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Saturday, July 2, 2011

The metaphysics of enjoying craft beer

By Weston Eaton

A version of this post is scheduled to appear in the July, 2011 issue of Recoil Magazine.

People who know me say that I suffer from a bit of tunnel vision. I get an ideal in my mind and then expect the world to match my desire. Beer, food, and the wilds of Michigan make up much of my world, so often I’m in luck. Covered in black flies a few weeks ago along the Sturgeon River, I was struck with both the ubiquitousness as well as the fault of this not-so-unique personality trait. The day was hot, the trails were wet (when there were trails), the river was high and, unlike the insects, the fish were not biting - for me at least. (My dad of course did quite well for himself, staying much nearer to the truck and doing more fishing than cedar swamp roaming.) Cutting my frustration however was the sudden insight that while my own personal mental expectation for the day was not being met, in reality, the day was absolutely glorious.

Here’s the story: Whenever I plan a trip north to camp, fish, enjoy beers and to cook meals exclusively in cast-iron Dutch Ovens over low coal beds, I spend weeks thinking about where it is I want to be. I seldom pick the same spot twice. Not that where I had been previously lacked luster; rather, I’m usually thinking there’s someplace even better that I might miss - summer is short, especially in Michigan! Admittedly I have the ‘grass is always greener’ syndrome. Such high expectations, of course, cannot always be met. So while in my mind I had on this particular trip pictured the perfect campsite, an early sunrise, enticing cool banks, deep holes, dark tea-colored water, long gravel runs, and Brook Trout, the reality of waking well after sun-up, getting lost in a bramble, sloshing through uncharted wetlands, fishing in clear water with a sandy bottom and making longer hikes than casts deflated my spirits. My point of course is that my mind was not focused on what I was doing, but instead on what I thought I should be doing, a major no-no for one learning to enjoy himself.

Cast iron: the ideal way to cook

Years ago I learned a similar lesson with beer. As enthusiasts know, beer is as much a mental state as it is physical. In fact, where you drink a beer, who you are with, and what you are doing are important components of your personal beer experience. Then, of course, there’s the beer. Yes, many ‘factual’ and ‘physical’ components are required too for great beer. The brewing, fermenting, packaging, distributing, retailing, home care, decanting and glass tipping are all important, as are the ingredients. This we know. But my point here is to call attention what some call the ‘conjoint-constitution‘ of what we take as ‘reality’. For beer, the social desires of beer appreciators - the ranks of acceptability for accuracy of style as well as appropriate hoppiness of IPAs or mellowness of English Milds for dilettantes, judges, and enthusiasts alike - are determined not only by the skill of the brewer but by the mindset of the consumer at the moment of imbibing. In turn, what the brewer tries hard to create in physical form is itself the product of nonmaterial aspirations, while the tenuous fantasies of the most hooked beer geeks are embedded and fulfilled only in solid form - or in this case liquid. Essentially then we are creating not only what it is we want to be drinking but what we in fact are drinking, irrespective of whether or not we actually brew beer.

To put this idea into practice, realize that the standard you hold for a beer before you drink it has at least two effects on your qualitative, subjective experience. One: Beers that do not match with your preconceived expectations will be judged in comparison first and foremost to what it is you expected. This happens all the time with lots of things. Ever hear somebody say “this isn’t what I expected?” Two: Beers that are supposed to be good can mistakenly be taken as just that, when in ‘reality’ - think conjoint constitution here - the beer is poor (the lines need to be cleaned, the bottle sat in the sun, the beer is contaminated, and so on).

I therefore propose embracing an alternative approach to beer - and to life. Throw down your ideals, or at least learn how to put them on hold. Ask yourself, when did I settle on this perspective in the first place? When I sulked over my empty creel and apparently fruitless day along the muddy river banks, I was upset not at what I experienced, but at what I thought I should have been experiencing. Same with beer. Recently I ordered an unfamiliar IPA while out of state. As I quaffed I caught myself revving up for the taste of Two Hearted. After all, that’s really what I wanted - my ideal in physical form. What I got was nowhere close. Where Bell’s IPA smells sweet, round, citrusy, and two dimensional, this beer was malt, sharp, herbal and less homogenous. Better, however, than ‘what I wanted’ was what I got, something exceeding my own sensory system’s conjoint-constitution, something beyond my immediate recognition. By letting go of my own pretext, I was able to do something essentially new and embrace it with a blank mind. Doing so allowed me, eventually, to see that particular pint, my spring fishing trip, and possibly other things as well as if for the first time.

Former Siciliano's staffer Weston Eaton is currently pursuing a PhD in Sociology at Michigan State University. He lives with his wife and dog in Grand Rapids, MI, where, at least in theory, the fish are always biting.

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