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Session #1: Not Your Father’s Stout

For our first session of Beer Blogging Friday I chose an old local favorite, San Quentin’s Breakout Stout from Marin Brewing. I must confess that it’s been at least several years since I’d tasted it and, as such, was looking very forward to finding out how much it had changed or I had changed in the intervening time. Since there are no real rules, I’ve decided to approach the Session as I would any session of drinking beer, with good conversation and camaraderie. So while the talk may be imaginary, the beer is not.

As far as the theme goes, my father never drank stouts and given that I’m now approaching fifty I’d say very few of our fathers did in fact drink stout at all. I may taking things too literally, but perhaps apart from Guinness, I feel comfortable saying our father’s generation was not one who embraced dark beer. In Dutch Wonderland — the part of eastern Pennsylvania where I grew up — folks were fiercely loyal to local brands. A wholesale distributor in the Keystone State recently quipped that Anheuser-Busch’s market share there is roughly half of what it is in other states. And as he further points out, there are more “old school” breweries and beer brands than any other place. So my father and men of his age drank Yuengling, Reading, Schmidt’s and Schaefer, light (colored) beers one and all. Yuengling did have a Porter but I don’t recall anyone ever drinking it until I was an adult.

As far as I know, the only dark beer my father — stepfather, really — ever drank was in fact a Guinness. And that’s because I brought him a bottle of it from New York City, where I discovered it, along with Bass and Pilsner Urquell, at the jazz clubs I frequented when I lived there in the late 1970s. Compared to what I’d drank in my earlier teens, these were like nothing I’d ever tasted — and I liked it.

I’d had a few ales growing up, Genesee Cream Ale, especially in that minimalist green can, was a teen favorite among my peers, and Yuengling had their Lord Chesterfield Ale. Then there was Ballantine which relatives in New Jersey seemed to prefer. But Bass and Guinness were worlds different from those and seemed positively exotic by comparison. That seems odd now, with the two imports more pedestrian among the exponentially wider field of available beers today, but it really was a different time. But enough about my father.

San Quentin’s Breakout Stout is made by friend Arne Johnson, head brewer at Marin Brewing, who’s been brewing there for a dozen years. I mention this because I’ve been thinking lately about some thoughts Alan McLeod had on “Do We Love The Beer Or Brewer?” He mentioned it in conjunction with a discussion Lew Bryson heated up over what, as writers, we owe the beer industry. And I know this may sound a bit wishy-washy, but I can see merits in both sides of this debate. Certainly we must be honest and forthright in our opinions and free to dislike a beer if we truly believe it to be inferior in some way. But — and Lew pointed this out, too — that doesn’t mean people who hate gueuze should write critically about it or that bad samples should create a bad review, especially if the sample went bad while cellared by the critic. If a brewery sends a bad sample, that’s another matter.

But back to Alan’s query, who do we love? I assume I’m not too atypical among my colleagues in having many close friends who are brewers. In such an insular and incestuous industry it’s all but inevitable that you see the same people at events, tastings, festivals, etc. over and over again. To my mind, it would be stranger still to not have brewer friends under such conditions. There are a lot of great people in this industry. Frankly, it’s one of the reasons I love my job. Among other industries I have known or worked in, brewing has perhaps the lowest ratio of assholes (let’s call in the A-Ratio) I’ve yet encountered. There are a few to be sure — you know who you are — but by and large the brewing community is one I want to be a part of and support precisely because of the people in it. I used to work in the music business once upon a time and by contrast the A-Ratio was quite high. And once you met a “rock star” who was so full of himself and a mess of a human being, it was truly hard to listen to his music in quite the same way afterward. You could still appreciate his talents and artistry, but only up to a point. Because once you knew what a wanker he was and how he treated the people around him, etc. you no longer wanted his music to be in the background of your life anymore. At least that was my reaction.

