Weird Beers and the Paradox of Aversion

It is a source of bewilderment in aesthetics that something repulsive might also excite or delight us. The aesthetician Carolyn Korsmeyer refers to this phenomenon as the paradox of aversion, arguing in her essay “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting” that the paradox applies to certain disgusting foods. I believe the paradox also applies to certain craft beers. I offer a functionalist argument: when we imbibe for refreshment or intoxication, repulsive ingredients hinder our ability to enjoy a satisfactory (that is, sufficiently refreshing or intoxicating) amount of beer. However, when we imbibe in search of an aesthetic experience, repulsive ingredients offer fascinating tasting experiences that paradoxically allow us to enjoy imbibing weird beers.

Microbrewing good beer is sometimes still not enough to earn a brewery widespread visibility or acclaim. While many inventive beers cater to a common palate, others introduce provocative ingredients and flavors. There is no shortage of examples. Rogue’s Sriracha Hot Stout, Ballast Point’s Habanero Sculpin IPA, and New Belgium’s Coconut Curry Hefeweizen exhibit a peppery spiciness uncommon to beer. The Unknown ages a Mexican imperial lager with food grade scorpions, Wynkoop flavors a stout with bull testicles, and Redhook brews a pilsner with oysters and lobsters. Mikkeller added coffee collected from weasel poop to a stout; Brewdog sold an ale bottled inside of a taxidermied weasel. Each of these weird beers wildly deviates from traditional recipes, presentations, and expectations, albeit in a disgusting way.

Korsmeyer’s provisional list of disgusting foods helps us identify disgusting beers. She considers six categories of repulsion: (1) objects with repellent tastes, (2) foods desirable in minute quantities but sickening in large quantities, (3) objects so alien that we recoil from them in nature, (4) objects too similar to us, (5) objects that appear too natural or alive, and (6) objects that have spoiled or been dead too long.

Weird beers exist that fulfill each of these categories in some way. Many beers ferment with Brettanomyces, a group of wild yeasts that result in a funky taste sometimes associated with repellent things like bandages or hay. Others, though tasty, are unpalatable in large volumes, including the more aggressive habanero beers that exist. Some contain disturbingly alien ingredients—like scorpions—and at least one beer contains a disturbingly human ingredient—Rogue’s Beard Beer, brewed with yeast cultured from the brewmaster’s beard. Brewdog arguably succeeded in meeting Korsmeyer’s fifth category after bottling a beer called the End of History inside taxidermied road kill. Finally, some beers contain bacteria or wild yeasts, which brewmasters use to create sour—or deliciously spoiled—beers.

The prevalence of weird beers ought to provide sufficient evidence of the paradox of aversion in craft beer. If Korsmeyer is correct that a paradox of aversion applies to food, then it should also apply to beer. Weird beers brewed with repulsive ingredients or presented in repulsive ways are paradoxically pleasurable to taste and consume. The question then becomes: to whom, to what sort of palate or sensibility, or in what context are these weird beers pleasurable? In answering this question, a functionalist position becomes valuable.

Sven Ove Hansson defends a sort of weak aesthetic functionalism which I find useful. Hansson permits aesthetic valuations according to a work’s satisfaction of functional requirements. He argues that the fulfillment of function is one of many factors by which we can judge a work. In defending this position he rejects “the reduction thesis,” which states that fulfillment of function is the only determinant of beauty. In “Aesthetic Functionalism,” he writes, “aesthetic considerations are altogether unnecessary… since aesthetics will automatically be taken care of if function is dealt with adequately.” Surely, however, objects exist that fulfill their functions in a manner that is not particularly beautiful—catheters and brutalist architecture come to mind. Hansson also rejects the antithesis of that position, “the independence thesis,” which states that aesthetic value and function are completely independent of each other. He writes, “Perhaps the clearest counterexamples are those that refer to the beauty of abstract objects, such as mathematical proofs. A mathematician who called a proof beautiful would almost certainly retract or at least moderate that statement if the proof turned out to contain irreparable mistakes.” Recognizing that neither extreme is particularly beneficial to an aesthetician, Hansson takes a more moderate approach of “aesthetic dualism,” which contends that practical function is sometimes a factor in aesthetic valuation but is never the sole determinant factor.

What does this mean for craft beer? I propose that there are three major functions of beer drinking which are independent of each other but not mutually exclusive. Those functions are (1) intoxication, (2) refreshment, and (3) tasting (or the enjoyment of flavor). A beer’s desirability is partly determined by its ability to fulfill at least one of these three functions. I will name just a few examples. Drinking sessions aimed at inducing intoxication require a beer that is sufficiently drinkable yet alcoholic enough to intoxicate. A poor choice of beer for the drinker wanting to get drunk would be a session IPA—a low-alcohol style of beer brewed to provide flavor without excessive potency. A regular drinker might still experience intoxication after a few session IPAs, but not without enduring a palate-wrecking torrent of bitter hops (and risk getting uncomfortably full on too many beers). Likewise, those looking to enjoy a refreshing beer after a long, hot day might choose to avoid thick, boozy, chocolaty imperial stouts, which are perhaps better consumed by the half pint after a meal on a cold day.

