Thursday, 4 November 2010

Properly Proustian - A Brooklyn Flashback

The usefulness of the experiential descriptor "Proustian" rests on the reader knowing that it refers to Marcel Proust's retelling of an experience of smelling and eating tea-soaked madeleine cakes, and the memories that this evoked. It tends to be viewed as a bit pretentious, largely, I think, because it sounds (and indeed is) French, something that the entire non-French world dislikes intensely.

I had an unexpectedly Proustian moment the other evening with a bottle of Brooklyn East India Pale Ale. I was absent-mindedly putting the beer to my lips, and vaguely thinking about having visited the brewery in 2007. Garrett himself showed me round, and coincidentally, EIPA was in one of the kettles that day. As I breathed in, pre-sip, the big burst of floral and toffee aroma snapped me instantly back a couple of decades, to my first ever trip to New York. It was probably 1989, a time when New York was still the sleazy and dangerous city of filmic lore. I was visiting an American guy I had met while he was travelling in the UK. The precise scene evoked by this inhalation of aroma was a party at his apartment on Hoyt Street in Brooklyn. I'd been drinking black and tan for the duration of my visit, and like most Brits abroad, complained loudly about how crappy the beer was. In an attempt to shut me up someone handed me a bottle of the brand new Brooklyn Lager. I wearily, sneerily took the bottle, had a gulp, and was dumbfounded.

It was like the first time I ever tasted whisky. Laphroaig was my malt of choice back then, and what I liked about it was that the flavours were so different, so unfamiliar (and remember, I was only 19) that rather than being dispensed from a bottle, they may as well have been beamed directly onto my cerebral cortex from an alien craft orbiting the planet. That bottle of Brooklyn Lager was the most unexpectedly pungently floral beer I'd ever tried. The way the hops and the slightly toffeeish malt lingered was a revelation. I still moaned about the beer for the rest of my stay - hey, I was an English teenager back then - but I also had a new secret infatuation.

It clearly made a great impression. The beer that evoked those memories wasn't even the same beer, but maybe there was something about the house style, and the concentation of aromas as I breathed in that set off that little memory circuit in my brain. The whole reverie probably lasted for less than a second, before my conscious brain barged in shouting "WHOAH, DUDE! YOU'RE HAVING A PROPERLY PROUSTIAN MOMENT!". Stupid brain.

I've always been sceptical of this sort of thing, largely taking beer-related Proustian experiences with a pinch of salt - sure, I remember drinking this beer on holiday, but that's it. But this was so vivid that, like the bottle of Brooklyn Lager over two decades ago, it almost took my breath away. This wasn't reminiscing over a beer, it was more like a sensory hiccup, a deja vu projected 20 years in the wrong direction. Has anyone else ever had this, or am I special? [NOTE: these are not mutually exclusive]


  1. it's 'properly proustian' all right! That's like a northern proustian moment, man! Love it. I get it with Smells all the time - almost never beer - and i love it. The memory can be a wonderful thing.

  2. Had 2 bottles of EIPA on Wednesday but all memories they conjured were less involuntary and more commemoration. But every sip took me back to the grotty hostel dorm, sipping them (and a couple of Pennant Ales) whilst the rats ran under the bunks. As vivid as memory as any I hold.

  3. Leigh - yeh, proper bo', innit!

    Mark - I'm glad I have my memories and not yours.

  4. Food and drink stirring up distant memories is a well-known phenomena. Apparently we are much more liable to have these kinds of experiences with taste and smell than other sensory modalities (I can't remember why).
    I've had similar experiences myself. I used to drink terrible beer but once had a pint of Furstenberg in a bar and got weird banana esters from my pint. A pale lager like Furstenberg shouldn't have any such aromas and I don't think they even particularly complemented the beer but having a distinctive, recognisable aroma in a beverage was, for me, a revelation. It made me seek out other beers.

    Later that week, a friend and I went to a local deli and ordered a range of beers (Konig Ludwig, Duvel, Chimay White and Schneider Weisse and a chimay glass - if i remember).
    We proceeded to a spot to which we often retired for a beer; a local tree stum surrounded by trees with a couple of street lamps suspended above them.
    The experience that followed is etched in my memory. I raised the bottle of Chimay white to the warm yellow/orange light of the street lamp and saw a sediment at the bottom of the bottle surrounded by the sillouettes of leaves caught in deep autumnal hues. It (combined with some of the trappist blurb on the bottle) was immediately evocative of old gnarled monks producing a beautiful, timeless product born of blood, sweat and tears. My friend and I both discussed how striking the idea of a beer with sediment was (since all we had experienced previously was cheap lager).
    We poured the beer too vigorously and got a pretty hazy glass of chimay white. The haze added to the sense that the beer was something completely different to the crap we'd drunk before. The smell was also immediately apparent and we both picked up grapes, black pepper some fruits and some other things we couldn't put our fingers on. The beer itself was so full-bodied but dry, compared to what we had experienced till then, we were completely blown away.
    It was my first real experience with craft beer. The cold smell of autumn with our breath fogging in the air, a hazy, handmade beer in a strange but beautiful glass with aromas and a depth of taste we hadn't imagined. And the deep, warm orange light of old street lamps highlighting the multiplicity of dancing, wind-caught leaves on the deciduous trees above us.

    I still, as you can tell, remember it romantically. But sometimes, when I have a Belgian golden ale or German wheat beer at the right time and in the right light in the autumn or winter, I'm taken back to the beer tree and I remember it incredibly vividly. It's quite a profound, transcendental experience.

    Here's to Proustian beer experiences!

  5. Anon - wow, that's quite an experience that you had, and beautifully retold. With regards as to why smells are so evocative, I seem to recall (confirmed with a quick Google search) that the limbic system is somehow implicated in processing smell memory, part of the brain that is also implicated in emotion (rather than cognition). There's a nice summary here.


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