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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Thursday, 15 May 2008

The perfect pint - does it exist in an objective reality?

I read two completely different things yesterday that together prompted the above question.

I've just started reading Beer and Philosophy, edited by Steven D Hales. It's a collection of essays, sometimes serious, sometimes tongue-in-cheek. In one essay, "Good Beer, or How to Preoperly Dispute Taste", Peter Machamer argues that the notion of 'ideal beer-tasting conditions' is nonsense, because beer appreciation is so closely linked to its context. He gives the example (it's an American book) of Samuel Adams Honey Porter - "lousy when sitting in the hot sun on a summer picnic, but fabulous in front of the fire on a snowy winter's evening".

It's the same thing as the eternal holiday beer conundrum - you fall in love with the local brand, but when you stick a couple of bottles in your case and bring them home, a miraculous transformation to urine occurs inside the bottle.

This all reminded me of a favourite game I play with drinking buddies. Ask someone what their favourite beer is, and they may insist that it changes over time, but they'll give you the name of a beer, or maybe a list. But ask them what is the best beer they've ever had, and they'll tell you that it was on their honeymoon, at this fabulous hotel, and they'd just had a wonderful day on the beach/on safari/walking in the hills, and the sun was shining and they were sitting by a pool and they were so damn thirsty, and the beer was brought over and condensation was running down the glass, and... you interrupt them and say, "Yes, but what was the beer?" They often reply, "Oh. I can't remember the actual beer. But it was definitely the best one I've had."

While thinking about this yesterday, I saw a story in the news: researchers at Herriott Watt University have discovered that the type of music listened to by people drinking wine has a significant affect on how the wine tastes.

They used four different styles of music:

  • Carmina Burana by Orff - "powerful and heavy"
  • Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky - "subtle and refined"
  • Just Can't Get Enough by Nouvelle Vague - "zingy and refreshing"
  • Slow Breakdown by Michael Brook - "mellow and soft"

The white wine was rated 40% more 'zingy and refreshing' when that music was played, but only 26% more 'mellow and soft' when music in that category was heard.

The red rating changed by 25% with 'mellow and soft' music, and a whopping 60% with 'powerful and heavy'.

This is apparently due to something called "cognitive priming theory". I just googled this term and got scared and ran away, but apparently it's to do with the music sets up the brain to respond to other stimulus in a certain way.

Does all this mean that there is no such thing objectively as a good beer or a bad beer? Is Rate Beer a complete waste of time? Was that last question rhetorical?

It's unarguable that beer can taste completely different from one occasion to the next due to factors that have nothing to do with temperature, condition, food matching etc. Combine cognitive priming theory with the huge variations in taste buds from person to person, and it's no wonder that the beer community's favourite occupation seems to be arguing.

5 comments:

Fatman said...

Pete,

It's the old Quality subjective/objective argument again. Robert Pirsig's metaphysical analysis.

Good post.

Boak said...

It's why I never rank beers. I say if I like it, and occasionally if I don't, but the idea that I can somehow objectively give a beer a mark when so much is dependent on my mood, who I'm with, how much I wanted it etc, to say nothing of more tangible factors like condition and age.

Thanks for the link, btw.

Anonymous said...

So isn't the end result effectively that it is useless to read what some writer things of a beer/food/movie/anything subjective? Critics and the concept of reviews are thus null and void? At least with sites like Ratebeer or RottenTomatoes you can see the general trend of reviews. For example, I am reasonably sure that a highly rated beer with hundreds of ratings is probably not terrible, similarly a certified fresh film over at RT stands a higher chance of being to my liking than just reading one persons review.

Boak said...

Not exactly - I think it's a great thing that people can take the time to share their views on a beer. But I'm more interested in the comments they have than any number they assign it.

And as you say, general trends are pretty helpful, but only if there's sufficient data.

And are the top ten beers on Ratebeer or whatever really the beers that people genuinely love the most, or just the ones that they think they should?

Pete said...

Anon, I see where you're going there. But in a world with no absolutes, relativism is all. You're absolutely right about a weight of reviews being meaningful - at least directionally. I guess what I'm saying is if you gave a random sample of 100 people a Bud Light and a Goose Island IPA, the vast majority of them would prefer the Goose Island, and that is meaningful. But if you asked those people to rate each beer on any set of given measures beyond simple comparable preference, those measures would vary widely depending on the context in which they're tasting the beer.

Does it mean beer writers are useless? I'm just a teeny bit biased here, but I think it makes writers more important than ever. They/we always disagree, but they open up the grounds for debate. I find one person's description of the taste of a beer of limited use, but all this is why I'm far more interested in beer in a cultural context.

And then there's a point about relationships between critics and readers. To extend the debate to music, when I was an avid reader of the music press I grew to learn which critics shared the same tastes as me. There were some who despised the bands I loved and mercilessly ripped them apart, but I still laughed aloud at their prose. The guys whose tastes I shared and learned to trust soon had me buying albums by bands I'd never heard of and never listened to prior to shelling out for the record, and my music collection owes them a debt of eternal gratitude. But some guy at the next desk would be penning a thoughtful piece on why the band in question should be ritually disembowelled and fed to dogs.

There is no truth, only opinion, and that makes writers - people who express opinion articulately and persuasively - some of the most important people in the world.

Before anyone accuses me of being an arrogant bastard in a totally non-ironic sense, I should make clear that I am ever so slightly taking the piss in this post.

Or am I?