Rediscovering the joy of sameness
I cannot for the life of me recall the moment when I encountered my first beer flight. I wish that I knew at which brewery taproom or beer bar I was first presented with a tasting selection, and could recall my reaction to this new and exciting development in my beer-drinking life, but sadly the memory is just not there. What I do know is that I was a convert. Flights, and the promise of all they contained, aggressively elbowed out the pints that had been my pub-going staple for over two decades. I became a beer-novelty-junkie. Pints became passé, either a luxury or a necessity depending on where one was. They were relegated to events and music venues, or might pitch up at the end of the night once I’d tried everything on the menu and settled on a favourite. Choice had become king.
Moving to the US cemented my new relationship with beer. The high quality and huge range of options available to me made me greedy to try everything at once. The excitement of variety, the anticipation of whatever palate-tingling delight that the next, and then the next beer promised held a powerful sway over me, coupled with the affordability to try anything I wanted without the burden of commitment. I stopped buying six-packs, taking home only selection boxes and singles. A taproom or beer bar that didn’t offer flights immediately aroused suspicion. How could I possibly be expected to commit to a mighty 16 ounces of beer without the luxury of first tasting and comparing it to everything else on the menu? Who would do such a thing?
Then, Covid. The closure of brewery taprooms, along with everything else, during lockdown brought a swift end to my consumption of beer flights. No more cute mini-pours. No more free samples in the store either. The option to try before buying suddenly vanished from my life and I found myself somewhat bewildered as to how exactly I had gotten so dependent on the culture of small pours.
With purchasing choices suddenly, brutally limited, my drinking habits were thrown into sharp relief and I was forced to ask myself, for what felt like the first time in a very long time, what it was that I actually wanted. Not what I might like to try, not what I had never tried before, but what taste, what flavour combination was going to best comfort, best satiate me during what was, obviously, a tremendously difficult time. The results were somewhat predictable. My penchant for West Coast IPAs ruled the day, closely followed by my passion for both spontaneous-ferment and kettle Sours, with a healthy dose of my favourite lagers too. Lovely JB got in on the act with enough Waldo to float a small boat, all of which disappeared with a breezy ease that belied their 12% ABV! We stocked up on classics like Sierra Nevada Torpedo and Shiner Bock, bought our first ever 64oz growler from our friends at Blue Owl Brewing, indulged in 4-packs and 6-packs from the inimitable Austin Beerworks and bought a whole range of delicious spontaneous-ferment bombers from New Braunfels Brewing. I reached for a La Verdad Mexican Lager while sunbathing in our garden. And another. And another. And another. And it felt so very very good. Of course, it helps when the beer in question is absolutely awesome, but that in itself was part of the challenge – choosing brews that are special enough to stay the course.
Selecting crowlers, growlers and 6-packs, and eventually draft pints of beers that I felt committed to took on a pleasing weight, the importance of a significant decision. Flights began to feel, well, flighty. While I wouldn’t say that my beer-dilettante days are done (especially when it comes to sweet n boozy fare), but I no longer feel the need to order small pours on every taproom visit. I’m loving my re-found ability to commit to one beer, to hold a pint glass in my hand, gesticulating while trying not to spill. The change of pace that lockdown sparked has steadied into a balance of pour sizes, and a deepening in my relationship with the beers that I chose as my quarantine staples. It has also released the imperative to think, really think before ordering. What do I actually want?
Having embraced Flight Culture so completely, I hadn’t realised that I had inadvertently locked myself out of the pleasure that comes from exploring a beer sip by sip over time, allowing its flavour to take root and plant itself fully in one’s palate and one’s memory. Growing up, I only drank pints (a story for another time), and even as an adult beer-explorer, I valued the experience of repetition – of going to the bar and ordering something in anticipation of its flavour, of hungering for a particular beer, thinking of that taste, salivating over it all the way to the pub. I had my favourite pints at all my usual hangouts, a detailed knowledge of who served what and where I could get whatever I particularly craved. The best pubs for cask ale, the best for interesting lagers and the few serving fancy American craft beer – always by the pint, were etched into my brain. Then the act of ordering the pint, the skill at balancing two or three on my way from a crowded bar to a wood-and-leather seat, avoiding spillage on my heels and surreptitiously slurping from the top to get the taste into my mouth as soon as possible. Then sitting. Sitting for a while. Savouring each sip, noticing the flavour change as it settled and warmed, or as I chewed away on crisps or peanuts. Staring into the lacing as it dwindled to its end. Then getting up and having another of the same.
Yes, some beers, particularly the more boozy variety, are designed to be consumed in smaller measures, but most are, in fact, purpose-built for larger, more long-lasting servings. Refocussing on sameness, rediscovering the skill to engage and appreciate a beer over repeated servings, enjoying how its taste can evolve in different conditions and indulging in the simple pleasure of knowing what you’re getting felt good, has felt a bit like coming home.
August 21st 2020