This leaves the third function I would like to propose, the function which I believe justifies the enjoyment of craft beer, since cheap liquor and macro-brewed light lagers are quite capable of satisfying the other two functions. Many people drink simply to enjoy an interesting or delightful taste. Every craft beer, to some extent, shares this function. Craft brewers brew because they recognize that beer can taste good—and it can taste good in an inconceivably large number of ways. If the paradox of aversion explains the delight we take in eating repulsive foods, it also ought to explain the delight we sometimes take in drinking repulsive beers. Often, these weird beers only satisfy the third function, that of aesthetic experience—one might cringe at the thought of drinking habanero beers to the point of intoxication or seeking a cold, refreshing pint of a savory bull-testicle stout. These are beers to be enjoyed because they present an interesting tasting experience. Weird beers exemplify Korsmeyer’s paradox of aversion in this celebration of repulsive ingredients.

*This is a revision of an essay I wrote while pursuing my philosophy degree at Furman University. An earlier revision of this essay was published in the 2015 Furman Humanities Review.

March

Listen

Mariachi Static by Izaak Opatz

This is an album of lovely “dirt wave” folk from a songwriter who spends most of his time cutting trails for the National Park Service. He’s formerly of the alt-country group the Best Westerns. I’ve struggled to listen to anything but this album lately. My favorite tracks are “Everything (But One Thing),” “Arm’s Length Away,” and “One Way Or Another,” but every song is fantastic.

 

“Getting Fermental on Fermentation with Lucia Solis” (Opposites Extract)

While esoteric to anybody who isn’t in the coffee industry, this is an interesting debate and discussion on the topic of fermentation practices in coffee production. Washed coffee in particular undergoes an intentional fermentation process post-harvest which helps separate sticky fruit material called mucilage. Usually this process is carried out by wild yeasts and bacteria, but the practice of using specific yeast and bacteria cultures has shown promise in experimental trials. Continuing this practice will be beneficial in promoting quality consistency and price stability.

Read

The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks by Amy Stewart

Amy Stewart’s The Drunken Botanist explores the ingredients used to create the world’s most significant fermented and distilled drinks. The book is presented as a list of these most ingredients, starting with the basics that comprise our most familiar beverages (such as agave, barley, potato, wheat) and continuing to the more obscure or exotic ingredients that often flavor them (clove, elderflower, wormwood). Each entry is, more or less, a brief examination of the ingredient in terms of the spirits derived from it alongside its biology and historical significance.

“An Absurdly Complete Guide to Understanding Whiskey” by Jake Emen (Eater)

Hyperbole aside, this guide provides a nice rundown of the major factors that determine a whiskey’s flavor. Emen specifically discusses aging and warehousing conditions, barrel types and sizes, ingredients, and distillation techniques.

February

Listen

Twin Solitude by Leif Vollebekk

This is a hauntingly beautiful album from the Quebecois songwriter. Twin Solitude is more ambient than North Americana or Inland, turning away slightly from Vollebekk’s earlier, more Dylanesque instrumentation.

Read

“The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means, how to respond” by Klaus Schwab (World Economic Forum)

Schwab writes, “The First Industrial Revolution used water and steam power to mechanize production. The Second used electric power to create mass production. The Third used electronics and information technology to automate production. Now a Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third, the digital revolution that has been occurring since the middle of the last century.”

Schwab predicts that modern computer systems and digital connectivity combined with emerging technologies will usher in a Fourth Industrial Revolution characterized by “a symbiosis between microorganisms, our bodies, the products we consume, and even the buildings we inhabit.”

This kind of revolution would seriously disrupt the way we live and work. What is this likely to mean for food and beverages? More and better integration with technology as we’ve seen at Atlanta’s Huge Cafe? More self-service or partial automation, which could both alter and reduce the role of bartenders and baristas? Or more coffee served by robots a la San Francisco’s Cafe X, eliminating human service altogether?

The Advanced Genius Theory: The Life of Pablo and Kanye West by Ryan Bassil (Noisey)

Bassil offers an alternate response to the question of whether Kanye West is a genius. Invoking a theory originally conceived to explain the later work of Lou Reed, Bassil suggests that Kanye West is actually becoming an “advanced genius,” transcending his earlier work by not creating more of the same but not creating the exact opposite either.

