Beer: Tastes awful, but Works!
Growing up, I was a bit of a quiet kid. I generally felt hostile towards most trends and fads (ie. pogs, bleached blonde-hair, and the Power Rangers; you know who you are). You could have called me a wannabe hipster who no one paid any attention to. I was also resistant to the allure and popularity of alcohol, particularly beer, both during my high school and undergraduate years. It was even to the point that I wanted to prove one could make it through those impressionable years without tasting booze and yet still survive each arena of social politics unscathed.
In the end, it was not until I graduated from the University of British Columbia ('09) that I tasted alcohol. My first tasting occurred in Ottawa, Ontario with a bottle of white wine. If I remember correctly, I was asked by my then-best friend how it tasted. I responded simply: "It wasn't as awful as I had imagined it to be."
My father used to brew homemade Root Beer and Ginger Ale and since he was an experimenting brewer (read: he was still working on perfecting the ideal recipe), his brews would sometimes partially ferment, thus I was slightly familiar with the taste of alcohol without actually consuming alcohol.
The taste of alcohol has always been regarded as an acquired taste, much like coffee, wine, or other such beverages. I had always avoided trying to acquire a palate for such tastes, since I rather smugly believed that any taste requiring a period of warming up to was no taste with which I needed to waste my time.
Fast forward to 2010, I must confess that I have warmed up to alcohol after having lived in Northern France where alcohol is much more a part of the culture. Let's not get carried away though; the vast majority of alcohol I can only politely liken to liquid stomach rot. I avoid hard liquors like the plague and I do my best to pass on red wines. I have successfully dodged Canadian and American beers. The extent of my alcoholic exposure can be described as the following: a vast variety of white wines, red wines, and rosé wines; European beers, predominantly Belgian beers (such as Leffe, Juliper, Delirium, etc.) and a few English and Irish beers; several traditional hard liquors deeply rooted in French culture, among many other varieties. Essentially, what I want to say by listing this off is that I am no slouch, but neither am I a heavy drinker. When I returned from Northern France, I was able to go 5 months without any desire to consume it.
Yet for so many others, alcohol seems to have an irresistible quality. Many possess such a propensity to consuming it. They spend so much of their paycheques on the grog. I used to joke with my friends in university that the only reason that I was able to pay for my university tuition on my own and be debt-free, while they struggled under the burden of student loans was because I didn't have the expenditure of alcohol to rob my piggy bank. The stuff is expensive, especially when bought from licensed establishments. And who can forget those friends of ours in university who drank themselves so silly that they were incapable of functioning as a learned mind?
Alcohol possesses a great power, both for good and for bad. It can destroy lives by dependency. It can diminish our common sense, allowing us to do something so stupid that it eternally changes the course of our life. However, it can also be a vehicle for bringing people together in community and/or in celebration. I think what really attracted me to the culture of alcoholic consumption in Northern France was how it brought people together. Sure, teens get together for drinking beer at parties, but during my time in Northern France, it felt different among the communities I associated with. Very rarely did I encounter drunkards in the pubs I frequented with friends. I recall many occasions when I was invited over to a friend's place to share a glass of wine while we chatted. Coffee shares this same quality, but I would argue in a different way. Perhaps it is the inhibition-defeating power of alcohol. I don't know.
Still, there are others who swear off the drink and they have their reasons, which I am comfortable respecting, as I demanded others to do for me before I ever tasted alcohol. There are times when I get a taste of something and I find myself thinking, "Holy crap! How do people pay to drink this stuff?" Some alcohol is just that awful, yet it is continually celebrated. Which leads me to ask, how is alcohol so prevalent in human society? Even amongst Islamic societies where it is forbidden, one can find it if they really want it. I had a discussion about the allure of booze with two friends recently, which is largely the inspiration of this article.
How is it that teenagers all want to drink beer when very few of them have even had the time to develop a taste for it? These are the same teenagers who are still trying to acquire a taste for coffee and maybe even wine if they are at least somewhat refined. It has led me to come to a certain conclusion, which forms my master theory about alcoholic consumption in human society, which, I believe, goes on to encompass nearly all of human history with alcohol. It is a two-part theory, the first involving more of recent history (ie. the last 60-100 years), while the second encapsulates history from long ago.
