Saturday, February 21, 2009

Am I Strong Enough to Like a Bad Beer?

I've struggled with this concept my entire life, really. Some may call it lack of self-confidence or conviction, or a reluctance to openly go against the popular opinions. I guess I call it reassessment; forcing yourself to take another look at your own beliefs after gathering outside opinions to either validate or refute your initial response.

It basically boils down to this: am I comfortable enough with my own opinions to admittedly enjoy a product that has been widely panned? Will the experts write me off as a no-clue, inexperienced judge of quality? Will I be ostracized from the community of those who love and care and rate?

Mostly this happens in the arts; many might call them guilty pleasures, a term probably invented to make it ok for those like me to enjoy such atrocities in a half-joking, half-serious manner. Let's take music for example. I'll admit it: I enjoy listening to Hall & Oates. I sort-of half think I enjoy the spectacle and egocentric glamour of a Barry Manilow ballad. Most of the garbage pop of the 90s I could still regurgitate word for word. I will proudly and openly admit all of these things.

But still, there's a tint of really? in each of those admissions, and I am free at that point to say, "No, I don't really exercise to Michael McDonald's greatest hits, I just get a kick out of how ridiculous he sounds singing those crappy songs." It's an opt out clause.

Many people, including my much more free-of-society's-chains wife, don't have this dilemma. They like what they like, no apologies. To Kristie, there is no difference between a great song and a song she just loves listening to. Any appreciation, whether it be due to the technical wizardry, the bleeding-heart sincerity or the carefree exuberance, it all goes into the same pot of enjoyment. The same goes for movies. I can come out of a movie and say, "That was an amazing movie, but I didn't really enjoy it." I make the distinction, Kristie says why bother.

Let's bring this phenomenon to the world of beer. At this point, I thought I felt pretty comfortable with my own beer judgment, and was confident that my conclusions about any specific beer wouldn't fall far from the general beer nerd assessment. I know that the beer geeks love meaty stouts, layered with depth, and most enjoy the in-your-face hoppiness of an imperial IPA. I've also come to appreciate lambics and traditional Belgian sour ales, and know that while these are more of a polarizing blend, most beer lovers appreciate them.

Beer, like the arts, has its guilty pleasures as well. In my case, my guilty pleasures call back to my college days, when I was too poor to buy anything decent and spent a lot of nights hammering watery beer after watery beer. I have no problem stating my love for Grain Belt Premium, and if I happen to find myself at an Applebees, I'll probably order a Leinie's Honeyweiss. Do I actually like these beers? See, I thought I was at the point where I could say yes and deal with the consequences.

Then along came Chapeau Winter Gueuze. I've had a few lambics, krieks and sour ales, and have basically enjoyed them all. But this was my first real gueuze. Instantly, I could see the difference between this and the other lambics I've enjoyed. The color was unlike any I'd seen, a dark rust that lacked the fizzy bubble that I remember about the other lambics. The gueuze was nowhere near as tart, though it smelled as if it was. There was a massive sweetness that smothered the acidity; it tasted for a second like the sourness wanted to break through, but it couldn't penetrate the sugar forcefield. I didn't mind it. It reminded me a bit of a cider, with a decent amount of tartness, but more about the sugary sweetness. In fact, Kristie, who tries most of my beers and universally hates them, said this was the best beer she'd ever had. Looking back, that admission should have alarmed me. When I had finished the glass, I declared it a good beer and called it an "entirely pleasant experience."

This being my first gueuze, I just assumed that was how they were supposed to taste: sweet and sugary. How was I to know any better. It was nowhere near my favorite sour beer; I much prefer the unbalanced tartness of the more sour offerings. But I liked the beer none the less.

Then I found this. Uh-oh. Could I possibly like a beer rated in the 12th percentile? Let's look at it in reverse. Is it possible that I don't like a highly-rated beer? Sure, and many times I've confirmed this, though I'm too lazy to cite examples now. So maybe it's ok for me to enjoy this beer, no matter what my beer peers think. I guess spelling it out on a computer screen helps me process the quandary. I am comfortable enough to admit that I enjoyed a beer that almost no one has rated highly? Who cares. I mean, it's just a guilty pleasure, right?

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