Drink It Until You Like It

Four large steins of Spaten lager (detail from a poster c.1920s.)

In his essay ‘The Man Who Ate Everything’ Jeffrey Steingarten argues that (a) food critics really cannot claim authority if they have aversions to particular ingredients; and (b) that such aversions, should they exist, can be fairly easily overcome.

When it comes to beer there are people who don’t like lager, or find stout too intense, or think hoppy IPAs ‘taste like a mouthful of soap‘. Some people just don’t like beer full stop. There’s nothing wrong with that — people ought to drink what they enjoy drinking — but those who have a niggling sense that they’re missing out could try Steingarten’s method:

We come into the world with a yen for sweets… and a weak aversion to bitterness, and after four months develop a fondness for salt… And that’s about it. Everything else is learned. Newborns are not repelled even by the sight and smell of putrefied meat crawling with maggots… Most parents give up trying novel foods on their weanlings after two or three attempts and then complain to the pediatrician; this may be the most common cause of fussy eaters and finicky adults — of omnivores manqués. Most babies will accept nearly anything after eight or ten tries.

With that principle in mind, after eating each on ten or so different occasions, Steingarten grew to love kimchi (Korean pickle), clams, anchovies, and various other foodstuffs that had previously made him turn green. In most cases, it seems that exposure wasn’t really the key — it was actually forcing himself to eat enough examples that he eventually happened upon a good one — but the message is the same: keep trying.

For this to work in weaning you on to a beer style of which you are sceptical you would, like Steingarten, have to genuinely want to get to like it. If you are determined to resist because, for example, not liking lager is a dogmatic position rather than really a matter of taste, it wouldn’t make any difference.

You might also, we suppose, use the same technique to increase your tolerance for extremes of bitterness, sweetness, sourness, booziness, yeastiness, or whatever characteristic it is in general that you find challenging in beer.

But it probably won’t help you learn to love a beer that is just, at it’s core, a bit shit.

We’re not quite sure of the publication history of the essay: it’s dated 1989 and 1996 in the book of the same name so we think it must have appeared in Vogue in 1989. You can read it in full on the New York Times website.

10 thoughts on “Drink It Until You Like It”

  1. reminds me of a heston blumenthal interview on radio 1 where he said the very same to chris moyles. CM hated olives and H suggested he get a jar and force himself to eat one a day, after a few weeks he’d actually be enjoying them and shortly thereafter not be able to limit himself to one. You can learn to enjoy the flavour of anything.
    I used to dislike tomatoes, i weaned myself on to them via tinned tomatoes though still can’t stand overly waterly tasteless ones. Plenty of foods I disliked when I was younger that I do like now; but there is some creedence in the suggestion that an aversion to stronger flavoured foods dissipates as you lose tastebuds as you age

    beer comparison: most people dislike lambic when they first taste it but grow to appreciate and then crave it

  2. I like this topic.

    The ability to acquire tastes is unique to human beings and a sign of civilization. We’re not animals or babies. I might be paraphrasing Yvan De Baets there. Or Pierre van Klomp?

    My first taste of gueuze was, er, discouraging. I’d read so many beautiful things about and wasn’t sure if I could come to like something that smelled and tasted to me like moldy grapefruits stuffed into sweaty gym socks and thrashed around a musty old bookshop a few times. But I stuck with it, and it was hugely rewarding.

    I find I’m also sensitive to diacetyl, to the point where I found PIlsner Urquell overly buttery and off-putting. I recently bought a case of it and tried to learn to like it, bottle by bottle. I think it was a success. It might also be possible to de-sensitize oneself to it. I’m in lager country now so that might be advantageous, from a hedonistic perspective.

      1. I can only speak for myself, but my answer is an emphatic yes.

        I lived in Costa Rica for four years and grew attached to an adjunct-laden light lager called Pilsen. I didn’t have to do it, but being able to enjoy it made life a lot easier.

