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Monday, June 25, 2012

Tasting with multiple bodies

When it comes to tasting craft beer, context is king.

By Weston Easton, Professor-in-Training

In this short tale, I’d like to explore the way one thinker has changed the way I experience taste on an everyday basis. In a yet-unpublished book chapter, Annamarie Mol writes about taste as being a lynchpin between the physical world of nature and the intangible world of human society. She roots this suggestion in the physical act of tasting, which, she argues, is a bodily act as much as it is a human social and psychological experience. Moreover, Mol uses this act of tasting to make an argument about the body: the idea that the body is multiple. 

Here’s how this works. The argument is actually quite simple. Yes, our bodies are whole things. But if we trace the way we taste (keeping in mind the definition above) from one situation to the next, this changes. The body becomes multiple as it too varies situation to situation. Her example is that we mobilize taste differently in different contexts. She gives the cases of tasting for poison, as undertaken by tasters screening the dishes of ancient emperors, of tasting to acquire specialized knowledge about food and drink, or tasting to eat less food, or to eat enough. So then our bodies, as represented here by taste, change in different contexts and situations.

I think this idea is interesting and useful for people who think deeply about the food they eat and the beer they drink. Or better yet, for recognizing that people who do think deeply about things such as craft beer probably do not always taste in the same way in every context. Let me give an example. Think about some of your favorite beers. Do they always taste the same? My bet is that you, like, me, experience variability from beer to beer, even if its the same brand or label. When the taste is different, do you ever wonder whether this is do to a chemical difference as much as a difference in place, company, or mood? These questions deal with expectations.

Another set of questions might get at intentions. Do we always drink or eat for the same reasons? I think this is especially important for craft beer drinkers. Our kind are known for seeking out new tastes and getting excited about new horizons. But we’re also known for being painstakingly nuanced and distinguishing tasters. When we are tasting a craft beer, we are deliberate in our intentions: we evaluate the beer based on a certain set of standards or criteria. The point here is to recognize that in craft beer culture, taste has been mobilized as a highly specified (think style), codified (IBU’s), and standardized (see practice, the aim of which is to objectify taste—an act Mol shows to be a highly subjective and contextual thing. At the same time, taste (in beer) has also been transformed into a symbol of who we are as people, what our food values and ethics are.

Why point this out? For one, I think its important to recognize that the way we interact with craft beer is a specific thing. We do not mobilize taste the same with craft beer as we do, say, with water. We use personal discretion, but this discretion is not entirely of our own devising. Moreover, in different contexts, we taste differently. As others have recently pointed out, even craft brewers themselves do not always drink craft beer. PBR, for instance, is popular with West Michigan brewers as a “good corn beer.”

A brewer is an especially good example of the way taste operates differently in different contexts and of how the body is multiple. Brewers' professional identities depend on creating distinguishable tastes consistently, yet they themselves drink outside of their own brand’s portfolio. Tasting sweet wort, a brewer uses all her skills to adjudicate and determine if the specimen meets established standards. Yet out in the tap room, he/she may drink a pint for either “quality control” or for simple relaxation. These shifts are bodily shifts. Using the example of a latte or other coffee drink, Mol points out that treats like these provide our bodies “a break from working” where instead of trying to “master the world” we can “just live” and “be appreciative.” The latter could certainly involve corn beer.

So, for me at least, thinking about Mol’s point—that we mobilize taste differently in different contexts, and that our bodies are therefore multiple and contextually located—has led to a new personal mantra: be aware of the different ways I mobilize taste. I like to think of this as a first step. A successive step is to reflect back on how the way I (consciously or unconsciously) mobilize taste steers my preferences and intentions and therefore my body/mind’s experience of taste. Said differently, we get what we’re looking for with taste, and are therefore capable of fooling ourselves even before we do any actually tasting.

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