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Oakes Weekly - March 10th, 2005

A Little Knowledge Goes a Long Way
Oakes Weekly March 10, 2005      
Written by Oakes

Vancouver, CANADA -

There are certain things beer geeks dig. Certain things they use to structure their understanding of the beer world. Certain things they consider more important than others. This past weekend I went on a beer tour – you can get off the floor now – and I’ll paint a picture of some of the things I saw and how they relate to the sometimes ambiguous concepts that beer geeks learn, wrestle with and ultimately must come to terms with if they are to have a true understanding of the world of beer.

The following anecdote might sound familiar. At a certain brewpub, a pint of cask ale was ordered. The house red was on cask that night. The drinker was certain that something was wrong but not 100% sure. I gave it a test. It was a big pint of sour diacetyl, truly revolting and not in the slightest bit drinkable. Shit happens, right? Yeah, it does. Cask ale is a crap shoot on this side of the pond and I accept the risk.

The staff however seemed to be feeling like we were trying to cop a freebie or something. We weren’t. Our point was merely that the beer should not be served to the public. The bartender admitted ignorance and that was fine. The waitress however tasted the beer and declared it fit as a fiddle. She hypothesized that it was our misunderstanding of cask ale that led us to deem that sour diacetyl undrinkable. After all, she explained, it was dry-hopped. What could I do? I gave up.

We’ve all had hopeless situations like that. But the kicker here is, that first drinker was a Ratebeerian, not just any old customer. Joe off the street might not have even suspected that the beer was off, just that he didn’t like it. Joe off the street might never have tried another cask ale again. It’s a very misunderstood product. That, ultimately, is more the point I wish to press here. I could rant about bad beer and uneducated servers but so many have done this with such relish that even my vitriolic blasts might have a hard time competing.

So let’s get into understanding the beer you’re drinking. Understanding your beer is the first part to enjoyment. There are a few ways to approach the gaining of understanding. Beer styles have proven very effective at this. Style overall is a deep, rich concept and the beginner’s level of understanding is the tip of the iceberg. I dig the high-end debates, the treatises you’ll find in Farmhouse Ales or Beer: Story of the Pint. Style is made up of numerous components, though. At the core of a beer style are the elements we evaluate at Ratebeer – the aroma, appearance, flavour and balance (my palate score). The other components – the history, geography, ingredients and techniques – are there to describe how these flavours, aromas and looks come about. The degree to which stylistic adherence matters is strictly personal, but I can say for myself that it matters less and less the more beers I try.

That doesn’t mean it’s useless though. Far from it. It is a valuable tool for determining a beer’s suitability for a person. One brewpub offered up a Witbier that came to me crystal clear. I knew this would be a problem. At least one rater found the beer quite favourable, but for me I require the fullness and complexity that comes with yeast in suspension when I’m drinking a witbier. The remaining qualities – mainly a light spiciness, wheaty notes – aren’t enough. So I didn’t like that beer. I have tasted great witbiers and without the yeast this had no hope of measuring up.

But the rating wasn’t strictly on a “to style” basis. My favourite beer that night was labeled as an American Pale. It wasn’t. “To style”, it was just as far from its name as the Witbier but the difference is that the malts were breezy fresh, the hops citric and the character refreshing. I figure it’s one of the better Golden Ales I’ve ever had, and brewed very much in the English style.

I think a lot of people are like me – “to style” only comes up if the beer isn’t very good. It becomes another excuse not to like a beer we already have determined to be not to our taste. If the beer is very good, we understand that it is not to style but we don’t care and might not even mention it. Style doesn’t matter if the beer kicks ass. There is some sort of carrot and stick thing going on between brewers who aim for styles and drinkers who evaluate based on them.

But style makes a nice reference point. For example, I had an imperial stout at one of the brewpubs in this town. It was light for the style. Now, if you know what imperial stout is, you can ballpark what a light one might be like. Or a strong one, or a malty one or hoppy one. It’s a general frame of reference. Combine this with a map of beer styles and you are able to piece together for example that if you enjoy beers in the area where Foreign Stout and Imperial Stout meet, you’ll know from my rating that this particular imperial might be to your taste, no matter what the rating says. So style becomes a frame of reference that is easily understood, once you have basic style knowledge in your brain.

Do the sets of expectations that go along with terms like “cask-conditioned” or “Witbier” colour one’s judgment of a beer? I can’t say that they don’t. But ultimately any descriptor will have this problem. I could say “warm and flat” in place of cask-conditioned and “sweet & spicy light ale” instead of witbier and all I’d be doing is replacing a specific term with a vague one. I would still be providing images in the reader’s mind that could be used for comparative purposes.

That said, this isn’t a treatise on beer style – I wrote that already – but rather pointing out how understanding a few terms can heighten one’s ability to understand the beer in the glass. It helps you understand if the beer is off (the cask) or simply not to your taste (the Witbier). It helps you get a better sense of whether you might like a particular beer that maybe the ratings overall don’t favour (light imperial stouts). But take every tool, every term, every concept of understanding into consideration. It will all help. Learning about and understanding beer is a neverending process. Enjoy it.



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start quote She hypothesized that it was our misunderstanding of cask ale that led us to deem that pint of sour diacetyl undrinkable. end quote