See the Beer, Hear the Beer, Taste the Beer

Beer taps
Photo by Kyle Jacobson

“Someone once asked Michael Jackson, the famous beer writer, what his favorite beer was, and his answer had two parts. The first part was ‘a local one.’ But then he asked, ‘What time of day is it? What time of year is it? Is it hot out? Did I just get done with some sort of physical activity, or is it after dinner? Am I sitting by the fire?’ And that gets right to the heart of it. There are so many different styles of beer out there that it makes sense you could find one that’s suited to the particular situation you find yourself in.”

This was how my interview with Rob LoBreglio, brewmaster at Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co., started, and it really sets the stage for what I want to talk about. When we drink beer, we’re not just experiencing the edge of malt, spice of hops, and twang of yeast, we’re taking in everything around us. As integral to the beer’s taste as the head aroma is, there are other potential smells that can play factors. A piney forest, a fresh spring rain, and the lofty air of a cigar lounge all impact our relationship with our beer of the night—from a boozy to a serendipitous delight.

Ever have those moments you just sink into? You’re sitting alone or with a couple of close friends, and you don’t have to fill every void of silence with the uneventful grains of thought some pass for light conversation. The summer breeze floats by as the conduit to life around you, and a hawk pierces the sparrow’s song with a well-timed screech, like a saxophone emphasizing the jazz. You take it all in, and that sweet juice from a New England IPA rounds the edges.

Is there a subjective element to all this? Absolutely, but that doesn’t mean the moment is tailored to the whim of the erratic. I like to think it’s sewn with care from those who recognize it. When picking the beer that fits for you, there’s a lot to consider. Rob asks, “Are you with your buddies? Are you out for a long night? Are you just gonna be one and done? There’s just so many factors that tie into what your perception of a beer will be at any given moment.” Funny enough, that subjective decision is seldom yours alone…as though we all experience the world around us through a similar lens.

Our mental states play huge roles in how we taste, and that doesn’t necessarily mean a good mood makes everything taste better and a bad mood makes everything morose. When it comes to piquing the moment, a shared malt after a first kiss can give the same comfort as a hot Irish cream after she breaks your heart. Rob and I discussed how unfitting it is to drink a Miller at a Packer game in the cold of December. “The beer would actually freeze in the neck of the bottle before you could actually drink it, and you’d have to sit there and poke your finger down the hole.” That might make for a good anecdote, but having something like a Doppelbock warming between my gloves would be far more fitting.

There’s a rather notorious experiment in which a white wine was colored red and given to wine experts for judging. Unsurprisingly, they used words typical in describing red wine to paint the profile of this impostor. I’m often amused when someone has a Dunkelweizen on tap and seek out my friends that refuse to drink dark beers. Their anticipated refusal often turns to confusion and delight after their first sip of the fruity and clove flavors mixed, oftentimes, with a hint of biscuit or nuttiness. Breaking the mold of our beer brains and throwing expectations for a loop isn’t just a good way to stay sharp, it’s a good way to stay humble.

We live in an amazing place. Our lakes, forests, and prairies have inspired poets and painters for centuries at the least. To recognize how we fit into our world as opposed to forcing our presence into society’s mold coerces an ego to blend rather than harden. A winter hike, a summer camping trip, and a fall picnic can all be accented with the right beer.

With summer right around the corner, Rob has some great advice for hikers and campers. “Some of the lighter beers at warmer temperatures don’t taste right, so if you don’t have a means of cooling, try some of the stronger, but lighter Belgians. … You could find a lake or stream to cool the bottle off just a hair. Those beers have enough funkiness to them that it doesn’t matter they’re really at a warmer temperature. At the same time, it’s not like drinking a big heavy beer.”

Of course, Wisconsin also has its urban jungles, like Madison and Milwaukee. As being alone provides opportunity to pause and consider a more complex beer where “you’re thinking about each sip, in an urban beer garden, there’s more hubbub and more activity around you. It kinda takes the focus off the beer.”

It’s easy to forget these things and find yourself asking “what do I want to drink?” But we experience a lot of what life has to offer through touch, sound, sight, smell, and taste, so why should we only consider taste when choosing a beer? Choosing the right beer can actually shape the moment when everything the moment provides is considered. Imagine you’re in a dim-lit bar. The bartender talks a mile a minute for a six-second quip before serving the next patron, and you got your choice between a table by the speaker and a counter in the corner. The crack from the pool table occasionally splits the din of conversation and a trailing laugh goes on too long. What beer do you order?

That’s my kind of personality test.

To the times we forget to remember. Cheers.

Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.

Great Dane’s beers for summer camping:
A bottle of Belgian Prairie is a great start, and stop in to pick up a crowler of one of their seasonal fruit beers.

Rob’s recommendations:
Zenith Saison – Wisconsin Brewing Company
Arena Premium Pale Ale – Lake Louie

Writer recommendations:
Big Sister Witbier with Hibiscus – Door County Brewing Company
Oliphant Brewing beers