – but to get what a brewer’s going for, knowing the parameters & intention can be helpful & give you a slightly deeper connection to what’s in the glass.
Okay, I’ll just clear the air – I might come across as a little bit superior or condescending in this post. But at least I’m owning it. I drink a good bit of beer. I also sell it, make it, listen, read, & write about it. A lot. A good chunk of my mental, if not physical, energy & space is devoted to beer. So I’m taking the tone of the “seasoned vet” here, as arrogant as it may sound. But please read on.
That arrogant tone is in service of a point, which is that knowledge & experience can sometimes be a blinder. It creates expectation, & expectation is a double-edged sword. Drinking thousands of beers is a reliable way to hone your tastes – you definitely figure out what you like& dislike, what belongs & what should’ve been worked out first. But establishing expectation means that you have a pre-conception about what you’re going to taste, which can lead to disappointment. I believe that experience is best balanced by humility & an open mind. It’s so frustrating seeing a beer unfairly bashed by someone who’s seen it all & drank it all. It’s hard to find a beer without some sort of strengths, & if a drinker’s “experienced” palate is callous to those strengths, no matter how subtle, often the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater. They’re missing out on the small beauty of that beer, while at the same time blaming, ironically.
I’m not saying to set your expectations low, but to approach each drink with new & opened eyes. Wouldn’t we all like to go back to those formative years of discovering good beer, everything it has to offer, & tasting it for the first time? The “Wow”s were way more frequent then, weren’t they? It would be like falling in love all over again, with all the sensations that accompany that honeymoon spark. That’s not to say that the “Wow”s don’t still come, but they’re fewer & further between the deeper into your journey you go. Sometimes those breakthrough moments are quantitative, & you’re getting more of a good thing than you’ve ever had; sometimes they’re qualitative, yielding a smell, flavor, or feel that you’d just never gotten before. But often our relationship with beer evolves into a satisfying stability, one that hopefully continues to be solid & pleasurable even if there aren’t fireworks with every other sip.
That expectation can also limit your perception. I love IPAs, but when a new one is set in front of me, I pretty much expect to get some combination of citrus, pine, floral – the usual descriptors. Because I’ve come to expect those notes, it sometimes feels like my brain is hard-wired to only
find those & maybe ignore other aspects. What am I missing because I’m so used to finding these “typical” flavors & aromas? A lot of the other beer geeks I end up drinking with kind of have the same problem – knowing how it’s “supposed” to taste means they evaluate it on that scale, & may be desensitized to finding something new. One thing I like about drinking beer with greener, less jaded folks is what they can pick out of a beer. A new hire & I had a Bell’s Two Hearted, a beer of which I’ve had dozens, after one shift, & immediately he picked out strawberry. I loved that, because then I got it too & was able to taste the beer in a new light. In what’s become sort of a running joke, a guest at a tasting (Hi Matt!) picked out the smell of dill in a beer. I never would’ve noticed it without his suggestion, but he was right & after that I couldn’t unsmell it – it was fascinating! This happens a lot, which is the beauty of tasting with a “younger” drinker – you never know what kind of cool facet they’re sensitive to that a worn palate & a set of preconceived notions will obscure.
I’ll confess that my palate is not that sensitive or attuned, but through repetition I’ve gotten to know different styles & tastes. My hope is that there’s plenty out there to be discovered for me & for everyone – no-one wants to get to the end when the middle is so wonderful. So as condescending as it might sound, I envy the more novice beer fans out there, whose journeys are just beginning.