ben edmunds

New Brew Odyssey: What the Non Beer Geek from Out of Town Said

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A few weeks ago, I was contacted by the folks from Travel Portland, and they asked me to lead a brief, one hour tasting for some visiting travel writers. They were bringing these writers to town in the hope that they would write a story on Portland’s “liquid assets.” They were going to Stumptown, Cacao, Clear Creek, House Spirits, and Beaker and Flask as well. My one hour with them was a minor part in their Portland adventure, so I figured I would do my best to impress them with some of the city’s best beers.
I was asked to do a flight of beers from Portland breweries, so I chose six, well-respected beers that highlight the full range of the city’s offerings: Upright Brewing’s Gose, Hopworks IPA, Laurelwood’s Portland Roast Espresso Stout, Cascade Apricot Ale, Hair of the Dog Adam, and Full Sail Top Sail. This lineup was a surefire victory for Portland, right? The range of flavors, complexity, and characterfulness in this set of beers would win over even the biggest of beer skeptics. Even if these folks didn’t love beer themselves, they would have to walk away impressed with the beers our brewers are producing…
I couldn’t have misread my audience more. While these folks appreciated the unique flavors—their favorite word to describe the beers was “curious”—they were quick to say that they didn’t really enjoy any of the beers. They found the gose slightly skunky (which it was not). “A liquid sour tart,” one said of the Cascade beer. The IPA was far too herbaceous and harsh—“like a strong eucalyptus flavor,” someone said. The darker offerings, they agreed, might go well with dessert, or, in the case of Adam, a cigar. One of the writers left as soon as she had sipped the final beer. I was left with the feeling that I had chosen the wrong beers and had done the city some kind of disservice.
What had happened? Some might chalk it up to bad luck—these are clearly great beers, and these folks happened to just, well, not like them that much. But I think there is something more instructive here. This quasi-failure of a tasting challenges my belief that beer can be for everyone. That is, the belief that most people who claim to dislike beer just haven’t had the chance to try the right beers. So, given the opportunity to taste such amazing brews, the writers’ eyes ought to have been opened to the wide possibilities of beer character. They were not.
This also begs the question of what really is the appropriate or best way to introduce people—of any age—to good beer. How can you persuade them that beer really is as wonderful a beverage as we here in Portland—and at the New School in particular—believe it to be? It is part of a brewer’s drive to bring in new converts to the gospel of good beer, and I have long believed that the best way to do so is to encourage people’s curiosity about beer flavor by introducing them to more exotic, vanguard beers. I don’t know many people who’ve been won over to craft beer by blonde ales, but I have seen people’s eyes light up the first time they’ve tried a Flanders red. This tasting’s failure to impress makes me question that approach and burst my beer geek bubble. Perhaps it is better to wean people away from the familiar by starting with more accessible styles that resonate with stereotypical profiles of beer character. Maybe I should have chosen tamer beers.
Or perhaps it simply boils down to a person’s own curiosity and predisposition for (or against) beer as a drink, a possibility echoed by one of the writers, who said “these are all nice; I just dislike beer.” Some folks may argue that this kind of stubbornness isn’t worth combating and that there is actually an upshot to it—more great beer for “us”. The great lambic brewer and blender Armand De Belder half-jokingly made this point one time, saying “if someone does not like my gueuze, then that is too bad for them!”
There’s enough of a zealot in me to feel dissatisfied with this approach, which feels a little tongue-in-cheek and mildly solipsistic. I will push hard for beer evangelism, since it’s not guilty of doing anything but expanding people’s palates. Strategy-wise, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. But before then, there are still near-full bottles of all six of the beers from the tasting to finish. Anyone want to be converted?

8 Comments

  1. Ritch

    May 26, 2010 at 2:07 pm

    I found a good gateway beer for a beer rookie is an American style wheat. I got my mom and stepdad ,a miller lite drinker, started with Widmer Hef when they came out to visit. By the end of their stay, they were drinking stouts and IPA’s.

  2. Anonymous

    May 26, 2010 at 5:53 pm

    While I’m not familiar with all the beers you selected, I would characterize the ones I am as “extreme” examples of their style. I completely understand wanting to impress with the best of our best, but I think choosing solid beers which are more middle-of-the-road might impress visitors more in the end (even while they may bore local beer aficionados). Or, in your words, choose tamer beers. 🙂 Cheers.

  3. ericmsteen

    May 26, 2010 at 6:32 pm

    I took some of Portland’s best to a bunch of homebrewers that I met in Scotland. They loved the stuff, and were very curious and delighted by the overhopped beers and CDA’s but I too have found that dropping a heavy beer or hop bomb on the table is not good.

    My dad, who never really liked beer, was very impressed by Laurelwood’s Free Range Red but only after he had done a taster tray at Laurelwood. There he got to see one brewery with about 8 different beers, different in color, taste, and weight. I think in terms of beer-evangelism, this is a good strategy. It’s too bad that they did not have time to tour a number of breweries to see the different ways Portland brewers set up their systems and the different beers they each produce.

    But I think you’re observation regarding the challenging of your belief that everyone can enjoy the right beer is a good observation. I think everyone can experience moments of utopia, bliss, or whathaveyou but in different forms. For some, lifting weights is the be-all and end-all and they always want me to come lift weights or go running with them. I’ve tried it before and I can’t stand it. They tell me that I need to just keep doing it, that I need to break some sort of invisible barrier but I have come to the point where I just say no. I wouldn’t say that I’m being stubborn, I just don’t want to continue spending my time trying to find something that this other person has found when I’ve already found it in beer, books, or something else. The same might be true for others, just in reverse. They may not want to take the effort to understand the beer the way you have because they have already found something that gives them what they need.

  4. ericmsteen

    May 26, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    *dropping a heavy beer or hop bomb on the table (with someone who doesn’t love beer the way I do) is not good.

  5. Jason

    May 26, 2010 at 6:44 pm

    I learnt alot about converting non-beer drinkers and macro lovers when I visited the two breweries in Prosser, WA. Both brewers/owners stated that their best selling beers are “transitional beers” that are popular with the Bud loving locals. These included tame ambers and California common ales. Both breweries had more adventurous offerings for the converts but even then “exotic” seasonal offerings often undersold. I think a few of your selections were way too challenging for the group at hand.

  6. Beer coolers

    May 27, 2010 at 3:16 am

    this was a really quality post. In theory I’d like to write like this too – taking time and real effort to make a good article… but what can I say… I procrastinate a lot and never seem to get something done.

  7. Mr.Murphy

    May 27, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    The Widmer Hef for sure. The beer geeks may have passed it by but no other beer says “Portland” more to me than that classic standard.

    Beer Geek vs. beer knowledge check…What are the very best pales and ambers brewed in Portland in your opinion? Even if you don’t drink those styles you will have true knowledge of the scene if you at least know who is brewing the best pales and ambers.

    For the “average” person I would go with the Widmer HEF, a pale (not too hoppy), an amber/red, an imperial hop bomb, an imperial stout, and a sour/fruit.

    3 normal beers and 3 specialty beers.

  8. Dabudah

    May 29, 2010 at 4:33 pm

    I think one of the key points is that these were visiting travel writers. If your group was native to Beervana your selections may have been more appropriate. Sometimes we forget that our local culture is immersed in craft brewing. For a visitor without that immersion, Widmer Hef or Bridgeport Blue Heron would still seem extreme but be more accessible. Thank you for trying to share the beer love/knowledge Ben! I would rather pour a guest a beer that is too challenging than nothing.

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