Judging the Language of Beer
“Every statement is subjective, partial, full of biases and secret messages,” writes Ryan Bloom last week in his New Yorker column, “Inescapably, You’re Judged By Your Language.” As an example, he takes the statement, “For whom are you writing?” and argues that the “ostentatious” syntax of the secret message says, “‘I am one of you.’ It also says even sneakier things like ‘I’m educated, an authority,’ and ‘You can trust me about language usage.’”
Imagine a guy beside you at the bar commenting, “The Brett in this Green Flash Rayon Vert truly gives the beer a horse blanket funk that has a bread-like character with a slight tartness.” The guy knows what he’s talking about, and he’s wants you to know that he knows what he’s talking about. Bloom writes that you’ll recognize the effort the statement exerts to maintain correctness with respect to vocabulary and syntax, “and in recognizing this, the reader bonds with the writer,” or in this case, you bond with the guy beside you at the bar.
But what if you went into your local sports bar with your buddies to watch a game, ordered that same beer and made that same comment. Using his own example, Bloom notes that “[t]he wording would not be likely to win me many pals at the pub.” “Do you mean that’s one of those sour beers?” you might get in a puzzled response. “It’s not a matter of which sentence is ‘correct’…so much as which sentence is correct for the given situation,” writes Bloom. So should we dumb down our beer talk when we are with our adjunct lager-loving lads?
No, argues Bloom, “because that’s the way the people in power communicate…and in order to best get the attention of those in power, to begin to effect change, we must be able to use their dialect. We must know their rules.”
Similarly, if we want to effect change in the beer community, whether it be artistic, qualitative, economic or educational, we must use the diction. Randy Mosher writes that “[o]ne important milestone is when you knuckle down and learn the vocabulary of beer flavor and styles. This helps with everything: quality control, recipe formulation and your odds of taking home a big ugly trophy in a homebrew competition.” In describing the “Science, Culture and Commercialism of Beer Flavor,” Julie Johnson notes that “unlike other species, we can…convey both how pleasant or unpleasant we find these [beer] experiences and why through the use of language.”
The language, of course, must accurately and effectively communicate the sensory-based feelings of those beer experiences, no matter how “ugly, elitist, and unfair” the vocabulary, syntax and construction may sound (though Gordon Strong writes that “[n]o one could describe beer so elegantly and eloquently as the late Bard of Beer,” Michael Jackson).
A perfect situation to effect change, primarily educational, occurred this past week at the Sierra Nevada/Russian River BRUX collaboration preview at The Thirsty Monk in Asheville, NC, during its inaugural beer week. Bottled conditioned with Brettanomyces Bruxellensis and no bacterial strains, the beer had a slightly funky profile that finished sweet and mildly tart. As soon as beer geeks heard or saw, “Brett,” however, visions of SOUR danced in their heads and filled the discussions in the crowded downstairs bar, when in fact, Bill Manley with Sierra Nevada has stated that the beer is “definitely NOT sour.”
These beer lovers likely know the difference between something that tastes sour and something that tastes tart, but a common misconception about a particular yeast strain resulted in a miscommunication due to language. So do we use what Bloom calls “the dialect of power [beer],” or do we “pretend that linguistic anarchy will set you free?” As long as I don’t get a nonic, errr…pint glass thrown at me, I vote for advancing The Art of Beer.