Beer is a highly contextual beverage. Our taste impressions and flavour memories can be strongly influenced by whatever else was happening when we drank a particular beer.
This phenomena first really came to my attention when, as an aspiring beer neophyte, I was tasked with handing out samples of “Beers from the Pacific” at a small beer festival. One of those beers was Fiji Bitter (seen in its proper context on the right). Having tasted this rather sugary yet somehow metallic brew at a couple of student parties, I thought it would be tough work to even give the stuff away. I was wrong. There was a queue.
Not just a queue but a queue adamant that Fiji Bitter was, in fact, the very best beer in the entire world. I poured tasting glasses as quickly as I could and watched, without exception, their expectant faces fall as soon as the insipid liquid passed their trembling lips.
“This doesn’t taste nearly as good as the stuff in Fiji.”
“This is not the same beer.”
“This is truly awful.”
The thing is, it was exactly the same (awful) beer but they were also quite right that it tasted much better in Fiji. Why precisely that was the case quickly became clear when I enquired about how they drank the beer in Fiji. Essentially, they all drank ice-cold Fiji Bitter in the hot sun, by the pool, relaxing on holiday while being waited on by someone young, attractive and largely naked.
In contrast, the Fiji Bitter they had in Wellington was served cool-ish, the rain was lashing against the spartan meeting room’s windows, it had been a busy working week and the beer was being served by a husky chap in a Hawaiian shirt. It is all about context.
Confirmation of my contextual theory was recently provided by Jeremy Clarkson, the tight-trousered bane of environmentalists, hybrid car enthusiasts and assorted beardies. In his customary meandering introduction to a car review, (Sir) Jeremy Clarkson took the time to reflect on beer:
“In 1984, I spent some time wandering around China, where, so far as I could tell, it was always 48 degrees and raining. This made me very thirsty so I spent most days drinking gallons of the local brew, which is called Tsingtao. It was delicious. I loved it. And then I tried some when I got home and I decided that it was exactly the same as drinking watered down mouse pee.”
Same beer, different context - though I would have to say that Tsingtao (pronounced Ching-Dao) can be a refreshing accompaniment to spicy Chinese food. Care must be taken with the pronunciation however otherwise you can end up with Singha (an inferior lager) or, if you really mangle it, Lindauer (an inferior type of bubbles). This last theorem was recently proved by my best friend, much to his mortification and to our collective merriment.
And now, in the context of Wellington drinking or for drinkers further afield and eager to add to their list of “must-try” beers, a list of the fresh range of Octoberbest beers are awaiting their opportunity to shine in the convivial drinking context of the Malthouse. In no particular order, these include:
Mussel Inn Captain Cooker – a true Kiwi classic, this is a distinctively spicy and fresh brew from Golden Bay. The beer itself is a pleasing rich amber colour and has a complex fruity, flowery and spicy body before a perfumey Turkish Delight finish.
Epic Lager – it may be the Impish brewer’s least hoppy offering but this fruity yet crisp lager is wonderfully balanced. According to his website, making great beer takes “a prodigious amount of toil and love.” Bless his impish little socks.
Harrington’s Rogue Hop – one of the surprise package beers of 2008 for me. It is a grassy, floral, fresh pilsner with just a hint of nettle.
Harrington’s Pig and Whistle – one of the surprise hits of the 2009 Brew NZ Beer Awards. This trophy-winning brew won best European style ale.
Three Boys Golden Ale – this ale is tasting the best I’ve ever had it. Another rather quenching offering from the marvellous Dr Ralph Bungard.
Golden Ticket Exchange Student – this is a beer I’m really looking forward to sampling. The debut offering from Golden Ticket Brewing is described as “a late hopped pale ale with a hoppy aroma, moderate bitterness and nice malt balance. Generously hopped with New Zealand and American varieties for a full-on flavour hit, it’s just the ticket to prepare you for summer.”
In the right context, a pretty poor beer can taste, at least briefly, pretty good. However, a far better long-term strategy is to drink already excellent beers in the context of a beer haven like the Malthouse.