I have this theory.
Okay. Let me pause for a second and say that this is a phrase that usually comes out of my mouth after a good deal of beer, and generally ends with me pontificating about the reproductive habits of Smurfs (It's mitosis, I tell you! Smurfette is a mutant.) But this time I'm dead serious.
I've come up with this theory because I'm tired of being sniped at by people who don't like beer, particularly people who favor wine to beer and consider beer a lowly drink, not fit to pass by a snifter on its way to a flute.
My theory is this: Beer is too complex for many wine drinkers to understand.
I am so going to get flamed for that.
First, let me say this: That I consider there to be two major types of beer, like there are two major types of wine. There are beer and wine for the people who are out to get craptacularly drunk, and then there are beer and wine for the people who are out to enjoy it. It's the latter that I speak of. Because whoever is drinking Strawberry Daiquiri flavored Boone Farm or riding the Night Train and saying that beer is the drink of the lower classes needs to climb out of the gutter they're sleeping in and take a good look around.
Now, let's speak of wine. I, myself, am only slightly educated to wine (and this might even prove my point). I don't have as much experience with it. I understand that there are many varieties, made from many different types of grapes, from many different wine growing regions in the world, and they all have their own flavors and aromas and whatnot.
However, fact is this: when you open a bottle of wine, you pretty much know what you're getting. A merlot from California is going to taste roughly equivalent to a merlot from France. Are they vastly different? Sure. Absolutely. In the way that my right hand is vastly different from yours. They function the same way, have all the same basic features, and vary only in the exact details.
And the same can be said across styles of wine. You read the label for a Pinot Gris that says it's got notes of melon and pear, and you know exactly what you're in for: A Pinot Gris with notes of melon and pear.
Beer does not afford this luxury.
First and foremost is the variation in each style. Looking at a shelf full of microbrewed pale ales, with no knowledge of the actual products, is pretty much a crapshoot in flavor. Some are malty, some are hoppy, some have strong citrusy finishes, some piney, and the fact is that two different beers within the same style can taste so vastly different that it's hard to imagine they're the same thing.
The reason for this are the ingredients involved. An Oregon-style Pinot Gris varies from an Alsace-style Pinot Gris in many ways -- the subtle flavors that fill out the wine are products of the growing conditions, the fermentation conditions, and even the yeast used to create the wine. But at the end of the day, it's all still made from the same type of grape, and only that type of grape and because of that you're going to get the same basic base with variations on top of it.
The variation of ingredients of a pale ale are practically endless. 2-row pale malt, as a base-grain, is different from 6-row pale malt. The crystal malts can be roasted to different caramelly flavors and colors, from 10 degrees Lovibond to well over 300 degrees (black). Other adjunct grains -- oats, rye, wheat, sorghum, corn, rice, or even more exotic ones -- might be included in different quantities to add additional flavors. And hops! The main flavor component of beer! There are more than 40 different varieties of hops and they all have their own entirely different flavors, even depending on when they're added during the brewing process. Then, add them in combinations together and you get even different flavors after that.
What am I saying? Beer is entirely lacking in intra-style consistency. What you expect from a beer style is a much more of a range, maybe even a guideline, than what you'd expect from a wine style. It can be hard to wrap your head around, and while that kind of radical difference is the thing that makes the beer geek in me go all woogy at the knees, I can see how that same inconsistency would drive somebody nuts if they didn't know what they were getting into, most especially if they're coming from a beverage experience based on clear cut expectations and a certain amount of predictability.
And look, I'm not saying that wine people are stupid, or uneducated, or even wrong about their choice of beverage. Some people want that level of consistency, some people need to watch movies with Paul Giamatti before forming opinions on things, and some people don't like the taste of hops.
It's possible, too, that my theory is indicative of my overall ignorance of wine, and that my feelings about wine are exactly the same as their feelings about beer -- that the other side just doesn't get it.
In which case, we're both right.
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8.21.06 @ 12:43a
..." while that kind of radical difference is the thing that makes the beer geek in me go all woogy at the knees..."
Heh. This and the lovely flame-haired maiden Sarah bring the big man down.
I don't consider myself to be any kind of liquor person. I just drink what I like. I'm probably missing a slice of passion because of this, but I hope to find that elsewhere.
8.21.06 @ 4:45a
I've never been too drawn to wine, and cannot differentiate between an Australian red, Chilean red, or a bottle of Coppola Bordeaux (which my cousins swear by). The thing I know most with wine is that when you and two girlfriends split a bottle on a semi-empty stomach, you end up giggling so much at the restaurant that you don't care if people stare.
Regarding beer, I used to think there was no refinement whatsoever with it- until I had Lindemann's Lambic beer. Boy, broad generalizations taste really good garnished with lemon.
And FYI, the Framboise (raspberry) is HEAVEN.
8.21.06 @ 9:18a
I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' wine and beer, but I know what I like, and it's usually a single malt Scotch. Since I'm not supposed to drink anything anymore and I'm the cheapest drunk in the known universe, it's kinda moot these days. Friday night my daughter opened a new bottle of wine she wanted to try and I got giggly drunk on just a taste of it. And, furthermore, there's still no accounting for taste.
If you got a laugh out of "Sideways" as it poked fun at the wine afficionadas, you oughta hear the words my stepson uses in describing the local microbrews.
8.21.06 @ 3:43p
I think both beer and wine are insanely complex, and I recognize that I don't have a thorough knowledge of either. But I can tell you there's Shiraz that tastes fruity and gorgeous and huge and drinkable, and there's Shiraz that tastes like the grape juice we Methodists serve at Communion. Gack.
