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?