I don’t think I have much to say on the subject of why beer styles matter (or don’t) that hasn’t already been said. I see that there’s been a discussion in the UK about it and the folks at the New School and Beervana have elaborated what they think is important about the topic.
However, something has been bugging me. During Monday’s adventure to Bailey’s Geoff told me (and I’m paraphrasing so I hope he doesn’t mind) that people didn’t try Laurelwood’s Bay Laurel Pale at the Killer Beer Fest because they were too busy going after the Imperial whatever’s. I was just baffled that, especially as patrons of a place like Bailey’s, people just couldn’t be troubled to step away from their stouts and IPAs for something different. This and the subject of standards have been bothering me and I think I’ve stumbled upon what it is:
The fear that people will abuse taxonomy in order to sell you something.
Hell, they’ll just abuse you if they can, otherwise why would we need the Honest Pint Project? So what I want to talk about is the people part of this debate because I think there’s a forest for the trees moment.
The insistence upon standards may speak to a lack of trust or an unspoken, unpleasant pact between the sellers and the consumers-we know you will attempt to lie to us to get our money- perhaps the creators just don’t care but most likely there are two other desires here; the need to be noticed and the need to be liked. The beer world is quite crowded and it’s easy to be overlooked so I get the desire to have what you did acknowledged-even if you do fuzz the truth a little.
The Bay Laurel pale was a very tasty beer for those willing to take a chance on it, because who thinks; You know what this pale ale needs? Bay leaves. But the beer worked. You should go, have some. Just because you can. It also was what it said it was; a pale ale with bay leaves.
I realize that being rigidly adherent to style is a bit like insisting that rock music died in 1972 because the Beatles are done or whatever feeble insistence on a standard I may come up with so that ‘my world doesn’t change’. At the same time, as a lover of beer and a consumer I want to trust that when the beer says; Imperial Porter or Belgian IPA or Pilsner that what I pour will be, if nothing else, a valiant attempt to be just that.
Still, I know that I’ve had stouts that should’ve been called brown ales and IPAs that should’ve been ashamed to carry those initials. But, and this is purely conjecture on my part, they were called such so they would sell to people who wouldn’t know better. Even if my conjecture is wrong though it doesn’t really matter because when my glass was empty, I felt like the brewer had tried to pull one over on me because they are an authority, so they can. Even if the beer is good, that’s rarely a positive feeling.
One of the times I saw Henry Rollins speak, he said; “You gotta trust somebody,” and in context he was talking about our relationship to the world. We have to believe that the doctors, lawyers, scientists, CEOs, cops, neighbors, wives, husbands, friends, whomever, can be counted on to do right by us, especially when we are at their mercy. I think of this quote often when I am dealing with people who have an advantage over me for whatever reason-or I have one over them. This is not to suggest that we should just let ourselves be taken advantage of because not everyone is worth of trust but I bring it up because of all the little ways that the mentality of a certain lifestyle attempts to take advantage of us.
You can have better. You can be younger. You can make more money than her. You can eat your cake and have it too. You’ll get yours.
Except all of those statements are about you and not about us. If you sell me a beer, then we have a brief relationship. Have you lied to me? Maybe just a little?
If you have, is it ok if I lie to you back in the form of false payment? False praise? False condemnation?
And how long is it before you stop trusting me and I stop trusting you, so that now instead of a kinship we are adversaries?
So I get why there are people hollering about that rigid adherence to style. Somewhere, under their skin, in the cells of their tongue, between snapfires of neurons that tell them all the hows of something, they sense that they are being lied to, that they just cannot trust anyone who isn’t absolutely known. The standard becomes more important than whether or not something is good because the standard is the only way they know they haven’t been fucked over by someone who they feel in all likelihood, doesn’t give a shit about them and the world has frequently proven this view correct. Or even proven it correct once and do you really want to take a chance? You can start saying that Molson’s is an IPA if there’s no actual standard, right? Because the world is whatever We say it is. Trust Us. We know better than you.
But some of us know: We can’t trust you. We feel that in our gut. You aren’t putting forth your most valiant attempt, you’re skimming the top in order to part us from our money-which is, by extension, our time and our work and our selves.
And we. Don’t. Like. It. So we raise our voices and shout at people; You are being screwed over! It’s not fair! There is a Standard, don’t you see? Look! This thing brought to you by that…liar doesn’t even come close! Submit to the Standard!
Well…let’s wait just a minute.
It is that same standard that halts the more adventurous brewers who are working the ethereal realms of taste, scent and pleasure in an attempt to share something awesome. They blend and they hover like alchemists, relying on the knowable and the unknowable, what can be proven and what just is out there, somehow, in order to make something fantastic. Something delicious. Something to share. They just get stumped when people ask; what is it? How does it fall under The Standard?
That answer works great when you’re twelve. It’s less satisfying to grownups-for reasons that if I were to get into, would lead me into very strange places. So let’s not.
What this insistence on Standards does, instead, is trample on the spirit of adventure.
You can’t tell me what it is? I am afraid of it, don’t want it, and am going to sit back here with my one trve beer. I’m going to hide behind the Standard because the Standard tells me what is Right.
Well, fuck it then; why bother making something awesome if nobody is going to share it with you, right? Awesome things alone just aren’t as satisfying and beer is something we share. Think of how many times you have gone to someone’s house or had someone in your home and asked them, ‘Would you like something to drink? Or eat?’
We want to share the good things we have with other people. It’s been a foundation for many, many relationships.
Worse, what happens when those people making something awesome but hard to define just say; Well to hell with you, I’m taking my ball and going home? Who wins then?
So let’s make a deal. Do your best to call it what it is. You don’t have to adhere to style but you do have know what it is so you can be straight up with me about what you’re attempting to do. Don’t call it an Imperial if it isn’t. If you tried for a stout but by gods it’s a porter; say so. You don’t have to publicly admit mistakes-that’s asking a lot from anyone-but I’d appreciate it if you didn’t try to get me to purchase your wares based on what you think sells, despite that product not actually matching the hot commodity of the day.
In return, I will admit that styles are guidelines not purity laws and try whatever you got at least once, giving it as fair a shake as I can. I won’t panic when I see you’ve made a garlic and mushroom beer; I’ll see if it goes well with a burger and fries. If it is good, I will say so. To everyone who asks. Wherever I can. If it isn’t to my taste, I’ll say that. If it’s just flawed, I’ll say that. But I won’t damn with faint praise if I can at all help it and I won’t say it’s awful just to mess with you.
Maybe we can trust each other to do right and admit that the guidelines are important especially if you’re new to the game but sharing something awesome, even if it can’t be tied to a definition, is more important.