Go Suck a Lemon

Miles Liebtag, June 23, 2014

There is a cultural economy of beer, and it has a specific logic. Tastes rise and fall with the tide of history, and tastes in beer are no exception. In our current moment, sour beers are lauded as among the most “complex," and there is a perceived progression toward the affinity for sour beer and away from the preference for simpler and less "nuanced" styles.

While I don’t have any data to prove it (though that’s never stopped me before), sour beers are anecdotally very much on the upswing in terms of both interest  and sales. If there were a universally recognized scale for measuring the perceived sourness or acidity of a beer that was easily apprehended by the mass of consumers, producers of sours could likely capitalize on the promotion of that number: consider the trend, now largely passed, of highlighting the IBUs of an IPA in marketing materials in order to make it seem bigger, more intense and extreme than the competition. IBUs are now usually in small type alongside ABV; as the IPA market has matured, broadened and diversified, the watchword “balance” has achieved far greater value in the craft consumer consciousness.

The sour trend (apart from the historical roots of the relevant styles, which extend back centuries) is by contrast in relative infancy in the American market, and the desire for bracingly sour, face-puckering beers is a mark of consumer distinction and consequently a small but growing niche. One imagines without too much trouble a point at which sour brewers might display prominently on packaging the pH of the beer within. 

But people don’t really understand sours in the main. Even (and especially) lovers of sour beers may be fuzzy on the difficult and arcane process that puts that expensive malt vinegar in front of them. Between Brettanomyces (yeast) pediococous, lactobacillus (bacteria), solera (blending method), foudres (oak casks), there is an entire lexicon to be learned that only gestures at the complexity of the processes they describe.

An affinity for sours confers a certain amount of distinction among beer consumers: I routinely encounter people who declare that they could drink sours from morning to night, the more sour the better, etc., etc. This is not to say that a taste for sours isn’t born of genuine enjoyment; only that a preference for sours is strongly associated with connoisseurship, especially within the industry. “Taste classifies,” Bourdieu tells us, “and it classifies the classifier.” 

I don’t care for sours. My first sour experience was at Jackie O’s Brewpub in the summer of 2007. Brad Clark has been barrel aging and producing wild and sour beers for longer than I’ve been aware of their existence, as evidenced by the tap list at the pub that day: a number of sours of his own concoction alongside Dogfish Head Festina Peche, their yearly Berliner Weisse fermented with peaches. I ordered a flight. I called it abomination. Specifics escape me (this was Ohio Brew Week, after all), but I’m sure I returned to the bar and embarrassed myself by declaring what they served me unpalatable, undrinkable and unfit for human consumption. Even the Festina. Maybe especially the Festina. 

I say “embarrassed myself” because I’ve been culturally conditioned to regard knowledge about such things as a mark of distinction—not simply of acquired knowledge, but of a nebulous worldliness. “Sour beers are an acquired taste” is as trite a canard as “sour and wild beers are the most complex beers in the world,” but at least the former suggests recognition that the flavors that comprise and accompany many sour beers (sourness, funk, rot, mustiness, abrasive acidity) are not what we would traditionally consider wholly pleasant ones. The very coinage “acquired taste” suggests that these affinities are not natural, but are produced by the culture and inculcated in the taster through a combination of her own volition and the osmosis of her cultural milieu. An “acquired taste” is a taste for an aestheticized object: art, music, architecture, food, beer. To acquire taste we must overcome our natural preferences and instead cultivate a palate.

The French social theorist Pierre Bourdieu, in his landmark 1979 study of French cultural practices and preferences, makes the case that this cultivation both demands self-denial and confers cultural capital. As we learn what is considered most complex and refined, we also learn how to articulate ourselves as social subjects through the choices we make as consumers: 

"Social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make, between the beautiful and ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar, in which their position in the objective classifications [of social origin] is expressed or betrayed. Statistical analysis does indeed show that oppositions similar in structure to those found in cultural practices also appear in eating habits... The antithesis between quantity and quality, substance and form, corresponds to the opposition . . . between the taste of necessity, which favours the most 'filling' and most economical foods, and the taste of liberty . . . which shifts the emphasis to the manner (of presenting, serving, eating, etc.) and tends to use stylized forms to deny function.” (Bourdieu, Distinction).