No, you're not going to stumble across a Pinot Gris that tastes like a pine forest, but one might taste more like apples, one more like melon, one more like grass. Depending on how much you like apples/melon/grass, these might just be minor differences, like you're implying, Erik, or they might be much more.
I love wheat beer but I can't stand the ones that taste like bananas.
I still think people would serve beer more often at dinner parties if it came in larger bottles.
8.21.06 @ 3:51p
The kind of knowledge Erik displays in this column is exactly the kind of thing I write about wanting in my expert column. Sonofa!
8.21.06 @ 4:20p
I feel like this column could spark a good debate between Erik and an experienced wine taster.
Since I'm not an experienced wine taster, I'll just say that I've had two different kinds of chardonnays (can't remember the brands) and they did taste different. How different? I'm not sure. Perhaps a taste-test is in order.
8.21.06 @ 4:28p
Yeah. I'm absolutely certain that two chardonnays would taste different.
Wines taste different from each other. If they all tasted the same, there wouldn't be 12,000 bottles in the wine section at the store.
What I'm theorizing is that within a style beer tastes more significantly different from one brand to another than wine does.
Hey, look. I just summed up my article in like 25 words. Crazy.
8.21.06 @ 4:34p
Since Heather moved in, I've had a TON of wine. I know what I like, for the most part (all of it, for the most part), but I can't really describe it. My palate is not so refined.
8.21.06 @ 4:41p
"I get... grape."
8.21.06 @ 5:58p
But I'm not sure you can argue "within a style" similarities/differences between wine and beer, because they don't mean the same thing. "Lager" isn't comparable to "pinot grigio." It's just a whole different system of classification. How many types of beer are there? 20? 50? I have no idea, but my impression is that the number is small compared to the number of wines, even without getting into blends.
I do agree with you that within "pale ale" or "lager" or "stout" there is near-infinite variation. I'm just disagreeing with the idea that "when you open a bottle of wine, you pretty much know what you're getting."
8.21.06 @ 11:20p
Well, according to the official guidelines used for judging there are 23 different styles of beer, with 2 or 3 subcategories in each style (Oatmeal Stout vs. Dry Stout vs. Imperial Stout).
According to Wikipedia (because I don't have a better source - yet) there are 11 styles of red (Beaujolais, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chianti, Grenache, Malbec, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Rioja, Syrah/Shiraz, Tempranillo, Zinfandel) and 8 styles of white (Chablis, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Liebfraumilch, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier).
(That's not taking sparkling or fortified wines into account because I feel like those are different drinks. Maybe I'm wrong, but vermouth and sherry seem like entirely different animals than other wines to me.)
But you really think that the variety available in wine is so unpredictable that when you get the house Cabernet you have no idea what's going to come to you in that glass? I think the very fact that there are house wines that people can order blindly kinda proves my point.
Blends are a good point - they can lend a much larger array of flavors to wines. I've been under the impression that hardcore wine people pooh-pooh blends, though, no?
8.22.06 @ 11:25a
I definitely wouldn't take fortified wines into account, but Champagne/Prosecco/Cava is a legitimate category, I think. Not to mention the whole rose thing.
Off the top of my head, I can think of 5 red or white wines that aren't on that Wikipedia list -- Pinot Grigio, Fume Blanc, Sangiovese, Burgundy, Bordeaux -- but I wouldn't be surprised if there's some nuance between style and grape that I'm missing.
Anyway, back to your point: yes, in general you will have a sense of what you're getting. I know Chianti will always make my mouth feel dry. But I don't think it's possible for most people to taste three wines and identify whether all three are Cabs or one is a Cab and two are Merlot.
I'm not sure how hard-core wine people feel about blends. I know lots of Scotch drinkers think blends are naturally inferior to single malts, but I've had a lot of wines that were Cab-Merlot or Shiraz-Cab or Sangiovese-Pinot Noir-Zinfandel that were very tasty.
8.22.06 @ 11:43a
I totally agree with you re: blends. But maybe we're more sophisticated than you're average drinker. ;)
Just FYI, because I find this type of research fun:
Pinot Grigio is Pinot Gris in Italy.
Bordeaux and Burgundy are regions that make many different styles of wine both red and white, rather than styles in and of themselves.
Fume blanc is a synonnym for sauvignon blanc.
Sangiovese is a component of Chianti(!), which originally was made with 100% sangiovese grapes, but now includes 5% - 10% white wine grapes as well.
That's pretty cool.
But I don't think it's possible for most people to taste three wines and identify whether all three are Cabs or one is a Cab and two are Merlot.
Okay. Agreed. But to go along with that, I'd theorize that maybe there's a certain safety in that, that I don't think is necessarily present in microbrews (though is most definitely there in American Macrobrews).
Mind you - this is all a working theory for me. I'm perfectly willing to accept that I might be totally wrong about some or all of it.
8.22.06 @ 6:47p
I am attempting to become a pocket expert on Porters, just one style of beer. Within the Porter family I've learned that there are three sub-categories: Brown, Robust, and Baltic. Within those three categories there are many many different producers. If I took a row of ten brown porters and had some from each of them, well...I would be having a great night, there would be distinct differences between each of them. But, before hand, just looking at the ten bottles - unless I had had that particular bottle in the past, I would not be able to tell you what each one was going to be like.
Lately I have been drinking a lot of Spanish wine - especially those made with 100% granache. They are all quite close to each other, they have their differences, but I would say that the spread is much narrower than with a selection of a sub-category from one style of beer.
Oh, and even those of us that do not really like hops understand their necessity. I need the hops, but I crave balance or a little bit of overpowering on the part of the malt.
Nice write up, erik.