KNOW THY BEER.

[This article was also re-published on the Small Screen NetworkOriginal article published on beerphilosopher.com in May of 2006]

The ancient Greek maxim “know thyself,” most often ascribed to Socrates, is one of the most foundational concepts in western philosophy. As a modern beer philosopher, I say “know thy beer” is one of the most foundational concepts in the enjoyment of a good brew! It’s my contention that a little basic knowledge about what you’re drinking and how it came to be will go a long way toward making your beer-drinking experience all the more pleasurable. Beer, like wine, spirits or a good cocktail, should be a sensory experience, first and foremost. But it should also be approached with some sense of respect and admiration for the craftsmanship that went into its creation.

Beer drinking really ought to be something more than a mindless exercise in slamming down as much watery pale yellow liquid as humanly possible in the shortest amount of time, only to be followed up by the obligatory can crunch against the forehead. This scene may well be the cliché approach to beer made famous by the blurry college days we all (okay, most of us) know and love, but beer deserves more respect than that. You’ve grown up, I hope, and so has your beer.

Now that you’re all grown up, may I suggest doing a little bit of fact finding about the beer or beers you enjoy? Find out where your beer of choice is brewed, and how long they’ve been around, for example. If you live nearby a brewery, take a brewery tour. If this little field trip piques your interest, ask the tour guide a few questions about how the beer is made and what ingredients are used in each of their beers. You might also look up some reviews or tasting notes others have left about your favorite beers online. There are plenty of online resources you can avail yourself of with a simple search engine inquiry – you’d be amazed. Finally, you might consider joining a dedicated online community of like-minded beer fans, like The Aleuminati, to share and compare your thoughts and notes with others who dig good beer just like you do. A place like this is also a great place to ask questions of more experienced beer geeks who love to help others embark on their own journey into beer enlightenment. Bottom line, the more you know about the beer you enjoy, the more you’ll enjoy the beer.

How very Epicurean, huh?

You might be saying to yourself at this point that this all sounds like a lot of work. After all, we’re only talking about beer here! If that’s the case, let me share something I recently heard Jim Koch, the co-founder of Samuel Adams, say that I thought was brilliant. I’m paraphrasing here, but Jim basically said “if all we know about beer, we know from [insert any ubiquitous mass-produced American lager here] it’s as if all we know about food we know from McDonalds.” I just love that … even if I didn’t get the quote just right. Jim wasn’t slamming the big brewers like Bud, Miller or Coors and he wasn’t slamming McDonalds. Rather, his point was that when we limit our experience to one particular beer, or beer style, then we severely limit our over all experience. There are hundreds upon hundreds of world class craft beers out there just waiting to impress the unsuspecting light lager drinker!

Let me sum it all up for you this way. For me, good beer is not a means to an end (i.e., to achieve an alcohol-induced, can-smashing state of temporary idiocy), but an end in itself. Believe it or not, beer can and should be enjoyed for its own sake, more than for its inebriating effects. The nuanced aromas and flavors of the many and varied beer styles of the world can take you on a sensory journey that doesn’t require any alcoholic inducement at all. Having said that, though, I am certainly not discounting the fact that a legitimate part of the enjoyment of beer is the subtle, warm feeling of well-being that the relatively low alcohol content in most beers offers the conscientious imbiber. Enjoyed responsibly, beer can be a vastly complex, and imminently simple, experience all at the same time.

The tagline for my blog sums up my view of beer – “Drink Wisely.” This means significantly more to me than the popular “Don’t Drink and Drive” slogan. Obviously, I’m a big proponent of moderate alcohol enjoyment, but the idea of drinking wisely implies drinking beer (or wine, spirits, etc.) of high quality and distinction as well. That’s a tall order if you don’t know much or anything about the beer you commonly drink or if you never venture outside the safe confines of your favorite brand. Discover better beer using some of the suggestions above, or chart your own path. Whatever you do, and however you do it, you’ll be making ‘ol Socrates proud … oh, and the beer philosopher too!

3 comments on “KNOW THY BEER.
  1. Luca says:

    Great article Shwan, I totally agree with you. I’m actually walking this road myself with lots of research, testing and annoying the local brewer with frequent visits 🙂
    I think that beer is still considered, by the majority of the poeple, only an alchoolic surrogate of some “better” beverae like wine, or just a thirst-killer beverage other than water or lemonade ( at least here in Italy ). It’s also true that only few GOOD beers are really an affordable choice, because you often have to spend at least 6 or 7 €/L to drink some serious product and there aren’t lot of people ready to do that.
    I took the permission ti link your article, hope you don’t mind 🙂

  2. Thank you, Luka. You’re right – it will have be people like us who disavow others of the misconception that beer is somehow a lesser beverage. Beer, as we know, enjoyes a long and proud tradition in both of our countries and the world! Thank you for the kind comments and for the link as well … I don’t mind at all.

    Cheers!

    Shawn

  3. Anonymous says:

    The admonition “Know thyself” is certainly direction toward wisdom. It may well be that we are who we are when we are born, but what we are is an agregate of our experiences down through the years.
    I love beer. I have loved the brew since I was a boy. I’ll be fifty eight this summer, and I’ve got many pleasant memories, and beer or ale are involved in a great many of them.
    Sensibilities were quite different when I was a boy. Evryone smoked and drank alcohol, and the exception proved the rule. It was not unusual for a kid to get a drink of beer or wine, and I sure got my share.
    One of my favorite memories is of several glasses of ale I was given at the dinner table when I was ten or eleven.
    My Dad had a cleaning service, and one of his customers was an elderly lady who’s husband had recently passed away. In her basement He found two cases of Ballentine Ale xxx in thick green quart bottles with the church key caps with real cork liner seals. The labels were all punky with dry rot, and the cardboard case boxes with the egg crate cardboard deviders between the bottles were falling to pieces. Dad brought these home rather than taking them to the dump,(go figure) and kept one in the fridge for dinner each night.
    I remember seeing a layer of sediment in the bottom of the bottle when he opened the first one,and carefully poured us each a glass.
    Even tho my palette was uneducated,and uncorrupted I might add, I remember the taste of my first sip of that sublime brew as being nothing less than ambrosia. Chilled,golden ambrosia.
    My name is Eric, and I hope you enjoy this memory. Ninkasi bless you…

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