And from there a short jump to beer. Now, my argument is not that a preference for sour beers is an insincere affectation—one could argue that any beer that aspires to be anything other than a source of potable water privileges “form” over “substance.” Rather, Bourdieu provides us with a way to think about how we privilege certain styles over others, and how we use the rubrics of complexity to say something about our beers, while at the same time saying something about ourselves. 

There are some flavors that we are physiologically, one might say evolutionarily, predisposed to: sweet, fat, salt. Bitter and sour flavors in the natural world tend to signify something toxic, harmful, or at the least unhelpful.

One might speculate that the status of sour beers as the most complex and refined correlates to their being the furthest point on the flavor continuum away from the familiar and naturally palatable, although this is complicated somewhat by the high status of bourbon and other spirit barrel-aged beers, which tend to accentuate and develop very sweet, desert-like flavors. The American palate is predisposed to sugar; one need only reflect on the ubiquity of corn syrup in mass market processed foods to conclude what flavors move product off the shelves.

So a taste for beer is in itself a step away from our natural inclination; even a taste for American light lager must be “acquired” (not so much the taste for the increasingly popular and despicable flavored spirits that daily multiply on back bars across the country). The journey from Coca-Cola to Budweiser is obviously shorter than that to Cantillon; both geographically and figuratively, the two products (soda and beer) bespeak the differences between the workaday everyman populism of “natural” taste, and the worldly, foreign and exotic distinction of aestheticized taste. 

Still, despite the influence of enculturation, there remains an irreducible amount of idiosyncratic personal taste, perhaps bound up in our discreet physiology, perhaps in the colorless, flavorless distillate of cultural influence too perfectly blended into the melange of personal preference to be isolated and examined.

If not, I’m at a loss for how to explain my own failure to travel from Atlanta and St. Louis all the way to Anderlecht and Bruges. I have never acquired the taste for sour beers, and as the clock winds down on my 30th year on earth and my second in the beer business, it seems less and less likely that I ever will.

In the course of my professional life, I have tasted many sours, as many of the people with whom I work and whose opinions I respect are absolutely bonkers for them. I won’t bore you with the specifics of this or that beer; suffice it to say I’ve tasted many a sour and wild beer from Cantillon, Russian River, Lost Abbey, Crooked Stave, Jester King, New Belgium, Jackie O’s, etc., etc. I can apprehend the differences and, I hope, appreciate the subtleties. But it largely ends there. As a consumer, I rarely order and virtually never buy sours, nor do I crave them as it would appear many of my contemporaries do. I gravitate to what I would consider the softer and more delicate sours; these are often traditional styles inoculated with a small amount of bacteria or fermented partially with Brettanomyces.

Many of the breweries just mentioned create these soft and (yes) wonderfully complex beers, as does Jolly Pumpkin, my favorite producer of American wild ales, and Liefmanns, whose Goudenband is, by default I suppose, my favorite sour. Having a disinclination for sours in this business can make one feel like an apostate among fervid zealots, especially as one encounters consumers, retailers, wholesalers and brewers who regard these beers as the apogee of taste and are prepared to expend huge amounts of time and effort to make them and huge amounts of money to acquire them. 

In a very noisy market, sour beers are regarded as a mark of seriousness among breweries. Often have I heard someone deliver the back-handed compliment that while a particular brewery’s everyday “offerings” (please stop saying that, by the way) are not much to speak of, their barrel or sour program is “serious.” This is the compartmentalization of the market that I’ve referred to elsewhere: regular beers are for the great mass of people, while these other beers over here are for Those Who Know. “This implies,” as Bourdieu quotes Ortega y Gosset, “that some possess an organ of understanding which others have been denied; that these are two distinct varieties of the human species.” (Bourdieu, Distinction, 31).

What do we mean when we say a beer is complex? A colleague of mine recently suggested to me that we mean merely a greater quantity of flavors in one glass, and that strikes me as useful a definition as any other. But part of that complexity, perhaps the greater part, exists not in the glass, but in the very air around us, in the invisible, pervasive and inescapable ether of culture.