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Oakes Weekly - May 29, 2003

Why are your favourites your favourites?
Oakes Weekly May 29, 2003      
Written by Oakes

Vancouver, CANADA -

First, I’ll update you on the Canada Post package-stealing situation. My last decision came down to either having the beer poured down the Official Canada Post “Holier Thou Even Ourselves Let Alone Thou” Drain or to pay them money to have them return it to sender. So I went with the cash grab and sent them onwards…they found a safe home in the hands of an appreciative Ratebeerian. It wasn’t me, but at least I was able to salvage a little (albeit expensive) goodwill out of the whole ordeal.

<P>Now, to the column. I wasn’t even sure I was going to do a column since we have so many other excellent articles this week….a visit to Blackpool by SilkTork, a lambic festival report by JorisPPattyn, a guide to growing hops from Cobra, the return of beerdedbastard’s column, a vertical Chimay Blue tasting by bierkonig…with all that who needs the Oakes Weekly? Well, I do, because I feel like rambling.

<P>I’ve been eating a fair bit of cheese lately, and noticed more than a few similarities between cheese and beer. First, I noticed that the readily available stuff wasn’t all that good, and only represented a fraction of the styles that are out there in the world. Some European countries are buried in the stuff, but here in North America the craft scene is small and underground…even more so than beer, which thankfully has become something more than a freaky underground movement. But for those of us who know what we’re doing, there are many local masterpieces just waiting to be uncovered (be it Farmer Jon’s Oatmeal Stout or Willem Van den Hoek’s Smoked Gouda – yes, there is a smoked gouda worth eating).

<P>With a little bit of effort, you can find the same types of cheeses as beers – the esoteric (fleur de maquis), the intense (cabrales), and the classic, artisanal versions of styles normally taken for granted (Montgomery’s Farm Cheddar).

<P>It got me thinking, though. A lot of beer geeks are into other things – whisk(e)y, cheese, ciders, cigars, music etc. And when I looked at the different things I am into, I started to notice certain common threads repeating themselves across the spectrum of my likes and dislikes.

<P>For instance, I like the underdog. I like to find and appreciate the underappreciated. So I don’t spend much time on the French and Italian cuisine that everybody in Toronto who is supposed to love food is supposed to love. But I’ll happily explore Spanish, Persian or Indian (which despite no shortage of places to buy it, still gets no respect for it’s positive qualities). I sometimes take this further than I should sometimes, and either dismiss, diminish or excessively scrutinize the popular choices (including those which are merely popular within the smaller subset in which I am operating).

<P>I appreciate complexity, but not if it derives from trying too hard…menus with bizarre ingredient combinations and fancy descriptions of every dish turn me off. Execution is more important than concept. This is also evidenced in my negative attitude towards gimmicks and cuteness – no matter how they sound on paper, I’ll pass over bourbon-barrel-aged anything in favour of a Franconian hell’s simplistic beauty.

<P>These basic internal preferences go a long way to understanding the areas in which my opinions deviate form common beer geek thinking. Take Anchor Steam, for example. This is a much-loved beer for many. It has a great story – in its history and in its production technique. It is a beer people can fall in love with before a single drop has passed their lips. I feel that some of these people then invent ways to describe its character, to make the beer match up to its world-class story, in the process making statements about aroma and palate that have yet to stand up to my skeptical scrutiny (and that of many others, too). Strip away this wonderful story and you’re left with a decent but unspectacular brew. So while some people are in part influenced by the wonderful story behind the beer, this type of story does nothing for me. Others also would consider Anchor an underdog, especially those who were around when it actually was one. But now, and ever since I’ve been drinking beer, Anchor is a 100,000 barrel/yr bully, threatening smaller brewers with lawsuits. So none of the factors that leave some people with warm and fuzzy feelings towards this beer have any effect on me. I think by and large we all agree on what the beer smells and tastes like, but those who love it and those who merely like it clearly have different preferences for what makes a great beer.

<P>Conversely, I love Joutsan Sahti, a truly underdog example of an underdog style, from an underdog brewery. It has an honesty in its farmhouse production, a purity of flavour and being that no precious, gimmicky “V-Series”, “Humdinger” or “Vertical Epic” can hope to match. This is not some 120 IBU 2003 Happy Meal of a beer – this is everyday brilliance. It is not available wherever fine beers are sold, but locally in its region of production, and then only if you know where to look. That’s the kind of thing I love – greatness without pretentiousness. Style without being stylish. Genius without contrivance.

<P>I’m not writing this to say that I think breweries are getting too reliant on gimmicks, although that case could certainly be made. I am merely writing this to get people (myself included), whether you’re a chronic beer rater, or just someone who loves the drink, to look at the preferences, biases if you will, that you bring to the table. We all have them, and they run much deeper than the obvious ones concerning favourite styles, “I like really hoppy IPAs”, or ever favourite ingredients. These things became your favourite for a reason, and the more you understand what goes into how you determine your favourites, the more objective you can be in rating beers, and the easier it will be to find new things to become favourites. At least, that’s how it has worked for me. Some people might prefer not to analyze this type of thing too deeply.



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