I read two completely different things yesterday that together prompted the above question.
I’ve just started reading Beer and Philosophy, edited by Steven D Hales. It’s a collection of essays, sometimes serious, sometimes tongue-in-cheek. In one essay, “Good Beer, or How to Preoperly Dispute Taste”, Peter Machamer argues that the notion of ‘ideal beer-tasting conditions’ is nonsense, because beer appreciation is so closely linked to its context. He gives the example (it’s an American book) of Samuel Adams Honey Porter – “lousy when sitting in the hot sun on a summer picnic, but fabulous in front of the fire on a snowy winter’s evening”.
It’s the same thing as the eternal holiday beer conundrum – you fall in love with the local brand, but when you stick a couple of bottles in your case and bring them home, a miraculous transformation to urine occurs inside the bottle.
This all reminded me of a favourite game I play with drinking buddies. Ask someone what their favourite beer is, and they may insist that it changes over time, but they’ll give you the name of a beer, or maybe a list. But ask them what is the best beer they’ve ever had, and they’ll tell you that it was on their honeymoon, at this fabulous hotel, and they’d just had a wonderful day on the beach/on safari/walking in the hills, and the sun was shining and they were sitting by a pool and they were so damn thirsty, and the beer was brought over and condensation was running down the glass, and… you interrupt them and say, “Yes, but what was the beer?” They often reply, “Oh. I can’t remember the actual beer. But it was definitely the best one I’ve had.”
While thinking about this yesterday, I saw a story in the news: researchers at Herriott Watt University have discovered that the type of music listened to by people drinking wine has a significant affect on how the wine tastes.
They used four different styles of music:
- Carmina Burana by Orff – “powerful and heavy”
- Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky – “subtle and refined”
- Just Can’t Get Enough by Nouvelle Vague – “zingy and refreshing”
- Slow Breakdown by Michael Brook – “mellow and soft”
The white wine was rated 40% more ‘zingy and refreshing’ when that music was played, but only 26% more ‘mellow and soft’ when music in that category was heard.
The red rating changed by 25% with ‘mellow and soft’ music, and a whopping 60% with ‘powerful and heavy’. This is apparently due to something called “cognitive priming theory”. I just googled this term and got scared and ran away, but apparently it’s to do with the music sets up the brain to respond to other stimulus in a certain way. Does all this mean that there is no such thing objectively as a good beer or a bad beer? Is Rate Beer a complete waste of time? Was that last question rhetorical?
It’s unarguable that beer can taste completely different from one occasion to the next due to factors that have nothing to do with temperature, condition, food matching etc. Combine cognitive priming theory with the huge variations in taste buds from person to person, and it’s no wonder that the beer community’s favourite occupation seems to be arguing.