Things are not What They Seem

Happy Friday, everybody! Since I know you're not really going to get anything done at work this afternoon, I thought I would give you a little diversion and something to think about while you're imbibing your favorite drink this weekend. By way of This American Life, I recently came across an amazing new show called Snap Judgement. The story on the radio from Glynn Washington might have been the best superhero story I have ever heard. But this is a Beer Blog, damn it! We can't be discussing superheros and the like here.

So let's get to the point. I just listened to their episode entitled Senseless, which is all about our human senses and perception of the world. The opening story is a great short bit about a psychology college course, where the professor makes the very same cheap wine taste great, then terrible to the students over the course of a semester. It really reminded me of something that I've put a lot of thought to--our subjective taste of beer. Now, this is not just a trivial question. As a BJCP beer judge, it is my obligation to taste and evaluate a beer at a competition as thoroughly and as impartially as I can. It's even more fundamental than that though. How can you possibly hope to brew good beer, or cook good food without first knowing what it is to experience these things? And how can we understand what our senses are telling us without recognizing their inherent subjectivity?

Many people take flavor for granted. Not everyone tastes or smells equally--not just according to their "taste" for something, but according to their basic physiology. Something that I've been burdened with throughout my quest to drink great beer is an unusually high sensitivity to dimethyl sulfide. For me, some beers taste like I'm drinking creamed corn out of the can. I've also got a low sensitivity to hops, whereas my wife can smell a hoppy beer from across the room. (Oh how I envy her olfaction.) Everyone has quirks like this--most of us are just unaware of them. An even bigger issue than our individual physiology is the environment in which we're tasting something. A recent study was conducted in England (which, by the by, I'm very disappointed nobody asked me to participate in...), where participants were poured a glass of whisky and asked to describe how it tasted as they walked through various themed rooms. In each room, the participants overwhelmingly tasted different things in their whisky, even though they knew it was the same stuff in their glass.

People often ask me what my favorite beer is. My answer anymore, is nearly always, "The one in front of me." Now, some people might take this as facetiousness, but I say it in all (well, mostly) seriousness. My problem is that I don't have an answer for them. I have favorite beer experiences. That Augustiner Helles I drank on a late summer day, sitting in the dappled shade of chestnut trees in a Munich beer garden will never taste as good again. The Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, ice cold on the beach in the Bahamas just couldn't be the same sitting at in my livingroom. Tank 7 will never taste as fresh, hoppy, and delicious as it does straight from the tap at the Boulevard tasting room. And this is all not to mention the seasonal variations in what tastes good to me. I can't imagine a world where an English old ale would taste good to me after mowing the lawn in the summer.

So when you're sipping that delicious beer this weekend--out on the patio, in the sun, enjoying our beautiful midwestern fall weather, watching the leaves turn--take a minute to really taste your beer, and while doing that look around and take it all in. That beer doesn't just taste great because it been well brewed, properly cellared, served at the perfect temperature and in the right glass. It tastes great because everything in the world has converged at this one moment to make it great for you. Don't you just feel lucky, now? I sure do. Prost!

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