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.