Zen and the Art of Appreciating Simple Beers

There's a famous Zen verse that goes: "First mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers.  Then mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers.  Finally, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers."  The insight has to do with the Buddhist concept of the two truths, but it can also be understood more simply.  At first, we accept the nature of rivers and mountains because we haven't thought deeply about them.  Once we do, we see that they are not as we thought.  However, once we see their true nature, then we understand their essence and "rivers are rivers"  once again.  It's a circle, but we arrive back at our starting point with a transformed view.

I would like to posit a similar lesson with beer appreciation.  A while back, Stan quoted from a post by blogger Eric Sturniolo, who described the process of developing a palate as evolutionary, with a beginning point of mass market lager and an end point of Westvleteren.  This prescription is as old as craft brewing, though the "evolved" state--Eric called it an apex, as if reaching the mountaintop--is particular to the times. 

It's a paradigm that assumes beer styles exist in relative quality.  Style x is superior to style y, so as one becomes more sophisticated in the way of the beer world, she will naturally grow to enjoy x.  In this prescription, "x" is almost always the more intense beer.  Belgian abbey ales are more intense than light lagers and therefore naturally and innately superior.  When you look at how beer geeks rate beers (compare beer x to beer y), this is borne out by mass acclaim.

But, going back to the koan, I'd describe this as the "rivers are not rivers" phase of beer appreciation.  In the pursuit of intensity, the beer drinker begins to narrow down the range of beers that can be considered sublime.  Whereas a novice might go to Munich and fall in love with hellesbier, to the beer geek, such products are trifles unsuitable for the serious palate.  For the geek, "hellesbier is not beer."

The true apex of appreciation is the ability to locate the sublime in any style (not, of course, any beer).  This means being able to pick up a glass of helles--or English mild or Belgian bière de table or even a characterful mass market lager (of which, admittedly, there are not a great number)--and find the flavors as pleasant and satisfying as when you heft a barrel-aged imperial stout.  It is possible, but not if the only flavors you can appreciate are intense.  You have to fine-tune your palate to appreciate the difference between a helles that has dull, simple malt flavors and one that has rich, fresh, and complex malt flavors.  The presence of subtle esters, the gentle scent of a particular hop, the weft and harmony of all these flavors working together.  It's not the kind of gesture judges make in a competition to reward one beer in a reviled or discounted class--the best of a lesser bunch--but the actual deep pleasure in the beer itself.  

It has helped that I traveled the world and tasted beers in several different countries.   In places like England, Scotland, France, and Germany I found serious beer people committed to styles Americans have long ago "transcended."  Travel challenges certain prejudices one wasn't aware he possessed.  But those are intellectual discoveries.  At the end of the day, to really grow to love a hellesbier is a private journey of experience.  You can't know it intellectually.  It dawns on you in the moment, as when I drank an Augustiner Hell in Munich and something changed in my experience of pale lagers.  

Beer appreciation is not linear; it's circular.  First you love beer naively, out of a simple joy.  Then your head gets filled with a bunch of crap about what's "good" and you begin disliking beer out of a blind prejudice.  Finally, you come back to appreciating beer for its own nature.  (And conversely, that appreciation makes you aware of how many intense beers are badly made and lack the harmony and integration that are the hallmarks of a good beer in any style.)  It may be facile to put it his way, but what is blogging but not facile?  Until you can appreciate all beer styles, your journey of appreciation is not yet complete.