Beer styles. Hard to think of another topic that gets geeks so worked up, even while the Ordinary Drinker--that quasi-mythical creature--couldn't give a rat's ass.
Just in case you are an Ordinary Drinker, and you would like to decide whether to give said ass of rat, allow me to sum it up: Should we categorize beer under descriptors like porter, American pale lager, Flemish red, Northern English brown, and so on? Is that useful, or does dropping beer into boxes like that do more harm than good?
Usually the debate devolves into the usual creaky old dichotomies, but occasionally someone breathes some life into it. Like Alan last week, who was riffing on Michael Jackson. The discussion was a welcome reminder that styles as know them today began as something educational and descriptive--a way to explain what is--rather than something normative--what ought to be. Understanding the difference could resolve a lot of those stale arguments.
Today I attack it from a different angle: theology. The problem of beer styles popped into my head when I read this quote from Joseph Campbell:
The difference between a priest and a shaman is that the priest is a functionary and the shaman is someone who has had an experience. In our tradition it is the monk who seeks the experience, while the priest is the one who has studied to serve in the community.Let's start with the fact that there are all sorts of beers out there in the world to experience. Let's follow it with the idea that styles are a symbolic system that began as a way to explain those sorts to those of us who might never get to visit Düsseldorf for a genuine Altbier. Then let's conclude with the recognition that there are a lot of folks out there who behave as style experts, brewing or judging Alts or Goses or Rauchbiers, when they have never even been to Germany.
I had a friend who attended an international meeting of the Roman Catholic meditative orders, which was held in Bangkok. He told me that the Catholic monks had no problems understanding the Buddhist monks, but that it was the clergy of the two religions who were unable to understand each other.
The person who has had a mystical experience knows that all the symbolic expressions of it are faulty. The symbols don't render the experience, they suggest it.
So what are you? Beer priest, monk, or layperson? Or is that just a new set of boxes that would do more harm than good?