Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Understanding Beer

Language fascinates me. When I was at college I learnt a bit about linguistics, semiotics, semantics and a clutch of other language related subjects as part of our hermeneutics course - don't worry I won't be wondering how to use the hermeneutical circle as proposed by Liberation Theologian Juan Luis Segundo.

One of the areas we looked at that I found particularly interesting was the development of words and how we interpret them, or more specifically how do we interpret the meaning of words within their historical context and how much of that context is it necessary to know and understand. There are two basic approaches here, synchronic analysis and diachronic analysis. The former looks at language only at a single point in time, usually in the present, while the latter is more concerned with the development of language over a period of time.

"What the hell does all this have to do with beer?" I hear you mumbling. Well, there has been a fair bit of chatter in the old blogosphere about how we understand beer styles and whether or not the styles as described by either the Brewers Association or the BJCP are valid or correct, especially what constitutes a "proper" version of a beer? In my reading of various blogs there are two main schools thought, which for want of a better phrase I will call stylistic synchronism and stylistic diachronism; the former saying that what is important is beer styles as we understand them in 2012 and the latter interested in how beer styles have evolved through time to reach this point. As I am sure you can imagine, I consider myself more of a diachronist, given my interest in the historical development of beer, and the fact I have no problem with the International Homebrew Project recipe being called a "mild" even though it smashes present convention squarely in the balls.

From this wondering about how we understand a given style arises a further question, having understood the numbers, how do we reach the soul of the beer we brew? The obvious answer is to drink examples of the style we are trying to brew. But is it enough for me to buy and drink all the available Czech lagers at Beer Run in order to understand the Bohemian Pilsner "style"? Personally I would say "absolutely not", simply because Pilsner Urquell in bottles here, while a decent beer, is nowhere near as good as tankove, or kegged for that matter, Pilsner Urquell in Plzeň. Given that the creation myths that surround many modern beer styles are located within particular geographical areas, spending a decent amount of time in those places is, I think, important. Beers such as "Pilsner", London Porter and Saison are so intertwined with the context from which they arose that simply brewing by the numbers is akin to reproducing the Mona Lisa from a photograph.

We quite often talk about the "context" of drinking a particular beer, but what about the "context" which gave birth to the beer we are drinking? Again for want of a better phrase, we should talk about the "humanity of beer" as it reflects the people and milieu of its creation as much as the agricultural ingredients that make up its tangible elements.


  1. So much of our understanding of style is indeed based on context. A person with a historical interest in beer will say something is "not to style" just as often as a contemporary beer drinker would do the same for a historical product. Is the mild and pilsner we drink today no less authentic and relevant as the beer brewed a hundred+ years ago? How do we write and blog about beer without having to make a disclaimer about the origins of whatever we are talking about?

  2. I love talking about beer with people from different locations (i.e. countries). For me, this is an opportunity to find what a particular beer is to them. I strive to brew as close to regional exactness as possible, knowing that my situation is not the same. My beers will not match exactly, but the differences add a new character to the beer itself.

    I guess we can think of beer as a living thing, in that like language, it evolves over time.


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