“The Turning Point I Feared” and “Make or Steal” by James Hoffman (jimseven)

There are two common avenues of growth in the specialty coffee industry (though this applies to many other industries too): by capturing a greater market share by taking customers from competitors or by growing the industry and welcoming entirely new customers. Hoffman warns against the former and advocates the latter, claiming that growing the industry and making space for oneself is a slower but more sustainable route.

“Conscious Consumerism Is A Lie” by Alden Wicker (Quartz)

Here’s a compelling opinion piece on why voting with your dollar is perhaps admirable but inconsequential in the face of systemic moral hazards and environmental threats. Wicker argues that conscious consumerism fails to achieve its big picture goals and instead deplete’s consumers buying power and political will while diverting our attention from more meaningful issues. The more I reflect on this argument, the more important it seems.

“Weird Twitter: The Oral History” by John Herrman and Katie Notopoulos (Buzzfeed)

This is an amusing and interesting glimpse into the loose-knit online community of pseudonymous comedians known for their brand of surrealist, sometimes absurdist humor.

“How Netflix Is Deepening Our Cultural Echo Chambers” by Farhad Manjoo (The New York Times)

Manjoo observes that with the growing popularity of content streaming, our viewing habits are becoming more personalized and therefore television shows are becoming less ubiquitous. This is lessening the role of TV in unifying us in shared cultural experience. Despite charges of TV’s banality, broadcast TV as cultural unifier is likely to be seen as a distinctly mid- to late-20th century phenomenon.

January

Read

“Manifesto for a New Nordic Cuisine” (Jonathan Hayes, Food & Wine)

If you haven’t fallen in love with Claus Meyer and Rene Redzepi, I urge you to watch the episodes of Mind of a Chef and Parts Unknown featuring Noma, the highly acclaimed restaurant in Copenhagen for which the pair are known. This brief feature recounts their role in the conception of New Nordic cuisine, which might be thought of as contemporary and expansive approach to Scandinavian culinary tradition. The title of the article alludes to a New Nordic food manifesto published in 2004 at the onset of the New Nordic movement. It’s splendid, brief, and can be found here.

“Speaking Out” (Daniel Patterson, MAD Feed)

This is a great, short piece about coping with depression in the culinary world (though it has much wider applications). We stigmatize mental illness which in Patterson’s words “amplifies its effects” while wrongfully linking mental illnesses and morality. He advocates speaking out about mental illness as a means of eliminating the taboo and encouraging those who suffer to seek help.

“The Sami Coffee Ceremony: An Interview with Anne Wuolab” (Chris Kolbu, Nordic Coffee Culture Blog)

This is a really fascinating glimpse into the Sami, a Nomadic culture indigenous to Northern Scandinavia whose population numbers 50,000-80,000 today. The Sami have been drinking coffee for a little over 100 years–since around the time it became commonplace in Southern Scandinavia. It was originally drank alongside Reindeer broth but quickly became a more focal beverage. Because the Sami have gradually urbanized, it’s conceivable to see Sami groups consume coffee in a somewhat ceremonial manner even in the setting of a modern Scandinavian cafe.

Wuolab describes a normal Sami coffee ceremony as “a quiet affair” in which a host serves steeped coffee, cheese, and reindeer meat, often near an open fire. The pace is relaxed, the mood is contemplative and relational, and mythical, spiritual, or comedic stories are told, often concerning the origins of Sami coffee culture. She draws comparisons to Japanese tea ceremonies and describes Sami coffee tradition as the antithesis of a short espresso or takeaway coffee.

The interview is a pretty short read but really fascinating.

The World Atlas of Coffee by James Hoffman

I’m rereading this book for a refresher on coffee producing countries, but I’ve forgotten how thorough an introduction it provides. This has become my go-to suggestion for people interested in learning more about coffee. (James Hoffman’s blog, jimseven, is a fantastic resource for some more industry specific topics.)

Listen

Welcome by Slaughter Beach, Dog (Bandcamp)

Slaughter Beach, Dog is Jake Ewald of Modern Baseball, whose album Holy Ghost came out last year. The A.V. Club writes that Welcome “…sees Ewald building a record around detailed character studies of people who live in the fictional town of Slaughter Beach,” shifting perspective away slightly from the intensely personal narratives that characterized MoBo’s Holy Ghost. My favorite track is “Bed Fest.”

Claude Debussy and Madrugada Obscura

Among my favorite classical compositions, “Clair de lune” is the third and penultimate movement in French composer Claude Debussy’s “Suite Bergamasque.” It’s beautiful and delicate but also deeply evocative, which I learned has something to do with its inspiration, a poem by the French poet Paul Verlaine. From Verlaine Debussy borrowed the title of the movement and that of the suite itself.

 

Verlaine, a contemporary of Debussy, belonged to a literary and artistic movement known as symbolism. Symbolists rejected realism, believing that artistic statements ought to be made indirectly. Using metaphor and suggestion, symbolists hoped to imply absolute truths that they believed were impossible to capture in a literal account of reality.