So what does that mean for brewers versus their brew? Knowing who made a beer I think does indeed influence at least our approach to a beer, even as we try to be as objective as possible. It would be naïve to believe otherwise. Think about it this way. Someone hands you a beer and says try this, it’s a new one from Russian River Brewing. Now if you like other beers you’ve had from them, you’ll likely be more inclined or predisposed to evaluate it, if not more favorably, at least with greater care and latitude than if the beer was presented as being from a brewer whose efforts you generally didn’t care for. That’s just human nature. In effect it’s Aristotle’s syllogisms occurring naturally in the real world.

It’s also the reason that we always evaluate beer in competition blindly, often double blind (meaning we don’t even know whose beers are entered). I do agree with Alan when he writes that we “have to remember that the subject matter itself is the important thing.” But unless you’re tasting it blind, I also think it’s practically impossible to separate it from outside influence, and to me that means other factors are also important to varying degrees. In quantum physics in the first half of the last century, physicists had a problem with light. Sometimes it behaved like a particle and sometimes like a wave. Eventually they figured out that light behaved as one or the other based on the kind of experiment you used to examine it. And this led to the idea that it was impossible to adopt the role of independent observer in any experiment because scientists couldn’t separate themselves from the world they were observing. They couldn’t step out of a door and be outside the universe, and that also meant that there would always be some part of any experiment that was influenced by the observer. This is known as the “observer effect,” which is defined as follows. “The observer effect refers to changes that the act of observing has on the phenomenon being observed.”

And as arcane a reference as that is, I think it also applies to tasting and evaluating beer. We could call it the “taster effect,” and define it as the influences on the act of tasting a beer changes the experience and has an effect on the beer being tasted. Does it mean objectivity is impossible? Maybe, but hopefully as professionals we can get to a very high degree of objectiveness and play down the outside influences, large and small, as best we can. I think that’s the best we can hope for, that with experience and diligent study we reach a point where our evaluations are internally consistent, that is we tend to view the same defects and positive qualities the same way regardless of the beer. You may at this point be thinking I’ve veered off track here, so let’s get back to the brewer. Do we love the brewer or the beer? I think it’s a little of both. The beer may be the primary reason we’re all here but as the creator of the stuff we all love, he or she can’t be ignored entirely either. Different brewers make their beer in different ways, of course, meaning their influence directly effects the final product. Knowing who made a beer also reveals something subtle about it. It tells us about intention, about what they were trying to make. It tells us what ingredients are more likely to have been used. It may tell us something about the water used, or any number of factors that effect the taste of the beer. If you enjoy the beers of a particular brewer then you know at least there’s a high degree of probability that you’ll also enjoy a new effort by that brewer. It’s no guarantee, obviously, but it offers you a reasonable assumption and ultimately I think changes how you approach tasting that beer. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, just something I think we should acknowledge and be aware of. Because we don’t live a vacuum, separated from the rest of the world with just our beer. The whole world conspired together to put that glass of beer in our hands at that particular moment in time. Every single preceding moment influenced what we will do next, whether it gets a good or a bad review. And for that, I love the brewer, too, because he made the beer in my hand. Of course, after I taste it, I may decide I hate him just as passionately, fickle critic that I may be.

Speaking of which, I’ve got a stout sitting here in front of me which I’m letting come up to room temperature. Arne’s stout is a beautiful murky black with a mocha-colored head. Thick Brussels lace stick and then cascade down the sides of the glass. It has the aroma of silky smooth chocolate, the kind you’d smell after the milk chocolate is melted in huge vats at the candy factory. There are whiffs of bitter coffee lying underneath, poking through to mix with the cocoa. Swirling it in my mouth, the bitter coffee dominates while his little sister chocolate cries for attention and tugs at my sides. It’s very smooth and creamy, and you only detect its strength — 7% abv — toward the end, as it’s rushing down your throat. The finish is clean, with hints of bitterness lingering pleasantly below the surface, urging you on for another sip. And I give into temptation and indulge myself.

It’s a really fine stout and I think I’m enjoying it now more than even when I’d tried it before. It’s easy to see why it’s won so many medals, at least eighteen at last count. Does it matter that the brewer is a friend. I don’t know, but I’d happily have another pint with him tomorrow.

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