An Experiment

Beer in Context

Beer tasting: All in the mind?

By John Chandler June 6, 2011

Today’s test subject.

For my birthday last month, a coworker thoughtfully presented me with a 40-oz bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon, ‘cause, you know, I like beer. Hey, I love gifts as much as the next guy, but this one posed a problem. See, at the time I was working furiously on Portland Monthly’s summer beer feature for the July issue. This means I was really, really concentrating on things like flavor profile, body, color, and aroma; attributes that one must carefully consider when evaluating a complex array of craft beer. Anyway, I figured a 40-dog of Pabst was likely to fry my delicate palate, so I tucked the monster in the fridge to be unsealed at some point in the future.

Last weekend while rifling the fridge for snack candidates, I found the 40 lurking in the vegetable keeper (Whattaya think I keep in there? Vegetables? Hahahahahahahahahaha!) next to a mysterious bag of radishes. And I got to thinking about beer in context: I’ve never, ever, been a beer snob. I will happily drink what’s put in front of me, whether it’s saison or swill. Sure, my soul prefers complex and elusive tastes that flitter about my mouth teasing and tormenting my taste buds with hints of this and suggestions of that. But does that mean I can’t guzzle an American lager when it’s offered to me? Nonsense. If I’m invited to a barbecue and there’s nothing to wash down the grillings other than Bud Light, I’ll man up. When I go (strip) bar-hopping in the wilds of Gresham, I don’t turn my nose up at a frosty Miller High Life. In these instances, my mind is on other things and the beer is relegated to a supporting role.

So, in the interests of science, I decided to see if I could enjoy a PBR in a different context. Instead of passively sipping it while watching hoops (supporting role), I poured out a healthy dollop into one of my fancy glasses to dress it up a little, and give it a serious flavor evaluation. It’s as if I slapped my taste buds around and announced to them, "Pay attention you guys!" The result? In this case the taste was nearly invisible. It barely registered a blip on the radar. My taste buds, prepared for an arduous test of their talents, were underwhelmed and promptly sent an angry letter to my brain that read, "You woke us up for this?"

Later that day, while watching the NBA Finals, the remaining PBR served me well, acting as an amiable, well-behaved companion, while my attention was focused elsewhere. The point I’m trying to make is about context. Are mass-marketed suds best savored when distracted? Or broke? Is it even fair to compare them with quality (and spendier) offerings from BridgePort or Hopworks? Or is it more like The Three Stooges vs Fellini? Sometimes thinking and drinking don’t mix, and anything wet will do the trick.

Your thoughts drinking buddies?

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