Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Can You Pinpoint the Moment Your Tastes in Beer Changed?

Ghosts convene around the 2012 batch of Allagash Ghoulschip, haunting it with spooky souring microbes.


When you like something a lot, and you find other people who also like that thing a lot, it's easy to create a basic sense of community. Beer happens to be an exceptionally easy thing to bond over, especially if you brew it, but sometimes you want to dive a little deeper into a conversation than just listing some beers you've drank. In any passionate group of 'enthusiasts,' it's easy to kick off a conversation by asking the basic: "How did you get into this?" question.

Many people develop their love of (obsession with) beer over time, but I firmly believe that beer inspires such devotion largely because it is an acquired taste. We all have some vague story about how we got into beer, but these anecdotes and personal histories can often be long and a little tedious — maybe more fun to ramble about in person. I could write a very long blog post (I mean, longer than usual) about how I first discovered craft beer. But for all those years of developing my palate, discovering new things, and switching style allegiances, one night in particular stands out to me as the moment my tastes in beer really changed — or maybe solidified.

This was a few years ago, sometime in October, I think. One particular detail kind of nails the timeframe, and adds a nice bit of semi-irony that is perhaps the entire reason I remember this particular evening so well. Me and a few good friends were out for some beer events in NYC, and our first stop brought us to Blind Tiger, a wonderful (if perpetually-packed) beer nerd haven in the West Village. I forget what the exact nature of the event was, but I think it may have been an Allagash tap takeover. In any case, me and my friends were all about the Allagash Ghoulschip, an extremely rare one-off sour pumpkin beer thingy. It was a killer beer, and everyone at the table agreed that this sour beer thing was pretty neat. I had had sour beers many times before, and am one of those people that was hooked after one taste, but it was around this night that I finally began to pinpoint the specific flavors and nuances that I enjoyed about them. You know that moment when you suddenly find yourself able to go beyond "I sure do enjoy the flavor of this!" to being able to talk about it in specific beerwords?

As we sipped our spooky sours, I glanced over at a table near the window and observed two gentleman who just gave off an air of "knowing about beer." (They must have had particularly illustrious beards.) While everyone else in the room was busy killing these rare kegs trotted down from Allagash, these guys were drinking beer out of a can. What first seemed like sheer madness soon clarified, slightly, when the BeerPulse-reading portion of my mind recalled the significance of the cans in their hands. It was a beer from Vermont called Heady Topper, and the brewery that made it had just been wiped out by devastating floods only a few weeks prior. The brewery just happened to have opened a separate canning facility around the same time, and thus survived as a production brewery making only a single canned beer. I remember thinking at the time: "What a crazy situation, I hope those guys can rebound. I think I've heard that beer is pretty good, too." While we briefly considered getting a can, we had other destinations in mind, and continued on our way. One of my friends went back to the next day to see if they still had any cans. They didn't. It would be another year or so before Vermont really took over the world, and the potent double-thread of Alchemist / Farmstead would have me dreaming of northern-bound roadtrips, along with everyone else on the East Coast.

But this remains, mostly, the night that I decided I was obsessed with all things sour and funky. After our goblets of Ghoulschip at the Blind Tiger, we headed to Brooklyn for a sour beer night at a bar called Mission Dolores. There were five or so Flanders Redish and Oud Bruinish beers on tap, and it was this massive acid punch to the tongue — following the already impressive Allagash stuff — that led me to conclude these sour beers might just be my favorite style. Flanders Reds in particular really get me with their unrivaled balance of sweet and sour, the insane complexity brought out with hints of cherry, vanilla and oak. Where previously I had tried sours only to forget their names the next day, that was the night I tried Cuvee des Jacobins Rogue and decided it could not be the last time I had such a beer. I would be watching tap lists closely from then on. For when you gaze long into the sour, the sour also gazes into you.

Editor's Note: Okay, perhaps these anecdotes don't make for the most interesting stories ever, and this was kind of boring. Later on, I found a dollar, just right on the sidewalk. It was crazy.

Anyhow, there's something satisfying to me about being able to trace interests and obsessions in such personal detail. How often do we actually know why we like what we like? How many of the things we love were found when we were young, and those particular moments — the sparks of interest that lead to a hobby, or even a career — lost over time? Brewing is a unique hobby in that most people don't or can't get into it until they are older, and have already discarded a dozen previous hobbies from youth. It's a recipe for a passion and a hobby unlike any other.

Am I the only one with these lame memories, or can you trace your own personal history of changing tastes?


10 comments:

  1. Man that was fun to read. I cant remember if it was their Allagash night or a North East beer night? But youre right, we were definitely there in search of the Ghoulschip. I remember that beer very, very well. I think that was the night I fell in love with sours as well.

