I was always a “wine guy”. Back in High School (the drinking age was eighteen), I would drink wine, not “Annie Greensprings” or “Boone’s Farm”, but real wines, like Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. I never developed a taste for beer back then, possibly because my father drank Schlitz, although I did try a variety of (American) beers and cared for none of them. I would drink Guinness if it was on tap, but that was the only beer that interested me.
In my thirties I worked for a winery in Pennsylvania. No, that’s not what got me away from wines. Chaddsford Winery (at least back then) made the best wines in Pennsylvania, and some of the wines rivaled California, Oregon, and France. Really. At that time the owners, Eric and Lee Miller, were immersed in every aspect of the winery. The staff was like a family, we felt invested in the wine and the customer’s experience. Eric would take us on trips to other wineries and held classes on wines from different regions. We learned how to pair foods with wines, and how to tend the vines (since then, the winery has become more commercial, what we would have called a “McWinery”). We would have festivals and concerts on the property, and one summer, after the guests had left, Eric brought over a cooler full of beers for us to try as we were relaxing after the cleanup.
I found that like wine, there were different kinds of beers! I still preferred the darker, malty types, but there were different beers for different occasions. A light, hoppy brew could be refreshing on a hot day. Just as I had always taught in my tasting sessions with wine, “good” is subjective. Today when I go to the liquor store, I see ratings of beers on a numerical scale, like those that became popular for wines in the 90s. A brewer friend tells me the ratings are based on how well a beer fits its particular style, but I’m sure there are people who are just looking for the higher number, the “better” beer.
That may be fine for most folks. As I said, the experience is subjective, so if drinking a number is more important than the complexities of tastes, go forward. At the tasting bar, someone would always ask “which is best”, to which I would reply “the one you like”. When I started writing, one writer raged on and on about the faults of being self-published, her main issue was that “no one has evaluated whether your work is any good”. She could never understand that for many, writing isn’t about obtaining some arbitrary third party’s approval. We do what we do because we love doing it. Every great author saves the rejection notices so they can laugh later, after another publisher has made their book a best seller. Good work will shine through, the size of the audience is secondary.
My mother’s other son went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art with me one day. He could not comprehend much of anything outside of classical painting. Even the impressionists had him a bit flustered, he scoffed out loud at Mondrian, but I was actually embarrassed when we came across an exhibit of functional art and he said in a full voice “This isn’t art!”. It’s subjective. I have a rather bohemian attitude, and am often asked “Are you an artist?”, to which I would typically respond “Everyone is an artist”. My mother’s other son is not an artist.
On our first extended trip to Belgium, my wife arranged for us to spend a few days in Brugge. We prepared by watching the film “In Brugge” (very funny, a bit dark) and had a wonderful time visiting the sites from the film. We took a tour of the canals and toured a brewery, wandered through town and saw a number of interesting sights, but what caught my imagination was the first pub we stopped in.
Seven hundred and fifty beers. Try as I might, I couldn’t make a dent in the menu. I gained an appreciation for the diversity of Belgian beers. Unlike America, with three hundred million people and maybe fifty major breweries, Belgium’s eleven million people support almost two hundred breweries. It’s not just the “neighborhood brew”, beers are appreciated, and each has a special glass.
At this pub, the “Cafe Metafoor” (I dig Flemish) in Leuven, it took the barmaid longer to locate the glass than the beer. It was here that I found my favorite, and I’m fortunate that it imported in America. St. Bernardus Abt 12 is wonderful. So today, if you ask me which is best, I might still say “whichever you like”, but it’s possible I’ll say “You’ll like St. Bernardus Abt 12”.