Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Beer Styles: Are You a Shaman, Priest, or Just Part of the Flock?

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.

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.
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.

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?


  1. Excellent!

    I would like to consider myself some sort of ecumenical monk :)

  2. Interesting question, Joe, and also a loaded one. I would agree that talking about, say, altbiers when you have never been within 100 kilometers of Düsseldorf is a questionable pursuit. However, as soon as you say "you really have to visit its home to understand the style," you get accused of elitism, regardless of how valid that statement might be in the context of any given style. (And I can think of plenty for which it is VERY valid.)

    I've always thought of myself as evangelist, no matter how many evil religious connotations that word might stir up. I've been writing about beer and spirits and food and travel for two decades because they are what I'm most passionate about, and the more I travel to places where they are brewed and distilled and created and, most importantly for me, enjoyed, the more passionate I become.

  3. I'm not sure if the question is loaded as much as flat-out provocative toward those who love beer but don't get to travel as much, for financial or other reasons. It's clearly elitist, especially coming from someone who's been lucky enough to travel a lot. I'll own up to that (with the aside that it wasn't my original intention as much as where the metaphor led me).

    However I don't think the metaphor is unjust. I'll try to provide an example.

    I've been "shouted" down before in homebrew forums for suggesting that you don't need X yeast to brew X beer, because in fact I've talked to brewers in that country who are using Y yeast, although it provides a very different character. "But oh if you don't use X yeast and get X character then it's not X beer!" Really? It still comes from X country and says X beer on the label... But you can't explain shades of gray to a fundamentalist priest.

    Homebrewers who trained themselves on BJCP guidelines, and see everything through that prism, are easy targets. But like the priests who studied rather than experienced, they're caught up in a system of symbols--descriptions of categories of Belgian beer, for example--rather than the reality on the ground of what Belgian brewers are really producing.

    I don't want to target those unable to travel much. I'd rather target those who think that memorizing a text makes them qualified to teach.

    And I haven't even touched on the difference in context... the qualitative difference between enjoying an Uerige from a bottle in your garage rather than draught at the pub in the Altstadt.

    To bring the discussion back around: Michael Jackson based his style classifications on what he saw and drank on the ground. He was teaching people what was really out there. I never met him, but I imagine he would have been uncomfortable with beer styles as prescriptive rather than descriptive. They help us to understand the complexity of what's available; ideally they don't hinder the further, organic development of that beautiful complexity.

  4. Happy coincidence, Joe. Check out the story from Imbibe at this link:

    Perfectly well researched and written, but it takes five paragraphs to get to Germany! And the brewers in the first four paragraphs -- who may well brew great versions of gose, I don't know -- base their experiments on the gose produced by other American breweries.

  5. I enjoyed the article and I enjoy Imbibe, but you may have found a good example of that disconnect: beers based on beers based on the myth of Gose, rather than Gose itself.

    Not that I wouldn't love to try all of them.