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    1. It was a hell of a range of beers to encounter in one night.

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  2. When I think about these kind of "seminal" beer experiences, or craft beer experiences, they're really tied to place. The first time I ever really went nuts over beer I was twenty-two and doing the obligatory backpack sojourn across parts of Western Europe. My beer-iphany happened in Munich at the Paulaner brewery's biergarten, drinking cool (but not cold) Dunkelweizen. It was like heaven. I had no idea beer could have so much flavor. At the time, high-end beer was ANYTHING FROM CANADA (usually Labatt's..I grew up in Michigan). A few years later, while finishing my degree in Grand Rapids, MI, some roommates said that I had to (*had* to) go to this place down the street called Founders. The beer is great. The music is great. They couldn't believe I hadn't been.

    So just about every Monday (half-off pint night) and either Friday/Saturday (depending on who was playing) we went and enjoyed the absolute--God there really is no other way to say this--incredibly unhostile, laid back vibe that is the Founders taproom. You really can't understand if you haven't been. Sure, the dance floor was typically full of unkempt, patchouli-drenched hippie-types. But these people were great. There were no judgments made about your ability to dance or anything. And it became a real gathering place for my friends and I and we still use Founders as a home base/meeting-type place when we're ever back in the area at the same time. This is where I developed a love for Dirty Bastard and my palate shifted to strong-ish, hop-forward ales. The seeds were planted there to start brewing my own beers in the Founders tradition when I moved outside their distribution area. I can point to those two experiences as being pretty important for why I'm a devoted lover of craft beer/homebrewer and, in a drunken stupor at last year's GABF, told the founders' of Founders as much. There was a lot of back-slapping and slurred speech. It was like going home.

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    1. That would be such a cool way to get into good beer. I have never been to Founder's taproom but I need to. They're a great brewery to begin with but it also sounds like a really great place.

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  3. I can pinpoint when my tastes changed, at least in terms of when I realized beer could be so much more... but it's not as long or as interesting a story as yours, mainly because you're much more eloquent than I am. My wife and I took a trip to Belgium 4-5 years ago, and get this... NOT because of the beer! But I knew beer was a big part of the culture there, and we still enjoyed it to a degree. Anyway, after a full day of traveling, we finally arrived in Bruges, and headed to 't Brugs Beertje for a few... even after my first beer (Tripel Karmeliet), I was impressed that beer could taste like this (at the time I didn't realize just how available TK was outside of Belgium). Beer after beer continued to make me realize what I had been missing all these years. Homebrewing followed within 6 months, and sour beers soon after that.

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    1. My stories are definitely long, though I'm not as sure about interesting. Belgium is a great place to get into beer,; it sounds like your total conversation happened much faster than mine did! I think there's probably some kind of analysis one could do comparing people who were gradually surrounded by better and better beer, until they became inevitably hooked, and people who had one transformative experience in a new location, like a trip to Belgium.

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  4. I've had a couple of taste changing moments. The first was during a business trip to Fort Collins in 2002. I had my first Fat Tire and it was different than anything I'd had before. It made me search out craft beers when I got home and I've been hooked ever sense. Luckily I had many repeat trips to Fort Collins and got to visit the great breweries there.

    The 2nd moment was a round of tasting at a local place in Bethesda, MD (almost every place in that city has a crappy beer list) and I drink a Dark Island from Orkney Brewing. I liked scottish ales like Bellhaven but this one was mind blowing. It brought my love of malty beers after being pounded in the face by so many IPAs. I can't find a bottle locally so I head back to that place every year for a bottle.

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    1. I think most people probably have two "instances." You've got that first beer or set of beers that introduces you to the very concept of "better beer," and then after you've been aware of craft for a few years, and developing your tastes, I think you tend to have an experience (like we both seemed to) that solidifies your tastes a second time.

      I've actually never tried Dark Island.. I'll have to be on the lookout!

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  5. I've had a couple of taste changing moments too. It all started when i was living in nz in 2010, and i couldnt get the usual standart lager, so i started drinking a locally brewed bitter, in the begging i was too bitter and i was drinkin for the alcohol content, coming back home to brazil my brother asked if i could find any hop to bring with me, i went to the store i bought a hop named after a awesome little hippietown that ive been called Motueka. As my brother started homebrewing he made a few friends and they used to meet and share bottle of foreing beers (usa and uk mostly). Those meeting were like taking a kid to a chocolate factory, beerl overs drinking rare beers and having a great time ! when ever a friend take a trip to usa i highly anticipate this bottle share !

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    1. Haha, the fact that you transported some sweet NZ hops without really knowing how great they were (I assume) is pretty awesome. Cool story!

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