Last year we were having the kitchen done and the house was a building site. The year before that I’d just got back from Kolkata. The year before that we left it too late, and the year before that our mad neighbours scared off a lot of the people we wanted to talk to. Jesus – thinking about it, we hadn’t had one of our traditional Christmas drinks parties since 2005.
I wanted to make a good impression. On top of that, I had so much beer in the cellar that if I was to try and drink it all before it turned to vinegar I would surely kill myself. So I laid out a beer extravaganza on the table.
I never try to force beer down people’s throats – you never win hearts and minds by doing that. So in the afternoon, we went to Majestic Wine and bought a case of decent, zingy Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and a case of light, fruity Italian. Owing to a schoolboy-error oversight in my beer scrounging and having spent far too much of 2009 obsessing over hop bombs and whisky aged tar-flavoured stouts, I also found myself rather embarrassed at having to buy a case of Asahi.
Come party time, the Asahi and the sauvignon were chilling in an ice bucket. On the table stood bottle of the cheeky red, and about fifty assorted beers from the cellar. We had tumblers and wine glasses at the ready, and bottle openers in profusion.
When the guests arrived, I offered them drinks, and talked them through what was on offer. By the end of the evening I’d made a dent in the beer lake, and converted one or two people to beery delights they hadn’t had before.
But there was one conversation I had seven or eight times, and it’s been rolling around my mind for two months now so I wanted to write it down to see if by doing so I can make sense of it in my head. Here goes:
Me: “Hi! Long time no see! So, what can I get you to drink? We’ve got beer and wine and a bit of fizz if you like. There are a lot of beers so let me talk you through them: there’s lager chilling in the bucket, these ones here are blonde and pale ales and are lightly chilled and a bit fruity and zingy, then you’ve got these ones which are a bit darker, more caramelly and may be with flavours of ripe red fruit or toffee or caramel. Then these here are stronger and darker and maybe a bit challenging, but if you like rich red wine you might like them, they have chocolate and coffee and sometimes oaky flavours. And here’s some wheat beers that are light and refreshing, some fruit beers and some other surrealist shit from Belgium*.”
Guest: “Um… I’ll have a wine, thanks.”
Me: “Sure! What kind of wine would you like?”
Guest: “White, thanks.”
Me: “What kind of white?”
Guest: “Eh? I dunno, just white.”
Me: “Any particular flavour? Any particular style?”
Guest: “No, just white.”
To me, this exchange – which, like I said, I had several times without much variation – reveals a major misconception in the way both beer fans and wine lovers think about the relationship between the two drinks.
They argue that beer is crude and unsophisticated. We reply strenuously that beer has just as much flavour and complexity as wine.
But just like the majority of beer drinkers, the majority of wine drinkers don’t actually care that much about complexity and depth of flavour. When someone orders a bottle of Pinot Grigio in All Bar One and has it served in an ice bucket and drinks it at about 2 degrees above freezing, they do so not to appreciate the flavour, but to look and feel good while they’re drinking it, and to manage their arc of inebriation in a way with which they feel comfortable. They’re showing the same level of discernment, and the same physiological and psychological needs, as a Carling or Bud drinker.
If you started to talking to a Carling or Bud drinker about the subtleties of difference between a French and a Californian Chardonnay, they’d run a mile. Similarly, someone who chooses a wine on the basis that it;s not the house wine but one above it, so you don’t look like a cheapskate but you still get good value and gosh doesn’t it slip down quickly, is going to be completely unimpressed by arguments that the malt of a porter or the hop of an IPA can compete with the intensity of a Shiraz or Kiwi Sauvignon.
The vast majority of drinkers simply aren’t that interested in flavour. That’s not a criticism. you can’t make someone start obsessing about taste buds any more than you can inspire in them a sudden interest in fashionable hosiery if it isn’t something they’ve already pondered. The way to get these people into beer is to cast beer as fashionable, something with a favourable image.
I’m, not arguing in favour of total superficiality here – one way of doing that is to get respected people to proselytise about beer. If we really want to evangelise beer, we need to find the people who are interested in flavour, and engage them on their level. In turn, they pass on their enthusiasm to those who don’t care as much.
Yes, it is annoying when the person who says “Just white” walks away with their glass of “just white” actively thinking they have made a more discerning, premium choice than any of the beers you were offering, many of which cost more per millilitre than the wine in their hand. But in the final analysis, that’s their problem, not yours
*This was not to dismiss Belgium, but I didn’t want to go on too long or scare novices away completely.