Stimulus from the World of Wine

Close up of The Thinker

We recently asked people to recommend books which weren’t about beer but which could help us better understand beer, prompted by reminders from Knut and Alan that books on other topics do actually exist and can be all the more illuminating for their distance from The Obsession.

Gareth, who writes the Beer Advice blog, and has a background in wine retailing, suggested Questions of Taste: the Philosophy of Wine (Ed. Barry C. Smith, 2007), a collection of essays exploring what it really means to ‘taste’ wine. Is it possible to taste objectively? Which qualities are an essential part of the wine and which are projected by the taster? Are some wines really better than others in an objective sense? And so on.

If you’re allergic to the merest whiff of pretension, you won’t enjoy it, but, so far, like Johnny Five in search of input, we’re finding it very thought-provoking, and are already itching to write posts based on ideas therein.

Here’s one example from the essay ‘The Power of Tastes: Reconciling Science and Subjectivity’ by Ophelia Deroy:

Am I objective when I say that this wine tastes like ripe pineapple, or do I just indulge in association of memories, condemned to remain purely personal? Do I try to find rare tastes or fine adjectives to conform to a social ritual, in an arbitrary and perhaps pretentious way? But, even if socially codified, do these practices and ways of talking about wine transform the experience we have of it?

This set of all kinds of fireworks in our brains. We’ve certainly found ourselves thinking: “We can’t just call this beer hoppy — people won’t approve,” and so sipped, sniffed, struggled, trying to unlock a particular elusive aroma or flavour; and we recently saw a novice beer reviewer (one with a provocative sense of hubris) shot down for the lack of finesse in his tasting notes — for not going deep enough.

What if those elusive flavours just aren’t there? Or the label we’re putting on them only makes sense to us because we’re recalling a particular mango, of a particular variety, at a specific point of ripeness, that we ate at a particular time in a particular place?

Other recommendations — the further removed from beer the better — very welcome! Picture from Flickr Creative Commons.

It's not only beer

In this article, amongst many excellent points, Pete Brown suggests that the fuss over the Oxford Companion to Beer highlights a lack of perspective on the part of some beer geeks, bloggers and writers. He says that, sometimes, people’s attitudes make him want to say: “Guys, get a grip – it’s only beer.”

But is it only beer?

We’ve written on a related subject before, pointing out that, as hobbyists, we know it’s just beer, but that taking it seriously is all part of the fun.

Telling real historians and scholars like Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson, however, that it’s only beer is like telling an archaeologist that the subject of his study is ‘just a load of muddy rubble’ and that he should stop being so anal about it. Yes, most specialist scholars have lost perspective, and thank God for that.

It’s through the efforts of people who take apparently insignificant things seriously, and spend time doing the kinds of back-breaking research others can’t be bothered with, that we learn more about our world and our history.

Beer is worthy of serious study and we should applaud those who undertake it, however nuts their obsession might sometimes seem to the rest of us.

P.S. We really don’t like wine very much. No pretending here.

Oxford Companion: Good, not Perfect

Detail of text from the Oxford Companion to Beer

We like The Oxford Companion to Beer (ed. Garrett Oliver) a lot more than we were expecting to and, although far from perfect, it certainly beats any other catch-all on the market.

So, let’s get the big flaws out of the way. First, entries differ wildly in tone of voice and occasionally contradict each other. Wikipedians would describe some as “not encylopedic in tone”. But then, each entry is attributed, and this is pointedly not an encylopedia with a capital E — it’s a ‘Companion’, suggesting something less formal.

Secondly, every tenth entry is written through the weird prism of American home brewing culture, with phrases like “true to style” and “German ale” occuring in pieces which stridently expound very shaky history, citing less than credible sources. But then critical readers (like wot we are) will spot these entries a mile off and take them with a pinch of salt. They don’t ruin the whole book.

Finally, on the subject of sources, there are too few primary sources cited, and many instances where one contributor cites another contributor’s book as the source for an entry. Cliquey-ness? Laziness? Primary sources inspire a great deal of confidence in a reader and any serious attempt at history should use them.

Having said all of that, those flaws and a few others do not mean there isn’t a great deal to enjoy.

The more technical entries covering contemporary brewing practices, hop and barley varieties and chemical processes are fascinating and (to us at least) seem well sourced and credible. Every time we pick it up, we learn something new, and feel inspired to read more elsewhere.

A few years ago, when we wanted to buy a friend a primer on beer, the best we could find was the Eyewitness Guide edited by the late Michael Jackson. Although the Oxford Companion is expensive, it is now the best book to buy anyone wanting to get a good overview — or at least to begin to appreciate the complexity and depth — of the world of beer.

If nothing else, it will hopefully spur others on to produce similar, bigger, better books. With apologies to those who have worked hard writing them, we don’t need any more variations on 750 Beers to Try Before You Need Your Stomach Pumped, where pornographic pictures of beer are accompanied by tasting notes.

Note: we got a free review copy from Oxford University Press.

Things have changed

ushers

Egon Ronay’s 1990 guide to pub and bar food is a fascinating read, having become something of a historical document.

For each pub he includes, he lists the beer available, and many of the brands have now disappeared: Ind Coope, Watneys, Charrington, Usher’s and Eldridge Pope crop up repeatedly.  And whatever happened to Fuller’s K2 lager?

One the whole, things seemt to have improved. Even the best pubs in the 1990 edition seem to be there largely because they offered two real ales rather than one, and there was a lot of Webster’s Yorkshire Bitter on offer. The White Horse was rated as the best pub in London but, by current standards, sounds pretty run-of-the-mill.

But this passage from the introduction still rings true:

Have you ever walked into a pub full of people and immediately felt totally isolated? This can happen when most of the clientele already know each other and may have unwittingly sat in old Joe’s favourite chair by the fire. Fine if you are a member of the ‘club’ but not so pleasant if you are a stranger… On their travels, our inspectors are invariably strangers and gauge a pub on how well they are received and looked after as such. There is no point in recommending an otherwise lovely old inn somewhere in the wilds if visitors to the area are not going to feel welcome once inside.

The Good Bierkeller Guide

biergartenbook

There are quite a few guides in German aimed at people who like beer gardens, but we think we’ve found the best.

Frankens Schoenste Bierkeller and Biergarten by Markus Raupach and Bastian Böttner is a weighty but handily sized guide to the most attractive gardens and pubs in Franconia. Even though our German is rudimentary, we found it easy to follow. For each city, town and village in Franconia, it suggests between two and twenty decent places to drink. It lists the beers on offer; gives details of how to to get to each boozer on public transport; and offers special tips for each one (Excellent asparagus menu in season! Particularly nice dunkel! Wonderful panoramic views from the terrace! And so on).

If you’re a regular visitor to Franconia, we’d say it’s a must, and a bargain at €16.95.

And its endless photos of green, sunlit beer gardens aren’t a bad way to cheer yourself up after a journey home from work in the rain, either.