I have a game I play with my partner. I pour a bottle or can of rich, black imperial stout into a glass. I admire the thick, tan head. I lift it to my nose and inhale. Ahh! Then I slowly sip that tarry goodness, swill it around, swallow it and, if it really hits the spot, smile and give a sigh of pleasure.
Then I offer the glass to my partner. She steadies herself. She raises it to her lips like a cup of hemlock. She sips – “Yeeuck!” – and screws up her face.
That’s another beer I love that she loathes. A little smugness rounds off my bliss.
But (and ignoring for a minute that smugness is an asshole sentiment) is there a rational reason for feeling superior about one’s beer preference? I mean, tastes just differ, don’t they? To each their own.
While that might be a wise philosophy for anyone averse to interminable Christmas-lunch debates with their in-laws, the truth is that some opinions are more equal than others.
A 2013 Stanford University article titled From Amateurs to Connoisseurs: Modelling the Evolution of User Expertise through Online Reviews explored, partly by analysing millions of reviews from BeerAdvocate and RateBeer, how experience changes a person’s taste over time.
The authors, Julian McAuley and Jure Leskovec, had a hypothesis that “users with similar levels of experience will rate products in similar ways”.
For the purposes of their study, they defined experience as “some quality that users gain over time, as they consume, rate, and review additional products”. And by looking at BeerAdvocate and RateBeer’s data, they found that:
“…there is significant variation between the ratings of beginner and expert users […] Beginners give higher ratings to almost all lagers, while experts give higher ratings to almost all strong ales; thus we might conclude that strong ales are an “acquired taste”.
By means of a baffling methodology (“Intuitively, our monotonicity requirement constrains users to evolve in the same ‘direction’”) the authors ranked the relative experience of individual users to discover that experts agree more closely than beginners, and that their opinions are easier to predict.
They also found that not everyone wants to be an expert. Beginners who are slow to pick up on the lingo and the received wisdom of the expert community will tend quickly to give up on the reviewing game.
So, like most researchers, McAuley and Leskovec basically discovered what we already knew. To paraphrase Tolstoy: All experts are alike, but all beginners are beginners in their own way.
Unfortunately, the study didn’t explain why expert beer drinkers tend to prefer strong ales – other than that they are an “acquired taste”.
Sure, great. But why do experts acquire a preference for strong ales?
One reason is to do with strong ales having a bigger flavour profile. Bigger beers have higher alcohol content and sugar concentrations. They are usually sweeter and carry bitterer hops to balance the malt. To quote one of my growing number of Untappd badges*, “Doubling the hops and malts in a recipe results in a higher ABV and can pack quite a boozy punch”.
And let’s not forget that vaporous, “retronasal” (nose and throat) resonance of alcohol, which draws out, prolongs and amplifies existing flavours.
The reason experts tend to like these things is because of biological quality called “tolerance”.
When it comes to strong drink, as McAuley and Leskovec point out, “a user may find … a smoky whiskey or a bitter ale unpalatable until they have developed a tolerance to such flavours”. In fact, not only do experts develop a tolerance to strong flavours, they actually start to crave them. The way it works is: the higher your tolerance to a substance, the higher the dose that is required to obtain the same pleasure from it.
And speaking of tolerance – beside taste there’s another, equally significant reason why experts tend to prefer strong beer.
Consider this: that warm, giddy sensation which alcohol gives – at least early in the night – is pleasurable. A high-ABV beer rewards the experienced drinker who has acquired alcohol tolerance with a superior dopamine hit to a low-ABV beer. Hence, experienced drinkers who enjoy an alcohol hit will prefer a stronger beer. It’s simply Pavlovian.
Until – as many experienced drinkers who’ve not succumbed to alcoholism will attest – the exigencies of kids, partners, health, work, sleep, life etc at least partially extinguish the pleasure of intoxication.
At this point the truly experienced drinker may come full circle, and appreciate the subtle pleasures of a good, 4.5% ABV pilsner.
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” – T. S. Eliot
“Even when experts all agree, they may well be mistaken.” – Bertrand Russell (by way of McAuley and Leskovek)
I wanted to test McAuley and Leskovek’s hypothesis with an experiment of my own. I bought two Exit Brewing milk stouts: the regular (5.2% ABV) and the double (7.7% ABV). I invited my partner and two not-experienced beer-drinking friends to taste them with me. The predicable result was that I liked the double and was indifferent to the regular, while they didn’t mind the regular but found the double intolerable.
*BCurious is my handle, as long as you’re asking.