A Mr Olusola Adebusuyi tweeted me the other day asking me about what my favourite beers were, first the top three, then after I protested that was impossible, the top ten. I didn't respond at the time, because I couldn't properly formulate an answer, and a few days later, I still can't get close to starting a list.
How hard can it be to have a list of your favourite beers to hand? Why am I struggling with this apparently simple task? Surely you just start with whatever beer is your current obsession (for me, Magic Rock High Wire, on cask for preference) and work backwards from there? There is obviously going to be a of a primacy effect - whatever you've drunk most recently will be fresh in your mind, so maybe Moor Amoor (formerly Peat Porter) would make the list, not only for being a great beer, but also for defying my expectations of it - I'd foolishly been looking at the bottle for a month, worrying that a sub-5%abv porter wouldn't deliver the sort of flavour hit I was looking for, but it did, admirably. But was it better than Anchor Porter, or did I like it more? I simply can't tell you. It's just different. Why do I have to choose?
Maybe if I started scoring beers, I'd be able to formulate a list eventually. But to do this would be to sacrifice the multi-dimensional map that each beer creates in my head with its aroma, flavour and aftertaste. There's no real way of recording those sensations, other than with recourse to detailed and florid prose, or an elaborate contemporary dance. I would find that the dance routines elicited by Hook Norton's Old Hooky and Sierra Nevada's Ruthless Rye IPA are pretty similar, but one would be a more energetic version of the other. Both of these beers are about balance, and each mouthful conjures a little vignette about the balance between malt and hops with each mouthful, albeit in different accents. But do I prefer one over the other? No. And do I like them more or less than the singular hop character of Mikkeller's Single Hop Simcoe IPA? I'm not entirely sure, now I think about it.
Poking around in the cellar, looking for a nightcap, I see the iconic red and white label of a bottle of Duvel. My heart leaps momentarily, only to sink when I find that it's an empty bottle that has found its way back onto the shelf. The distance between that peak of excitement and the trough of disappointment is an unusual index of how much I like that beer, both the beer itself, and that bottle in particular.
And of course, scoring beers creates an illusion of objectivity. If, for example, I was asked to generate a numerical score for Cantillon St Lamvinus, the numbers that come out at the end would be pretty large, but it wouldn't convey the fact that I don't like any of Cantillon's beers very much. I can't score the beer down simply because I don't like it, but neither can I feel comfortable about giving a high mark to a beer that I just don't like - my ego prevents that, I guess. I like plenty of other wild/spontaneously fermented beers - Oude Beersel, Girardin, Russian River, obvs - but like these beers, I want to be able to feel the complexity in the beer and express that in a way that impossible with number.
Beer is a personal thing. It's subjective, and most importantly, it's a continuum, from volume-produced beers at one end, to impossibly rare one-off batches at the other. Everywhere on this continuum has good and bad examples of what is on offer, and your opinion of what is good and bad is different to mine. Part of the fun of what we do - we beer drinkers, we beer writers, we beer bloggers, we brewers, we homebrewers - is to dip into the different points on that continuum. For me, it's about that journey - I'm not trying to find the ten best beers, I'm just loving the endless variety that the journey offers me.