Each quarter one of the first things I teach the students in my Critical Thinking class up at Western is that there are two ways to read. On the one hand, there’s the sort of reading I do with my six-year-old daughter before bedtime, where my mouth is pronouncing the right words in the right order, but my brain isn’t really on board. Every now and then my daughter – who is always listening intently even as she brushes the hair on her American Girl doll – will ask me a question about the chapter we’ve just read, and I’ll realize that I have absolutely no idea even what the names of the characters are. In my Critical Thinking class, we call that “Type 1 reading”.
Type 2 reading, on the other hand, is reading with unusually intense attention to content, the sort of reading that actually results in comprehension. It’s a bit like the difference between seeing and observing: seeing is as easy as opening your eyes and letting light wash over them, but to observe requires a combination of mental focus and educated expectations about the meanings behind those things you see. As Sherlock Holmes complains to Watson, “I can never bring you to realize the importance of sleeves, the suggestiveness of thumbnails, or the great issues that may hang from a bootlace.”
Drinking is no different. There’s nothing wrong with what we might call “Type 1 drinking”: that’s for Friday night happy hours when all you want to do is unwind with some friends over at Menace and gobble up some dumplings from the Big Trouble truck. On those occasions, you just open up and let the beer in. Drinking doesn’t always have to come with a side of thinking.
But Type 2 drinking has its place, too: drinking with unusually intense attention to the contents (of the glass). To do it well requires a combination of mental focus and educated expectations.
On mental focus: you know that Ed Sheeran song, “Perfect”? (Yeah, the one that’s been made into duets with both Beyoncé and Andrea Bocelli.) It’s got such a simple and powerful melody that you might be forgiven for not noticing that, in addition to his guitar, the accompaniment includes finger snaps, violins, an organ, keyboard, a bass, and a choir of “oohs”. But now if you get out your phone and hit “play”, and listen specifically for the violins, mentally turning down the volume on Ed’s voice, you’ll start to hear the song in a new way.
The same thing happens with beer. Go grab a tulip of Menace’s Belgian Pale, and as you drink, concentrate on the idea of black pepper. Suddenly, an accompanying flavor – which was mostly invisible to your taste buds but that was nevertheless playing a supporting role all the while – pops out. Through sheer force of concentration, even beers you’ve had dozens of times before can reveal themselves in a new light.
On educated expectations: you know how impressive it is to watch figure skating in the winter Olympics? (If you’ve forgotten, you can remind yourself here in a couple of weeks.) Everyone is impressed by figure skating because we all have a very real sense of how difficult it would be to get our bodies to do those things on ice. Figure skating (and gymnastics is the same way) wears its difficulty on its sleeve. But every sport (yes, even curling) is impressive, if you know what to look for. Being suitably impressed by a display of athletic skill requires both knowing what the athlete is trying to accomplish and knowing the steps that are required to get there.
Again, beer is the same way. IPAs and imperial stouts are like the figure skaters of the beer world: it’s easy to be impressed by their flavors because even the untutored palate is capable of picking up sheer intensity. (This is part of why “best beers in America” lists always skew toward these two styles.) But go read a bit on the flavor components of a Vienna lager, and read something about the difficulty of clean lager fermentation, and then head down to Chuckanut for a pint of their award-winning Vienna. I guarantee you’ll have a much better appreciation for why it wins those awards.
So what can you do to improve your drinking comprehension this year? Two simple things: deepen your knowledge (the BJCP style guidelines helps here), and then just pay attention. You’re much more likely to find something if you know what you’re looking for.