Some years ago I used to have discussions on motoring-related Usenet groups with a retired Cheshire traffic police officer called Kevin Lunn. It was tangential to the main issues at hand, but he did at one point say he was a connoisseur of malt whiskies. However, he insisted that he only had one or at most two glasses when at home, and drank them entirely for the taste, as he wasn’t aware of any alcoholic effect whatsoever.
I found this a bit strange at the time, although I have no reason to believe it wasn’t a genuine statement. But it does reflect a sentiment I’ve often heard from beer enthusiasts that the alcoholic content gets in the way of their appreciation. For example, I recently saw this comment by Nick Boley on Boak & Bailey’s blog:
“...we do need as a society to differentiate to some extent to those who drink because they enjoy the flavour and accept intoxication as an unwanted occupational hazard, and those who drink to get intoxicated regardless of what it is they’re drinking.”But this is rather missing the point. Alcoholic drinks first developed precisely because of their intoxicating effect, and it was only later that people started to appreciate that some tasted better than others – although probably the first spontaneously fermented fruit juice wasn’t all that bad. It was only relatively recently – within the last 150 years or so – that ordinary people in developed societies got the opportunity to buy alcoholic drinks that weren’t the staple produce of their own locality. Yes, wine had been shipped long distances for thousands of years – remember the Quinquireme of Nineveh and its cargo of sweet white wine – but in countries like England it had always been a luxury product confined to the rich.
In reality, the presence of alcohol is essential to the taste of alcoholic drinks, and as they become stronger it becomes more important. The flavours become more intense and complex, but you know you must imbibe more sparingly, so it’s a fundamental limitation. There is, broadly speaking, a trade-off between taste and effect. Products deliberately produced to have a lower level of alcohol than normal usually taste rather lacking, even if palatable enough.
And it’s wrong to suggest ordinary drinkers drink purely for intoxication. Of course they are interested in the effect, but more often than not it’s for relaxation or companionship, not getting drunk for the sake of it. The average number of drinks consumed per drinking occasion is probably well under two. Even then, they choose the drinks that they like the flavour of. Only alcoholics pour stuff down their necks regardless of the taste. Yes, the enthusiast may be more selective in their choice of drinks, but if they’re routinely drinking in situations where non-enthusiasts wouldn’t, they might need to consider whether they have a problem.
And some of the brews that have sprung from the craft beer movement which are extreme in strength and/or flavour may be magnificent examples of the brewer’s art, but aren’t things that realistically any normal person is going to consume in a social setting.