On Ignorance, or Apathy
There is a bit of sophistry that goes something like this – humans typically have two arms. However, given such things as birth anomalies, amputations, accidents etc a lot of people have only one, or even no arms at all. Therefore, the average number of arms on any human you meet is less than 2. Now, this may prick at the brain as a fuzzy bit of static, something not-quite-right, something that feels wrong or nonsensical. Perhaps you can see the point, but you know that the average person has 2 arms. In that case, you need to have a look at your ableist worldview and check you privilege, chum. Numbers don’t lie.
But to follow this sort of thinking, let’s say there are two people. We’ll call one Victoria, Victoria Bitter. She drinks only the jade elixir – she enjoys the taste of it and the sensation of it. It offers refreshment, inebriation, a not displeasing taste, an excuse to socialise. She enjoys every one of those grenades or green cans that she puts to her lips. She doesn’t really know why; she doesn’t really care. She doesn’t understand what has gone into the making of the beer in front of her, she just enjoys it.
And as for the second person:
He drinks – and overthinks – pretty much every beer he has occasion to sample. He wants to understand the draw of beer, the shades of difference in every style. He wants to sample as widely as he can; he would like to be able to pick apart and understand every little thing there is to know about the stuff. He knows the process of making beer, he knows – broadly – what makes each flavour found therein, what makes it sour, or bitter, or sweet, or crispy. He has sampled hundreds of different styles, from hundreds of different breweries from dozens of different countries. He has been extremely poor, and drunk absolute piss. He has been wealthy enough to afford the finest. His curiosity has led him to try some questionable brews, just to see which, if any of their promises the brewer has managed to pull off. And they haven’t all been zingers. Some have been undrinkable and ended their life down the drain. Some have been grudgingly choked down. Some have passed the lips and been instantly forgotten. Others linger a moment, before they too are forgotten, though they leave a faint impression. Some are loved, some are zealously defended or pursued, and still others are gratifyingly complex, but ultimately just not delicious.
To summarise: over the course of all these samplings, he hasn’t enjoyed every single one. So, using the cold lens of facts, does Victoria enjoy beer more than D. Scott? She has poured only her favourite beer down her neck. Are there other beers out there? Yes. Would she perhaps enjoy those more? Yes. Is she happy with what’s in front of her? Yes. D. Scott has pored over every beer, and as he chewed on a glass of ambergris amber ale or sea urchin gose, or had his teeth assaulted by the sugar content of some imbalanced, candied offering, or even choked down some well-intentioned but ultimately futile attempt to produce something new and remarkable, has he taken less enjoyment from his hobby than she from her habitude?
In numbers, she enjoys ten out of ten of the beers she drinks. Let’s knock off one because, say, she wasn’t feeling like beer that particular day, or she’d lost her sense of taste from a cold or had a bad batch or whathaveyou. He enjoys somewhat fewer than that, because he tries too many things from too broad a spectrum. Perhaps he enjoys oh say, eight out of every ten beers, because a sense of adventure leads him to gamble on something obviously gross-sounding, or the new offering from that brewery he knows can’t get its shit together, and he is not surprised when he is let down once again. And we’ll knock one off again for the same reason we knocked one off hers. She is rocking a rate of enjoying 90% of her beers, and he, generously, 70%.
By this reasoning, she enjoys beer more, right? Blinkered, wilfully ignorant, and with a greater enjoyment success rate. So, the question is – why should you care? What do you gain from reading about it, drinking widely, learning about it, talking about it? What does a beer nerd (or ‘craft beer enthusiast’) gain from pursuing it as a hobby, other than a smokescreen, an excuse to drink deeply, and often? Why not just find one thing and stick with it? Why not stay tucked in, nice and comfy, and never set your toe on unfamiliar ground again?
Well, the obvious answer is that there is more to enjoy than the beer in front of you. You can open a beer and tip it down your neck, crush the can and piff it away, no worries. Good times. But, to misquote Willy Loman, you can’t just drink the beer and throw the can away. A beer is not a piece of fruit!
Beer can be appealing on any number of levels, above and beyond the immediate taste, thirst-quenching, socialization; even beyond the vital pleasure of inebriation. It is also the smaller details; the craft, the surprise, the variety, the complexity, the design. In a word, there is nuance to beer. Proper appreciation can add shading, detail, character to what might otherwise only be a solid block of colour. A single beer has a chance to appeal to any number of senses: sight, with the design of the label, the colour or even the light-blocking quality of the brew – whether it be the enticement of windowpane-clear pilsner, engine-oil black stout, or fuzzy, hazy NEIPA. Even that sight, on a hot day, of beads of condensation on the outside of the glass, bottle or can is practically shorthand for intense refreshment.
On top of this, there is an intellectual joy to be taken from piecing together the puzzle – with all pieces provided by different senses – and sleuthing it out offers its own reward. Put another way, the journey, not the destination is the payoff. Does it have an old horse-blanket, barnyard-funk aroma – in a good way, of course? Does it smell deliciously appealing, or beguilingly intriguing? “Oo, that smells lovely, passionfruit and tropical aromas!” Or “What is that, like, wet straw and… something I just can’t quite put my finger on…” “I’m getting stonefruit, but is it apricot, or peach, or nectarines?” Pulling snippets from your memory or your education, applying them to the sensory data in front of you and stitching together a complete picture can be a wonderful way to pass a few hours.
