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CBW Book Club 3: Beer & Philosophy; Or: The Elite Association of the Populists

The gathering

By now we knew the drill: read a book. Come to Goodbar. Discuss the book. Have a good time.

Six of us came. Dan, Ethan, Mark, Scott, Alex and Ken. We grabbed a beer, went upstairs and got down to business. To begin with, I thought the book had a few chapters that didn’t belong. For instance, the one about the existence of god and evolution? What? Mark and I had both skipped the second half of it.

As much as I like his blogging, I also thought the same of Alan McLeod’s chapter on the restrictive Canadian laws on beer. Alex disagreed, saying it looked at the political philosophy of the laws. We all agreed that in addition to their overly strict nature they seemed inconsistent when compared to other laws.

This led us to talk about cultural differences: it struck us as odd that in Canada requires establishments to carry local options, if available. I’ve said many times that I don’t want you to drink CBW just because it comes from Buffalo: I want you to drink it because you think it tastes good1. Alex didn’t take access to options as a given, saying that he thought the desire for a wide number of selections carried with it its own philosophy. We have a degree of paradox of choice in many bars now, while in other areas of the world — even ones with “good beer” — sometimes you only have one or two taps in a bar.

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The essence of beer

The conversation then shifted to the first section of the book, on the aesthetics of beer. To wit: “when is a beer a beer?” A few authors took a crack at that question, with my favorite coming in the first chapter as Dale Jacquette described the difference between beer, existing amorphously in a keg, and a beer, which only comes into existence as a pint is poured for you. Ethan, ever the linguist, told us about the difference between “mass nouns” like “water” and “count nouns” like “one pig.”

Garrett Oliver, from the Brooklyn Brewery, took another take on the question, asking “when is a beer not a beer?” He claimed that the amount of “nontraditional” additives in macro lagers like Budweiser, along with hop extracts and various techniques to lighten its flavor and color, made the result distinct from what we know as beer. Just as you could describe processed cheese food as edible plastic and not cheese, Oliver says that the Buds of the world no longer fit the description of beer.

Many of us, myself included, took issue with this statement. I found that I agreed with many of Oliver’s arguments but not the final conclusion. For one, I tire of the classification of corn and rice adjuncts as “nontraditional.” If you plan on saying that then you need to define how old something must be before it becomes traditional: brewers have used corn for nearly 150 years, and it forms a key foundation of the foundation of our uniquely American brewing traditions. You may not like the result — I certainly don’t — but you can’t decry this departure from tradition in one breath while praising craft beer’s innovation in the next. Either Budweiser destroys beer or Dogfish Head elevates it, but not both.

No gods, no masters2

This brought us to the problem I had with most of the first section: the authors seemed to take any excuse they could find to crap on macro lagers and the people who drink them. In particular The Truth About Beer, as it struggled with how to identify an objectively good beer, dismissing out of hand the possibility that it can’t exist because then people who think crappy lagers have value would be right and we can’t have that. In the end Michael Lynch came up with the definition of good beer as one agreed upon “by a majority of reasonable beer drinkers.” If majority rules, then either:

  • Budweiser holds the title of best beer on the planet; or
  • People who enjoy Budweiser do not fall under the category of “reasonable”

If the latter then please, talk me through it. As I see it Lynch put the people who agreed with him in charge and then said “oh look, I have good taste!”

That chapter made me unreasonably mad. Maybe not unreasonably; I don’t know. But I’ve grown tired of looking down on “crappy beer” drinkers. What do we hope to achieve? “Oh, your smug condescension has won me over! One Chimay, please!” Yes, I advocate for craft beer out of philosophical and also economic interests: more “good” beer lovers means more money for me. But why act like an asshole about it? You like what you like and I’ll like what I like and try to convince me otherwise.

If you say a definition of objectively good beer exists then you have to either concede that macro lagers fall into it or explain why the vast majority of people who drink beer don’t agree with it. Oliver went about this by invalidating Budweiser as beer entirely, which I think works in a way but then shifts the focus of argument.

Good beer, qualified

The conversation eventually morphed from me yelling incoherently to something slightly productive, as we collectively worked out what “good beer” could even mean. Mark brought up an excellent point: as an English teacher he’d never talk about “books” as a unified concept, so why do we talk about “beer”?

I obviously took quite a few issues with this section of the book and don’t want to speak for the others. The following resulted from our Socratic dialogues:

  • Often, people merely use “this is good” as a shortcut for “I like this.”3

  • A person can become more experienced and knowledgeable on a subject (in the case of beer, becoming more adept at identifying flavors, etc).

  • “I (don’t) like this” doesn’t have much meaning, but when accompanied by reasons does. “I like this because it has a floral hop character and low malt profile” helps me even if I don’t agree with your conclusions, because I can form my own based on whether I value those reasons.

  • A person’s broader opinions should change the value of their evaluation. Knowing that someone dislikes sour beers doesn’t make them unqualified to offer opinions on every beer, but lets you know why they might not like Mister Superfantastisch. Similarly, a Budweiser drinker offering an opinion on a Belgian IPA. We haven’t invalidated their tastes and opinions, but understand we might not agree with them.

In the end

We had an amazing conversation: my favorite of the three so far, certainly. Near the end we discussed “rabbit holes” and how we have gone down the one for beer but not some others. In “Mill v. Miller” Steven Hales laid out the claim that the more you know about a subject the less you can appreciate inferior examples of it. I commented that I have very purposely kept myself from becoming anything approaching an audiophile: I just don’t have the money for “good” headphones and speakers4.

“Somewhere,” Mark said, “not far from here, there are seven people talking about speakers while drinking Busch.”

  1. Of course, supporting local businesses for reasons of civic pride and ecological conscientiousness also apply in some cases, but my point remains that you should not drink a bad beer simply because of its geographic proximity to you. 

  2. I actually wrote this in the margins of my copy. 

  3. This relates to E Prime and my fascination with it. Every My Embeered Life post since that was written three months ago has followed E Prime rules, for the record, and I’ve gotten much better at it. 

  4. Especially given my unfortunate tendency to slice through them while using a hedge trimmer.