The first part of this theory supposes that alcohol, in fact, does not taste good at all; rather it is simply awful stuff. As a result of this, teenagers, who claim to love beer or love drinking, are actually lying not only to those around them but also to themselves since there is nothing to love about the taste of beer. The stuff is just sick, but these teenagers instead focus on either how the booze makes them feel (free of inhibitions), or the perceived increase in social status by consuming alcohol, which can lead to performing bizarre acts and feats while intoxicated (such as daredevil tricks or asking the prettiest girl in the house party to dance). The taste itself is quite irrelevant to the desire to drink alcohol. Any attempt to argue that beer tastes good can only be regarded as a subtle confession that one's taste buds have been entirely murdered by over-exposure to the brawler's drink.
Second, the idea that one can prefer one alcohol over another alcohol (whether beer, wine, or hard liquor) has nothing to do with alcohol tasting good, rather it is merely a matter of it not tasting as awful as the worst stuff out there. The theory plays out like this:
As a young teenager, you may have gone to a house party with your friends. Someone brought booze and when approached by your trusted friends with a bottle of beer, they asked you if you wanted to try it. Not wanting to look like a square, you obliged and took a swig. You reluctantly swallowed the swill and wondered to yourself how anyone drinks this stuff, but you put on a brave face to your onlooking friends, who all nod in approval for having taken another step towards adulthood.
Two weeks later, you go to another party, promising yourself that you won't touch that vile liquid. Yet again though, your friends ask if you want a beer, and again you succumb to peer pressure and accept a beer. You hate it with a passion. In fact, it was worse than what you tried the last time; it was an IPA beer. Against your better judgment, you go to another house party with your friends some weeks later, though this time there is visible trepidation written all over you about potentially being asked if you want a beer. Low and behold, the moment arrives when your new friend asks you if you want a beer. You fight your desire to impress your friend with every inch of your mental fortitude, but yet again, you are a victim of wanting to look cool. You take the beer offered to you, hoping that you might be able to dispose of it with a trip to the washroom, but no such luck. Finally, you take a sip of the beer, but rather than being overcome with disgust, you experience something different. You realize that this grog doesn't taste as awful as the other times you were forced to try beer. In fact, if you were honest, you actually prefer this beer over those other ones, and without realizing it, you decide you can actually finish this bottle. And so begins your journey into a life of consuming alcohol, searching for one that tastes better than the last.
You see, when you compare certain beers against others, it is easy to notice when one beer does not taste as much like piss as another beer. But this does not mean that the former beer is actually a good tasting beer. Instead it is just not as awful tasting as the other beer. When we think about history of years gone by, we learn that in some parts of Europe, people drank alcohol instead of water, since the water was contaminated and unsafe to drink. The booze was safe due to the fermentation process, which eliminated the H20 of its poisonous properties. Again, it is a case of the booze not being as bad as the alternative. Therefore when your friend tells you that they enjoy Molson Canadian the most or that they prefer red wine, what they are really trying to say is that it is not as terrible as all the others that they have tried to date. It comes down not to what beer you like the most, but what beer you hate the least.
What other possible reason could anyone have for admitting any preference for such a drink, or a desire for drinking it? The stuff tastes like rot, but we still drink it. One would think that with the advent of sugary soda pops, we would do away with alcohol, but not so! As far as a carbonated beverage, I must say that I prefer beer over soda pop, because it doesn't make me feel as awful as soda pop. I despise the sugar headaches and the sugar rush that follow my consumption of soda pop, plus I hate the sugary coating that soda pop leaves in my mouth (including the teeth and the tongue); I also loathe the sugary burn down my throat. All in all, as sweet as it may taste, it leaves me feeling nasty, whereas beer gives me the bubbles. The taste of beer, I can do my best to forget since it doesn't remain as long in my mouth like soda pop.
Beer is still awful though and I don't know if anyone will ever convince me otherwise. However, there are many things that are far more wretched than beer. Such as: vegemite, corn dogs, Spam, blood pudding, liver, Steak and Kidney Pie, Haggis, etc. I would drink beer before consuming these things. It is all relative.
Final word, I would just like to say that at no time during writing this alcohol was I intoxicated. I wrote responsibly.
EDITOR'S NOTE (December 2016): Joel Bain no longer retains his hostility towards alcohol, but the principles of acquired taste appreciation still stand.