Last week I was sat in a pub serving a beer by a brewery I used to work for about four years ago. I hadn’t ordered a pint of it because Eddie Gadd’s very excellent Green Hop was on and it is only available a few weeks a year, nunc est bibendum and all that. A guy ordered a pint of my old employer’s beer and drank deep. A troubled look. He frowned into his glass. Something was amiss. He looked over to his mate ‘Isn’t like it used to be’ he asserted.
At this point my interest was piqued. Admittedly it had been a while since I’d drunk beer from that brewery but, the beer recipe was always a winner and when I had last tried it was still a beautiful, pale rhapsody of orange marmalade East Kent Goldings. Curiosity got the better of me and I ordered a pint of it. I’m pleased to report it was every ounce the beer I remember. Why then wasn’t it the same as the other guy remembered?
What I think it boils down to is threefold. Firstly, people’s palates change over time. For me at least Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is no longer the juicy, hop atom bomb that blew my mind the first time I drank it ten years ago. Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River coined the term ‘Lupulin Threshold Shift’ which in turn American beer writer Stan Heironymus fleshed out and describes as: ‘1.When a once extraordinarily hoppy beer now seems pedestrian. 2. The phenomenon a person has when craving more bitterness in beer. 3. The long term exposure to extremely hoppy beers; if excessive or prolonged, a habitual dependence on hops will occur 4. When a Double IPA just is not enough’. Now I know that this is slightly tongue in cheek, but it is pretty true. Your palate recalibrates itself after repeated exposure to things, they seem tamer and tamer. Like a drug, you develop a tolerance and need more and more to gain the same hit.
A good example of this phenomenon is chilli. We all have our preferred heat when it comes to curry, and have all have been in the situation where, feeling emboldened by five pints, you go slightly off piste at the curry house and you don’t order your usual chicken tikka masala. The waiter pulls a quizzical, yet amused face as you order it as if to say ‘oh boy, this is going to be fun to watch’. You spend the next thirty minutes sweatily shovelling in the curried napalm the kitchen have concocted and, trying between forkfuls to cool the inside of your mouth which is burning hotter than the surface of the sun. Your seventh pint is making it worse. You just end up holding a tablespoon of yoghurt in your mouth until the pain subsides. Yet, someone else with you orders the same thing and happily scoop it it down, whilst mocking you for being a big girl. My Sri Lankan friend Buddhi often asks when we tell him something is spicy ‘Is it white person hot or brown person hot?’.
Secondly, I think a little bit of jealousy and mean spiritedness are at play. It is part of the British condition to root for the underdog. The brewery in question have seen modest growth since I left (not a coincidence, honest) and somehow we Brits love to tear down anyone doing well, just lookat the way our press deals with celebrity. I’ve heard loads of people complain that a particular London brewery who make great beer, with a staggering and frankly, highly commendable rate of growth defamed as ‘sellouts’.
Thirdly, nostaligia and loads of other reasons the beer might have tasted different to him. The rose tinted spectacles make beers of yesterday seem all the better. Even I’m guilty of getting hyperbolic about some beers I have drunk in the past. I’m not a smoker but I can’t see how it doesn’t affect your sense of taste. This chap had just come inside from having a cigarette. And, perhaps, postulating further, he’d come to the pub after a leftfield choice of curry, he seemed moderately refreshed enough to have made a bolder than usual choice.
Either way, when a beer stops tasting the same to you, you have two choices, either you can move on and accept it for the beer it is or, like any other breakup, you can sit down and have a quiet word.
‘I’m so sorry, it isn’t you, it is me. It just doesn’t feel the same anymore.’