My life changed recently, in a lot of ways, when I finished my new book, The Beer Trials
. That's hardly a surprise, I suppose; most writers probably experience a lot of changes with the publication of a new work. It's profoundly satisfying to announce to your friends and colleagues that your efforts have reached a point of closure, and that instead of seeking their input on how to structure your thoughts or whether your toughest passages have the clarity and candor you were seeking, you'll now be looking for advice on how to sell copies of your book to all of their friends, or suggestions for new topics for a guest blog column you'll be writing at an independent bookseller's site in the near future. Good times, indeed.
But in my case, the book has changed the tone of my role in my friends' relationships with beer. And not necessarily for the better.
Of course, like any critic, I have conversations about how I could possibly have given famous and best-selling products poor ratings. I have these conversations not only with people who have just picked up my book for the first time and flipped immediately to the page of their favorite beer. I also have these conversations with people who have seen the book through all stages, and who understand that the ratings are aggregates, produced by experienced beer drinkers who, tasting blind, had utterly no way of knowing who produced a given sample of beer or how much it cost — in other words, people who should know better.
These conversations seem to be an important way for people to engage with the book, or to test their understanding of the subject, and I don't argue to win. I love that the world of food and drink is one where there need not be any dissonance between contrasting opinions. I share my point of view, and try to listen respectfully. I'm pretty sure the world of beer would be a poorer one if everyone liked the same stuff. I would probably also be out of a job.
But more worrisome is the tone of my friends as we sit down at a pub and glance over a tap list, and the inevitable question arises: "What should I drink?"
This is a fine and fair question. If I can't answer it, after several months of daily controlled beer tastings and research, Fearless Critic (my publisher) has received a raw deal. And it's not a new question; I've never been shy about encouraging my acquaintances to try beers that I think they'll like. But the pitch and timbre of the question has shifted.
It seems that now I'm a published author on the subject of beer, the question has become a weighty one. There's suddenly a new possibility, that of drinking the wrong beer.
Let's accept that beer is a rich and complicated subject, well worthy of books, discussion, and thought. And here in Portland, it's easy to wind up in a setting where you may have two dozen or more options about what to drink. But, my friends, let's also remember this: we're talking about beer. Just beer.
The discomfort with ordering makes most sense to me in situations where someone has strong aversions to particular flavors, like bitterness. And the search for your perfect beer can only come from understanding what you like — what you want. If you aren't there yet, with a clear picture of your ideal beer, there's no need to get uptight. Pick a beer. Any beer. And enjoy it for what it is. Along the way, don't forget to note what you like about it, and what you didn't like so much... and don't forget to toast your friends and enjoy yourself.
We label beers with scores, but as much as I want to celebrate the triumphs of brewing, I want people to enjoy themselves. We can gush about our mutual love of the tart Rodenbach Grand Cru, or I can toast you as you explain to me how much you appreciate Samuel Adams Cherry Wheat, which is a total mystery to me. Finding the right beer is not a matter of looking up scores and picking the highest available. The perfect beer is the one that fits your tastes, your mood, and your setting.
The perfect beer is not a number. It's a beer. Drink it with pleasure, not anxiety. That's the point, right?