Fighting Taste Blindness…

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I have always believed that beer’s greatest asset is its accessibility. When it comes to other beverages, which will go unnamed, the drinker is often left with the sneaking suspicion that someone is playing a joke on them. Try as they may, other beverages prefer to stay at arm’s length from their clientele.

In contrast, beer is like that person you’ve met a couple of times who seems cool but it takes the discovery of a mutual love of the movie Slap Shot or the sound of vinyl records to realize how companionable you really are. After you’ve hit it off, beer opens itself up and invites you to join it for a round or two. At its best, beer employs the oft-forsaken arts of subtlety and nuance, all while presenting itself in a straightforward and easily understood fashion. It’s comfortable in its own skin and is happy to let you view it honestly, not via some externally applied pretension.

The great American essayist and food writer MFK Fisher once condemned our collective unawareness of flavor as being a “nation taste-blind.? The author of such quixotic books as How to Cook a Wolf, Fisher knew a thing or two about breaking through perceived barriers. Writing in the late 1930s, she thought Americans maintained an interest in food insofar as it allowed them to grow full and that they lacked appreciation for the true nuanced pleasure of consumption. I think the same view readily applies to the interest most consumers have for beer; it is but a means for becoming lightly intoxicated or even drunk.

As Fisher observed, most people remain taste-blind because they have never been taught to look for different flavors. Along these lines, I am often approached by passionate beer enthusiasts who lament that their friends simply “don’t get beer? or can’t connect with their particular level of interest in the drink. After listening to their grievances about failed attempts to “convert? their friends through mini-lectures on the history of beer styles and mind-numbing soliloquies on the brewing process, I always counsel a simpler approach. Most people drink simple macro-style lagers, not because they love the flavor only a sixty-four calorie beer can give, but because they haven’t yet experienced that moment where beer no longer tastes like “beer.? In a corollary to Fisher’s aphorism, our taste-blindness when it comes to beer relates to the coordinated campaign of sameness we have all been bombarded with since birth. Beer, on the macro level, is sold not by flavor but by jest; it is differentiated not by character but by degree of levity and penchant for often witless humor.

When I try and welcome new friends to the wider world of craft beer, I start by talking about coffee, bananas, chocolate, oranges, and cotton candy. The words extreme, decoction mashing, and bitterness unit never enter my vocabulary. I’m not trying to teach, I’m trying to take a silent machete to the underbrush obstructing someone’s flavor association faculties. Because when it comes down to it, people understand the flavors that they enjoy; they just don’t realize these can be found in beer. While most people don’t understand beer styles, they clearly appreciate whether they enjoy roasted coffee or orange citrus. With these basic points established, advocates of better beer are on familiar ground when they offer curious friends a sample of porter or India Pale Ale. Considering how well-founded these and many other flavor preferences are, it’s madness to waste the few true moments we have to help people transition from lives of taste-blindness to ones enriched by the full flavor of beer.

-Article appeared in Issue 40 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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