Monday, May 2, 2011

Hermeneutics and Beer

Hermeneutics is probably not a subject that would normally be associated with beer, but it is something I have been thinking about for quite some time now. Hermeneutics is traditionally understood as the study of the interpretation of texts, though I prefer an expanded horizon to include non-textual forms of communication. I would offer to buy a pint for the first person to point out the reference in that last sentence, but I am fairly sure who that would be, and I can't afford a flight to Dublin in order to do so.

I can imagine many of you wondering what exactly does hermeneutics have to do with beer? Well, you could argue that the brewer is the author, and when sampling his beers we, the drinker as reader, are interpreting his intention. We ask ourselves the question, has the brewer succeeded in communicating his vision of a given beer style to his audience? We must also discuss the role of the hermeneutical circle in understanding the glass of beer before us. To understand the whole, we must understand the parts, yet to understand the parts we need an appreciation of the whole.

An example then. Somebody puts a glass of pilsner in front of me, I have an understanding of pilsner as a whole - pale, hoppy, bottom fermented and then lagered. When I look to understand the parts of this particular glass of beer, I learn that it has been made with floor malted Bohemian Pilsner malt, the hops are Saaz, the yeast a Bavarian strain, and the water is very soft and post-fermentation it lagered for 30 days. From my understanding of the parts, I can say that the whole is a Bohemian Pilsner. By adding the adjective "Bohemian" to the word pilsner, I am interpreting the beer in front of me, but that interpretation is not made within a vacuum, and that is the fascinating part of hermenuetics for me, the things that influence my interpretation, for there is no objectivity in interpretation, thus, no one interpretation is more or less valid than any other.

My interpretation of the glass of beer in front me, which I have described as a Bohemian Pilsner (usefully the author has done likewise and I have confirmed that the authorial intent was a success, in my opinion), draws on a wealth of subjective experience to recognise the beer in front of me. I spent 10 years in the Czech Republic drinking some of the finest pilsner style lagers on the planet, as a result of which, anything that doesn't reach to those standards is cast aside as a failure, again a case of interpretation.

The challenge then for the drinker is to gain a proper appreciation for the whole from which to be able to understand the parts and gain a greater understanding of the whole before them. In this sense, beer styles are very useful (I wouldn't go so far as to say they are definitive, or even important) because they give a starting point for interpreting the glass in front of you. Of course, the guidelines themselves are often open to interpretation, and so the drinker effectively interprets the brewers interpretation of a given tradition. Hermeneutics can be understood as going round and round in circles, but only if you look at things from above, I prefer the idea of hermeneutics as a spiral and looking from the side - but that is a whole other conversation, that belongs on one of my other blogs.

It is this interest in hermeneutics and looking to understand why a person thinks the way they do about given beers that draws me back again and again to the beer rating websites, and some of the comments you see there. Given my unashamed passion for Czech beers, I read the reviews of Bohemian Pilsners with particular interest, and comments describing a Bohemian Pilsner as "hopped up Bud" or even "not the most exciting of styles" reminds me that many people on the beer rating sites have a different frame of reference for the term "pilsner", a frame of reference that would include Budweiser, Heineken and Carlsberg.

Looking at beer from a hermeneutical perspective doesn't allow though for qualitative statements on whether a beer is "good" or "bad" - which are in themselves interpretations with their own sitz im leben - but rather saying "I enjoyed/disliked this beer" and here are the reasons why, at the end of the day, beer is just a drink. A drink you either like or don't. A drink you want to have again or not. While I have very firm views on what kinds of beers I like or don't, being an opinionated sod, beer is not going to change my life, give my life meaning or even make me a better person. To expect anything more than refreshment, social lubrication and the potential of a raging headache the next morning is to overstate the value of beer in and of itself.


  1. I wrote a song a long time ago called "Hermeneutical Spiral", after the Osborne book (which I've read twice). Nobody understood it. I'm having better luck brewing beer.

  2. I'm all for a healthy dose of Gadamer, just not while I'm drinking. It's far too close to drinking styles instead of beer.

  3. This explains very well the problem I have with this "Best Beer in the World" bollocks. Much of what makes a beer good (i.e. that you've enjoyed it) is the moment and situation you drink it, which should also be added as part of the interpretation of said beer. Westvleteren 12 is a great brew, no doubt, but I'd much rather have a Gambáč on tap after a 10km walk on a sunny day. In other words, that mass produced pseudo-desítka is, at least at that moment, better than the so-praised Trappist.

  4. Interpreting beers by employing knowledge (of traditions) and experience (habitual drinking/sampling) yields a hightened understanding and appreciation of the drink in front of you, and allows a judgment of taste (in Hume’s sense). When drinking traditional styles of beer (pilsner, porter, bock, kölsch, alt, etc.), the “interpreter” of the glass can employ particular hermeneutic tools that are contingent on particular historical brewing practices (mostly in Europe) and rest on preconditions such as the use of particular malts, hops, and waters. This is what makes drinking beer in Germany, England, the Czech Republic, Belgium (and maybe some other countries) such a fine pleasure – the adherence to tradition and standards, the organization of brewing practices that are foundational for the “style.”

    Drinking in the United States (as I am doing now), all these defined parameters of interpretation are gone. The canonical rules of understanding a beer style are suspended by ever wilder experiments in brewing (e.g. aged in sake casks, containing 17 strands of hops, addition of South American spices and prairie flowers, mixed with gin, wine, rum, you name it). These experiments yield fine drinks (beers), complex and tasty, novel and exciting – however, they can no longer be judged by an evaluative system that is based on traditional beer hermeneutics because they reveal the historical contingency of those criteria. We have entered the age of post-hermeneutic beer drinking, where breweries produce their own sui generis styles and beers (the various Double Imperial American IPAs, Stouts, etc.), beers like “Chateau Jiahu” (just one example of hundreds). How do you make “make sense” of these beers?

    This is not a reactionary complaint, I like many of these new beers (just yesterday, I tried Rogue’s John John Jupiter and loved it) but, like in literature and art, I think we arrived a the post-hermeneutic moment of beer.

    H.J. Werlen, PA USA

  5. I think the role played by "tradition" in European brewing is grossly overstated by Americans.

    I also think the very word "tradition" is meaningless without specifying the timeframe to which it refers. To take but one example, Dry Irish Stout is a tradition that goes back no further than the early 20th century.


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