The Language of Beer

Anyone who has attempted to speak a foreign language, especially during adulthood, has encountered the phenomenon of language-as-thought:
For example, the Australian Aboriginal language Guugu Yimithirr doesn’t use egocentric coördinates like “left,” “right,” “in front of,” or “behind.” Instead, speakers use only the cardinal directions. They don’t have left and right legs but north and south legs, which become east and west legs upon turning ninety degrees. Among the Wakashan Indians of the Pacific Northwest, a grammatically correct sentence can’t be formed without providing what linguists refer to as “evidentiality,” inflecting the verb to indicate whether you are speaking from direct experience, inference, conjecture, or hearsay. 
Each language is a reflection of the world as seen by the speakers of that language. As I was reading that captivating article (one of the rare New Yorker pieces posted online in its entirety), an analogy occurred to me.  Beer styles are a bit like language.  Of course, culture in general is, too--cuisine, art, religion, all these things have their own vernacular.  Cultures don't possess different hardware, but the software of culture makes one group like unspiced boiled meats and another fiery curries.  I know I often chalk love of different styles up to an unexamined sense of culture: eh, the Bavarians love their helleses, what are you going to do?

By chance, I had just been writing about Bavarian dunkel lagers, and noticed that Americans on BeerAdvocate weren't smitten.  Not a single dunkel gets a rating of even 4.0.  The analogy of language later presented itself, and I now think it's a pretty good one.  When a culture develops a proclivity for a certain thing, it simultaneously becomes blind to dissimilar things.  When IPA-lovin' Americans get ahold of a dunkel, they don't know what to make of it.  They judge it against their own preferences and, of course, it comes up wanting.  (One can imagine that in an alternate universe where Bavarians dominated a version of BeerAdvocate, the double IPAs and imperial stouts would score dismally.)   But this is the thing--Americans don't speak the language of dunkel lagers. 

How do you learn to speak the language of a different beer style?  Dunkels are a good example.  Ostensibly a style with little range, they could be taken to be an undifferentiated blah style.  Not, however, if you travel around Bavaria and try, say two dozen of them.  Probably ten of those will be undifferentiated blah--that's a pretty standard proportion for any style.  Some will be actively poor, but some will be excellent and, wonder of wonders, as your palate becomes attuned to them, you will begin to understand the differences between these excellent lagers.  They will become vivid to you.  (It really helps if you talk to brewers, too, for they will speak in forceful terms about what makes a good dunkel lager.  It will differ from what the guy down the road says, and it will really differ from what the guy in the next country says.  And in that way, you will further appreciate the distinctiveness of the style.)

I will go so far as to say that if you don't enjoy a style, you're probably not speaking its language.  (Mainly I'll go that far to see if I can provoke some dispute.)  Beers can be bad, but styles not so much.  They have stood the test of time and found converts.  If you encounter a style, you are by definition finding a constituency.  I have spoken to a number of people around the world who don't like American hoppy beers.  It's not that they don't like certain beers; they just think we're idiots who are making a mockery of a fine art.  It's the same thing as Americans who don't speak dunkel. 

So, the next time you feel the inclination to dismiss a style (as I have often wished to do with helles bocks), think of the sea of people who have, for decades, slugged it back joyfully.  What is this strange language they speak, and where do I learn the vocabulary?
Jeff Alworth10 Comments