The Captain’s Soapbox

Like 65’000 beer enthusiasts from Britain and the rest of the World, I spent the second week in August at the Great British Beer Festival in London UK. Just like more than one thousand volunteers, I worked there, doing my bit for the cause. Unlike most of them, part of my job has been hosting corporate tastings, for the third week running.

A corporate tasting is a tasting session organised by GBBF for employees of companies who use this as an incentive. Basically, the company pays for “corporate hospitality” (no, not “corporate hostility”) that is for its deserving employees to come to GBBF, have a table reserved in a cosy salon, and then spend an hour or so at a tutored tasting. That’s where I appear. Corporate tastings are usually seen as an tough job, because the groups of guys in suits attending sometimes just wait for it to be over to go back to the bars and get pissed. The person hosting the event can then be in for a pretty hard time, for the suits can be amazingly uneducated and arrogant… that is, when they’re not drunk already!

I nevertheless like doing that particular job, because it’s a opportunity you get to spread the word about good beer, to blow misconceptions about beers to pieces, and to try and open people’s horizons. That’s just what my beer activism is about.

Of the two corporate tastings I hosted this year, one went really smoothly, with a bunch of open-minded, interested people, who enjoyed it greatly. And it was a pleasure leading them through a selection of five beers from across the world in an informal discussion.

The other tasting turned out to be one of these tastings from hell. It all began smoothly with six guys sitting at a table, then a seventh arrived slightly late, and the shit hit the fan. Think of a thirty something, good-looking, smartly dressed New Zealander, arrogant, impervious to doubt or any kind of healthy distance to his behaviour and actions… and he was jolly well pished already. From then on, I was subjected to a rolling barrage of questions about beer, alcohol etc. none of which had much to do with the five Belgian beers I was supposed to tell them about as they tasted them. Typical smart arse : basically he had nothing to say about the beers, or rather was afraid to listen to what his taste buds would tell him, and try to put words on it. So he tried to keep the danger at a safe distance by throwing a shed load of red herrings on my path. Bad idea, my training as a school teacher may be 15 years in the past, but there’s still a thing or two I know about dealing with troublesome teenagers.

First there was a phase where I tried to explain in a way they could understand. During which two of his mates joined in, and the conversation became pretty surrealistic:

You never drink lager, do you ? (Subtitle : “you’re a fucking elitist real ale drinker, you can’t understand US”)
Well, actually, I possibly drink more of it than you do…
Yes, I live in a country where lager is the dominant form of beer, where proper lager is easy to get hold of. But what you call lager, the form that is sold in pubs in the UK, is not really lager. It’s not aged for long enough for instance.

And it went on two minutes later :
If you go out in the West End, what do you order for a drink, then ?
Well, for a start, I don’t go out in the West End, you see, I’m not a London resident…
All right: if you were to go out in the West End, what would you order at a night club.
If there’s no decent beer ? Mineral water.
You’re not answering the question. You have to have a drink. Water is not a drink.
What is it then ?
It’s water.
It’s liquid, you can drink it, therefore it’s a drink.
No, it’s not. You have to have a drink.
You mean it’s not a drink if there’s no alcohol in it ?
But why can’t “a drink” be non-alcoholic to you ? What’s wrong with not drinking alcohol ?

And so on. It got pretty tense, but I was actually enjoying the discussion tremendously, trying to raise awareness about their alcohol-related behaviour. Basic education really. But in a country such as the UK, where children can’t enter most pubs, people grow up without role models, without references of responsible, moderate social use of alcohol.

First point I was reminded of then : there are many people out there who have received no basic education in the moderate use of alcohol. An to tell them about beer, you should not afraid to enter this terrain.

After 40 minutes, the drunken Kiwi was still unable to say anything about the beer :
What do you think of this beer ?
I don’t like it.
Can you at least tell me why you don’t like it ?
No, it’s just I don’t like it.
Too sweet ? too thick? too bitter ?…
No… erm, I wanted to ask you, what makes the difference between a sweet and a bitter beer, because, you know…
(Repeat the loop every other minute, with a different diversion at the end each time)

I then had to do some more basic education, ramming home a few points about his obnoxious behaviour, inability to listen for more than ten seconds or to express anything about the beer, which he didn’t want me to realise, so he kept on pulling smoke screens in front of him etc. Delivered in chosen words and in a rather even, but merciless tone. Which seemed to calm him down for the remaining twenty minutes.

This brings me to my point: the amazing inability of most people, especially men, to express what their palates feel. Yes, it is personal, yes, you could taste something different from your neighbour, yes, you’re taking a risk telling me this doppelbock reminds you of the smell of horse manure… We men are so deeply conditioned into not expressing how they feel that most of us can’t even say a word about tastes and smells. And of course, to make matters worse, most of us men aren’t ready to admit they’ve got nothing to say, that they’ve got no idea. Aren’t men famous for preferring to get lost than ask someone for their way?

Reversing the trend, giving people, especially men confidence in their ability to express what their nose and palate tell them, is possibly one of the biggest challenge beer activists (and food activists) have to take up. It’s a lot easier, when doing a tasting, to prance about dropping names, and speaking of dozens of other beers, fostering snobbery and a shallow understanding of beers, which means an idiot with a decent memory and a thick wallet can appear brilliant.

But if we beer lovers and beer activists want to make a difference when we preach to the unconverted, we have to get to the root of the problem and recognise that many people are hopefully out of their depth when they have to think about taste and smell. We have to be ready to face that – brutal – revelation, and give people the tools to build up their own independent and an articulate taste culture.

Now are we up to the challenge?


di  Laurent Mousson