Verlaine’s own “Clair de lune” articulates this attitude well. The title is French for “moonlight,” literally “light of the moon.” Appropriately, moonlight isn’t the moon’s own light, but light perceived because the moon reflects the light of the sun. Illuminated by that indirect light source, Verlaine describes masked figures singing and dancing bergamasque, a dance that William Shakespeare had called “clumsy” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Moonlight

Your soul is a select landscape
Where charming masqueraders and bergamaskers go
Playing the lute and dancing and almost
Sad beneath their fantastic disguises.

All sing in a minor key
Of victorious love and the opportune life,
They do not seem to believe in their happiness
And their song mingles with the moonlight,

With the still moonlight, sad and beautiful,
That sets the birds dreaming in the trees
And the fountains sobbing in ecstasy,
The tall slender fountains among marble statues.

Paul Verlaine, 1869

Verlaine’s poem suggests that these figures don’t believe in their own elation and fantasy, singing triumphant love songs in minor keys, being outwardly happy and festive yet simultaneously deeply sad, illuminated by the solemn glow of the moon.

Verlaine’s poem and Debussy’s piano suite remind me of a lovely and deeply evocative Spanish word. La madrugada translates approximately to “dawn” or “predawn,” but I’m not aware of any English translation that captures what it seems to mean in a single word. As I understand it, la madrugada is that dark, quiet time of night that’s beyond midnight but well before sunrise. Think pitch blackness, but a pitch blackness that hides the dew already collecting on the grass and the birds beginning to sing. In Frank Sinatra’s words, it’s “the wee small hours of the morning.”

Finding an appropriately evocative English equivalent calls to mind the slam poet Rives and his suspicions about 4am, “the one time you’re either up too late or gotten up too early.”

Later than the latest of late night talk shows yet hours ahead of Good Morning America, 4am has become a meme, says Rives, representing the darkest depths of night that exist just before the earliest indications of dawn appear. I think the mysterious 4am hour that he describes can be thought of as la madrugada as it is represented in English-speaking pop culture. (In a way, and in different words, Snoop Dogg took the opportunity in “Gin and Juice” to brag about partying through la madrugada, which I’ll consider a benchmark and threshold for just how gangsta you can really get.)

Fittingly, I’ve chosen to pair Debussy’s “Clair de lune” with a beer brewed by Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales called Madrugada Obscura, which they’ve labelled a “dark dawn stout.” It has some characteristics you’d expect of a barrel-aged stout: roasted malt, oak, coffee, and chocolate bass tones that confirm the darkness the name suggests. However, and with no surprise to anyone familiar with Jolly Pumpkin’s beers, these darker notes give way to a not-so-subtle sourness that suggests tart cherries, lemon, and green apple.

Sour stouts like Madrugada Obscura remain relatively hard to find and were very hard to find until relatively recently when sour beers started to gain popularity in the United States. Sourness has long been present in old world styles; Belgium and parts of Germany are known for their sour beers, and it is believed that beer was historically somewhat tart due to the tendencies of wild fermentation (a brewer’s best option before culturing familiar yeast strains became a feasible practice). Only recently, however, have sour stouts garnered significant interest from the craft beer community. (NB: there are other good examples of this style that are regionally available, some of which I personally prefer to Madrugada Obscura.. The Bruery’s Tart of Darkness is less roasty and more tart, and Birds Fly South’s False Face exhibits a wonderful balance of stout and sour characteristics.)

I think a fair comparison can be made between “Clair de lune” and Madrugada Obscura. Nominally speaking, “Clair de lune” evokes a brightness and serenity, but sonically and contextually carries a dark solemnity that underlies that brightness. Madrugada Obscura does the inverse, evoking a darkness of flavor that it succeeds in providing, but not without a surprising, contrasting, (deliciously) conceptually conflicting brightness and pucker you rightfully wouldn’t anticipate in an imperial stout. In both cases, it’s a beautifully evocative case of darkness among brightness.

I’ve paired this odd duo to reflect two ongoing goals of mine: to explore why we pair things and to expand our understanding of what a good pairing can resemble.

Traditionally speaking, we seem to pair things like food and wine to achieve complementary tasting experiences. We want harmony between one bite and the following sip, which means amplifying desirable qualities without creating or calling attention to undesirable qualities.

I think there’s much more to be said about pairing, and delightfully weirder things at that, especially if we open our minds to more abstract combinations. In pairing food and drinks, we are limited to flavors that cooperate with each other, either in a complementary or a delightfully contrasting way. But, when we expand pairing possibilities, I believe we open up new opportunities for two seemingly unrelated things to teach us about each other. In that sense, I think, the point of a pairing is not just to bring harmony to the palate but also to inform and illuminate.