Of course, there is a certain glee that can be taken from the simple tactile quality of drinking a beer. Whether that is the satisfying heft of a pint glass in your hand, the sensation of grasping something frosty;the contrast of hot day/cold beverage. The moment of anticipation between the initial grip and the first swig, the sensation of fizzing, foaming, cold deliciousness rushing down your gullet to hit your belly. Hearing is arguably the sense which carries the least weight when it comes to beer, though there is a unique sound to cracking and pouring a can or bottle which can trigger an almost Pavlovian response. As well as this, there is the simultaneous pleasure of the audible gulp-and-gasp, alongside the other forms of appreciation that one can spontaneously express while enjoying a brew, but beyond that, it is largely unutilised in the appreciation of a good drop.
Putting aside the immediate, positive sensory feedback, satisfaction can be derived from discernment acting as an extension of personal philosophy. That is, by drinking kosher, or vegan, or organic, preserving the sanctity of your body-as-temple by avoiding preservatives, etc being aware of what you are drinking also adds a certain amount of satisfaction to the raising of the wrist. Do you know exactly where this beer came from, or who made it? Is this pint supporting a small or local business? Is it a healthier option, or a greener one? Do you get to be unbearably smug because you’ve had an opportunity to get your hands on something rare and wonderful that will make you the envy of your peers?
Even beyond this, there is so much more to enjoy than the simple act of swallowing booze. Research, anticipation, the fulfillment of an expectation or a gamble paying off. Humans are explorers – we always have been. It comes from the same place that drove humankind in the diaspora from the womb of Africa to all corners of the world. The same spark that drove someone to pick up one of the rocks that clustered near the shore, smash it open and slurp it down whole leading to the discovery, nay, gift of oysters. The drive which put a crew of terrified primates onto a craft of floating wood and bore them across the ocean. Even the fascination we have with the idea of mapping the very solar system in which we live. All of this is borne of an innate curiosity, one that drives us forward, to challenge ourselves and each other, to discover new things and new ways to do the things with which we are already familiar.
I don’t think humans will ever stop probing. It is a blessing and a curse. I hope, to discover new and greater things to bring pleasure and joy into my world, and that of mine. Which is another integral part of it – it taps into the sense of community or tribalism that we all have. It can lend very heavily to a sense of belonging, whether you are active on forums, or well-known at your local, or even just an extrovert who enjoys a bit of banter at a pub counter. There are so many blogs*, Facebook groups, forums and the like to discuss those things that you like or dislike about beer, there are so many brewery bars or pubs where you can stand at the counter and talk shit with your compatriots, and there are so many people with whom you can forge a lasting and meaningful relationship from working, socialising or creating together. The simple art of conversation that flows so easily after a little neck oil.
Even the fuckups, the failures, the missteps and miscalculations lead to a certain sense of enjoyment; after a liberal application of time, of course. The best stories very rarely come from our greatest successes, and the ones that stick in our heads are less likely to be plucked from that rarefied air. The story that will have ’em howling in the aisles is much more likely to be from the time that you thought that that American fried chicken beer** would be a good idea, or when you accidentally smashed that rare (and extremely fragrant) bottle in the middle of the pub, or you paid far too much for something that had no real redeeming features, or when your expectations to control yourself were wildly exceeded by the sneaky ABV in front of you. All of this lends to storytelling, as opposed to *yawn* the thousandth time you cracked the same tinnie.
**A real thing, god have mercy. Brewed with real fried chicken.
Anyone with even a passing acquaintance with first-year philosophy has encountered Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The idea of a group of people chained to a cave wall, whose only notion of reality was that which they could see in shadows projected on the wall by people and objects passing in front of a fire. A tortuous metaphor now that could much more easily be described with concepts like ‘media’ or ‘The Matrix’. If you slot ‘blind acceptance of the traditional, established drinking culture’ in place of ‘chained to a wall looking at a fake reality’, then you yourself must be the one to choose whether or not you will benefit from slipping your chains and exploring the wider world beyond. Perhaps the one-dimensional projection is enough for you, you are comfortable, and content. But if you wish to take the mantle of the philosopher, to live an examined and worthy life by casting off the limitations and illusions and embracing a broader narrative, then I applaud you. It will be more work, it will cost more of your resources in terms of the investment of time, money and effort. And, as stated before, they can’t all be zingers. I submit, however, that the extra dimensionality, texture, colour et al will infinitely improve your appreciation and reward the act of questing outside established norms.
In conclusion, it seems to me that taking moments from everything around the beer will lead to a greater appreciation of it. If the habitual drinker’s success rate is more consistent but plays out on a smaller spectrum, then it seems like an experimental drinker’s pleasure is increased by orders of magnitude in enjoying everything else surrounding the crucial moment of drinking it: as opposed to only taking joy from the act itself. So go ahead and enjoy everything else around the beer, as well as the beer itself. Of course, there will be swings and roundabouts, but ultimately, the pleasure and contentment that you gain will be infinitely more rewarding.