        As with PBR, it helps if you drink it ice cold.

  3. I think it’s true, his hypothesis. I’ve found Chimay, at least in the last 20 years, difficult to drink (Belgian ales in general which have that characteristic yeast taste). I’ve been keeping a bottle, well-closed, and sampling small amounts every few days and last night I thought it was pretty good, I could drink that.

    However, it’s been getting progressively more clear in the bottle and I decant it very carefully, so I ‘m wondering if the yeast flavour is being diminished by that clarification.

    I need to buy a bottle and drink it only when very rested and clear which I never do, I always open it when it is too cloudy. Assuming it would taste the same or nearly when limpid, I think Steingarten is right.

    He may meet his Waterloo, or rather I would, with anchovy though.

    Gary

  4. I think it’s mostly true. I taught myself to like kimchi, rauchbier, and lambic, for example.

    It might not be absolutely true, in that some people may find some flavours are just impossible to love. Although, as you say, maybe that means their motivation is lacking.

    I met a guy in Iceland who literally vomited the first time he tried to eat hákarl. The second time he tried was on a bet, and he didn’t vomit. Now he actually enjoys it and eats it a couple of times a year. Makes you think most foods/drinks should be enjoyable if you keep at it.

    1. They do say that actual food intolerances can be overcome by ‘dosing’ yourself with a minute amount of the substance every day, gradually stepping up the amount as you get more used to it. Personally I’m a huge fan of peanut butter – I know for a fact I’ve been eating it since I was eight, and it probably started well before that – so I was concerned and, frankly, a bit disappointed when my son turned out to be peanut intolerant. It’s a relatively mild form – sometimes he throws up, sometimes he just feels like shit for a few hours – but quite bad enough to make him want to avoid peanuts completely. I did try to sell him on the tiny-incremental-dose theory, but he pointed out that the only way to calibrate the dose would be to eat just enough to make him start feeling like shit, and he didn’t much fancy doing that day after day.

      I still think he’s missing out, mind you.

  5. As a beer writer and critic I felt duty-bound to try to appreciate all beer styles and try enough of them to discriminate. I remember West Coast IPAs were stumbling blocks but boy did I need to get over that one. I’ve actively opted to judge styles most people don’t want to at beer competitions, like American mainstream lagers. You almost feel that you don’t actually have any personal tastes after a while. I never know what to say now when I ask in a shop or a bar for recommendations and the staff member asks what sort of beer I like.

    I’m sure I’ve heard Yvan say that and he’s undoubtedly right. But I’ve tried and tried with parsnips, honestly I have.

    1. Interesting about west coast IPA. Their pale ales were essentially similar, just (sometimes) less hopped and lower abv.

      For top-fermented beer, I cut my teeth on English beers, especially bitter from many trips to U.K. from the 80’s until about 5 years ago.

      Due to this, I too found it very difficult to drink, say, Anchor Liberty Ale. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (which uses a number of hops, not just PNW) was an exception, I always liked it. But most American pale ale and IPA seemed almost undrinkable, the pine, grapefruit, blackcurrant/dankness seemed so weird.

      However, now I can drink them, I just learned to like them. I still feel though English beers as they were before the craft influx were and are superior. English hops just offer a better flavour when used correctly – i.e., for aroma and in more than tiny quantities. This is why I find it ironic “IPA” has made such inroads in the U.K., but the reason is clear, people want something different. Still, from a gastronomic standpoint, English beer at its best is unbeatable and I hope some will always be made of the type say that Young’s beers were (not sure of their present condition, I need to get back), Director’s Bitter, Fuller’s beers, Adnam’s beers, Old Peculier, and so many others.

      Gary

  6. I had this with Orval – I really couldn’t see why so many people raved about it, but kept trying as pretty much all of beer writers rated it so highly, suddenly one day I ‘got’ it and would quite happily say it is one of the worlds great beers.
    Oddly I loved lambics from the start with a Cantillon gueuze

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