In George Wigney’s 1838 An Elementary Dictionary, or Cyclopedia… this trenchant statement is made:
Superior quality as applied to beer, is an arbitrary and capricious designation, inasmuch as there is no definite standard of perfection of universal assent, and what one person calls superior, another will call inferior, and it therefore becomes a necessary part of a brewer’s study, to ascertain the peculiar flavor, condition, and age that will best suit the majority of his customers, and others whom he wishes to obtain as customers; and the term superior may be applied to such beer as pleases them the most.
This takes a firm stand on the old question of whether taste is relative. Some think the question is settled by the dictum, de gustibus non est disputandum – there is no disputing taste, hence each consumer’s opinion is supreme.
Yet, as others have pointed out, the phrase is ambiguous, and can be read two ways: everyone’s taste cannot be judged, or there is one overarching standard that applies.
So which is it? Years of study and tasting, not to mention business experience in my former career as lawyer, suggest to me Wigney had it right. Of course his logic can apply to wine or any comestible.
When you taste over such a long period, you see that fashions change, and not only change, but sometimes are turned on their heads. No mantra seemed firmer than that beer must be clear, no “pond matter”, as a 1970s London travel guide wittily put it.
Today, cloudy and opaque beer are hip. Sour beer was anathema for generations outside a tiny specialty group known in Belgium, but now many types of sour beer top the beer critical hit parade.
I had a Labatt’s Ice in Canada recently, which brought to mind old times drinking beer at sports events, and taverns of a type that no longer exist. It seemed fine then. Craft beer styles later stole my affections, and while they are my go-to today, I have learned to see they are not the last word on beer propriety.
Indeed there are many latent connections between modern craft beer and old-time beer – basic ingredients, production processes extending to packaging and shipment, sanitation and product stability, on it goes. (The relative dryness of all modern beer too, as I often point out).
Hip is always square, to a degree.
From a business standpoint also, vs. just consumer appreciation, beer types must be viewed, at least by many brewers, as fungible, to use a term from economics. Wigney focused on that too. Brewers do not always have the luxury of making beers that reflect just their personal taste.
They often must satisfy the market to grow and effloresce. Of course they both influence, and need to reflect, the market. That is a complex process no one can fully understand, but inevitably must adapt to.
A phenomenon like craft beer, itself in constant evolution, is not the final arbiter of beer taste. Indeed beer itself, any kind, is not the final arbiter of public taste in the sense that a market for beer cannot always be taken for granted.
In recent years there is an increased appeal – none of it is really new – of ready-to-drink cocktails, hard sodas, non-alcohol beer, and cider.* This shows that traditional beer itself, taking in therefore the most exotic craft to the usual light beers – may be at risk.
Beer emerged from specific historical and cultural contexts. It is unlikely ever to disappear, but just as full-sugar sodas may ultimately wither, perhaps beer as we know it – any category – will wither too, with other options supplanting.
Within the craft beer world, standards apply that I both accede and give voice to regularly, in my purchase preferences and taste reports. This is behavior formed over four decades, and I’m glad of it, of what I have learned and the tastes I indulge.
But once in a while it is good to be reminded of the broader context. Drinking a Labatt Ice recently brought that home.
*Also of course hard seltzers.