I was tentatively self-scheduled to toil at my desk last Saturday, but by the time I got my brain straight and my teeth brushed it was already 60 degrees and sunny, so I decided to make it a research day rather than a writing day. This sort of flexibility is the best thing about being a beer blogger. Sure, I had to borrow grocery money from my cat this morning, but never mind that; we are gathered here today to speak of happy things, such as biking around town compiling tasting notes on a rare February afternoon when the weather demands it.
My wife and I started off the day’s investigation by visiting a couple of breweries that we hadn’t been to in months, and both were much better than we remembered. My revised impressions of Aeronaut and Slumbrew, both located in lovely Somerville, Massachusetts: Pretty damn good! This is an upgrade over my previous opinion of “Hey, not bad at all.” Part of this is surely due to actual qualitative improvement—Aeronaut and Slumbrew are about two and five years old, respectively, so it makes sense that they’re still learning new tricks—but I will freely admit that context could have led to grade inflation. Simply put, beer tastes better when you’re blowing off work on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
This is one reason it’s so hard for anyone with basic human emotions to hold hard and fast beer opinions. If you can completely disregard the weather, the company, the price, the soundtrack, and the fact that for crying out loud this isn’t a “soft pretzel,” it’s just a breadstick twisted into a funny shape!, then you’re a better beer taster than I, and also a weirdo monster. There’s a reason most beer festival judging is carried out in sensory deprivation chambers by people who have signed affidavits swearing that a) they know everything about every style of beer and b) they promise not to enjoy themselves.
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I’m jealous of these judges’ knowledge for sure, and of their discipline to a lesser extent, so I don’t want this to devolve into a rant against the importance of qualified beer examiners. But I do have a message for the rest of us slobs: For the likes of us, beer evaluation is a subjective game, which is why it doesn’t make sense to waste time and money chasing down this or that cult beer of the moment.
Last week Aaron Goldfarb published this eye-opening piece about beer-hunters behaving badly at special-release events. Forged tickets, stormed gates, grandmas muling bottles, the whole gross works. Some readers took exception to the article’s title, “When A Craft Beer Is Released, Beer Geeks Go Crazy,” on the grounds that the people described therein aren’t “beer geeks” as much as they are garden-variety sociopaths who can’t resist the opportunity to misbehave in public, especially if it means they might make $30 on Craigslist or get to brag about being the sneakiest weasel in town. Fair enough, but Goldfarb’s broader point stands: scarcity, either real or perceived, is threatening to ruin at least one aspect of the beer game.
I’ll pause here to give a little ammunition to any readers who are convinced that the only possible way to get the best beer is to camp overnight on the side of a dirt road in Vermont: I guess it’s fair to say I’m not qualified to have an opinion. I’ve tried a fair few of the New England trophy beers (“whales,” as the worst kind of kids say), but I’ve never bled, sweat, and cried for them, and if that’s part of the enjoyment factor for some people—if suffering for the experience is the beer masochist’s version of my sunny Saturday afternoon—then I can’t really comment on that. I just have friends who are embarrassed to hang out with an alleged beer blogger who’s never tried Pliny the Either, so they try to help out my education where they can. So I’ve had a lot of the good stuff, but, no, I’ve never tasted a 101-point triple IPA straight from the source within 45 minutes of bottling.
But I’m not ready to just chalk the trophy-beer phenomenon up to different strokes, because over-the-top beer-chasing does have a negative effect on the overall better-drinking world. In addition to jacking prices up beyond all reason, it creates inflated reputations that rob the general beer public of what would otherwise be glorious beer epiphanies. My first experiences with Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout (as well as the Canadian version), Alchemist Heady Topper, and Cantillon were all bittersweet at best, because while I enjoyed the beers—they are all undeniably, objectively world-class—none of them changed my life the way I’d been promised.
Contrast that with one of my best beer memories. A few years ago I had the great good fortune to spend a week drinking my way through Madison, Wisconsin. I had all the New Glarus, Ale Asylum, and Schlitz any good beer pilgrim could ask for, but the highlight was a pint of Toppling Goliath PseudoSue I lucked into on my last day in town.
I was vaguely aware of PseudoSue’s reputation before my trip, but I hadn’t realized it was intermittently available in Wisconsin, so it wasn’t on my to-swig list. It wasn’t on the menu, but I must have arrived at the right keg-kicking time, and the bartender recommended it almost off-handedly—I offered no favors, I paid no surcharge, I revealed no mother’s maiden name—and I was simultaneously juggling a sausage, a conversation, and a five-day hangover at the time, so I wasn’t fully prepared when I took a sip of what I still maintain is America’s finest pale ale.
Now, I’ve never heard anyone suggest that PseudoSue is less than stellar … but so are several dozen (hundred?) other American pale ales. But I’ve never had one sneak up on me like that, and the surprise factor that helped it taste so perfect just can’t be replicated on the black market, at a heavily hyped festival, or in a 300-person line. It’s great to have special-occasion beers—a holiday splurge, a seasonal you look forward to every year—but you do a disservice to yourself and your fellow drinkers when you turn beer-hunting into a competitive sport.