Love is Blind: Perceptual Screens and Beer Evaluation (Christmastime Edition)

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There's a certain IPA that hits the market in the late-fall of every year.  It has a red label, features a snow-covered cabin, and is festooned with poinsettias.  I buy it every year.  I can't wait to pop open a few bottles of it to celebrate the assorted holidays of the season.  I love, love, love this beer. 

I honestly don't know if it's any good or not.  

Why?  Because I love it.  

A Tenuous Relationship With Reality

Human beings have a highly conditional, tenuous, perverted relationship with "reality."  The perceptual screens and stereotypes and blind spots we employ to make sense of a "bright, fuzzy world" (to quote one social scientist) and navigate it efficiently (if imperfectly) mean that we don't evaluate things as they are.  We don't "see and then define - we define, and then we see."  

The same logic that makes evaluations of politics and society so thorny applies to beer evaluation, and for the same reasons.  It's a noisy, crowded marketplace out there for beer.  We, as individuals, employ stereotypes and heuristics (informational shortcuts) to make sense of the craft beer world, and in doing so we distort it.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's something we should be aware of, since a common in-subculture sport of craft beer folk is the sharing our personal evaluations of the beers we consume.  We wrongly describe this as what we "think" about a beer.  If only - instead, what we're really sharing is a combination of things (what we feel, what we perceive, what we assume, and, yes, also what we think) that lead to what we conclude about the quality and/or desirability of a particular beer or brewery.

We all drink in the same world - but we think and feel in different ones.

Draw a Line

I try to take this approach to chatting about beer quality: the stronger my preferences, the more I condition them when making recommendations to others.  That way, any firm impressions (the literal, etymological definition of "stereotype") I pass on are qualified by an equal-in-magnitude, fair-warning communication that they're based on my acknowledged biases, for better or worse.

Let's go back to my seasonal IPA.  Since I know I love it, when asked about what seasonal beers I might recommend, I have no problem at all saying, "I love _____________ IPA!," because I then follow it up with (as I have above), "but I don't know if it's any good or not."  

What this does is draw a clear line between preferences and quality.  If I have no particular feelings about a style (let's say, for Cream Ale), then I don't, when sharing an evaluation, hesitate beyond the normal acknowledgment that beer evaluation has an unavoidable element of subjectivity.  But when I know I have a marked preference or prejudice about a beer, or style, or brewery, I acknowledge that whatever I'm saying should be taken with a grain of salt because I'm viewing it through a glass, darkly (and maybe literally).  

I'm reminded of this every year, about this time of year, when I look at that snow-covered cabin, and I'm glad for it.  It reminds me to be humble about making recommendations, evaluations, and judgments.  

After all - love is blind.

Have a wonderful holiday season!

Keep it simple.

JJW

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