Many, many years ago, in a previous lifestyle, in a previous life, someone offered me a line of cocaine. I declined, on the basis that I didn't want to put anything into my brain whose only purpose was to convince me that I was having a good time - I wanted to get that feeling by actually having a good time. I was told that I was talking crap, and I remember very vividly their reply - "If your brain tells you you're having a good time, then you're having a good time". I didn't agree with that then, and I don't agree with that now.
I'm not quite sure why Toccalmatto Zona Cesarini IPA (6.6%abv) reminds me so vividly of that exchange. Maybe it's because in over two decades of drinking beer and taking it seriously, I've never met a beer that made me stop and pay attention quite so much to what was happening on my palate in order to enjoy it.
I bought this bottle from the Bieres Sans Frontieres at GBBF, and opened it at the bar and shared it firstly with Sylvia Kopp and an Italian volunteer. They were quite polite about it, but I wasn't initially convinced - it seemed quite dry, perfumed and slightly tannic - that slightly dry-tongued, gum-gripping sensation you get from strong tea. I was a bit nonplussed - £6.50 for a large bottle, and it didn't conform to what I was expecting. But I know better than to dismiss a beer at first taste - maybe it needed a bit of time to relax and recover from its time spent in a bottle.
I meandered off, looking for someone to share it with, seeking further opinion, and didn't have to look far. I found a table containing, among others, The Beer Nut and Impy Malting. They both seemed to enjoy it, but by now, I was getting a bit frustrated. It wasn't that this was a bad beer, but you had to concentrate very hard on the flavours and sensations to get the most out of it. Finding myself at a table, I made some notes:
"Copper-bronze, big aroma, dry and spicy, oak/vanilla? Very fine carbonation, dry, astringent, almost tannic on the palate. Dry and spicy finish. Very elegant, fine grapefruit and jasmine/Earl Grey note. Oddly dry finish. Incredibly fine, but could be dismissed as not very good if you don't pay attention. Although I am paying attention, and I'm still not sure".
I don't think that every beer should be one-dimensional and easily understood, but I just wasn't getting it - there was something interesting here, but I had to pay so much attention to it that it was an intellectual exercise rather than having a taste of beer. It felt as though to get any enjoyment out of this beer, I had to tell my brain that I was enjoying it, rather than just enjoying it (you see, that wasn't just a gratuitous reference to cocaine at the start of this piece - it had a point).
There are quite few styles of beer that need to be studied before they can really be enjoyed - lambic is a category that springs to mind easily. In fact, I'd suggest that at some point in our lives, we all force down that first taste of beer. Some of us never get the taste, and some become fascinated. There probably aren't any beers that you can give to a novice beer drinker and they'll happily adopt it as their new favourite - they are all learned, adult pleasures. And I'm more than willing to give anything a go, but with this beer, I felt like I had to draw the line at convincing myself I was enjoying a beer.
So after that slightly long and rambling tale, the question that emerges is: If you have to think too hard about whether a beer is any good, is it any good? Should every beer be a stab at an examplar for a style? Or can we tolerate and even enjoy the odd sideways look at a style?
[FOOTNOTE: I'm aware that I'm breaking Rule #3 by not going back for a second bottle to verify my opinion. I almost wish I had - but only almost.]