“So what do you think of the beer?”, Ethan asked me.
“It’s pretty good,” I said, then immediately qualified the statement: you know, it’s not great, but it’s nice and drinkable, and sometimes I want something like that. And it was surprising, considering the brewery that made it isn’t generally considered to make “good” beer.
Ethan bristled a bit. What was good beer, he asked? What makes our beer better than theirs, or worse, or objectively quantifiable at all?
I enjoyed being pressed: I had given my opinion and then promptly watered it down, deferred, subjugated myself. I liked it but I didn’t think Ethan would, and it wasn’t “good” beer so, you know, what do I know1? We’ve had discussions like this before, on authoritative quality standards and beer geek culture.
I sometimes find it problematic, owning a brewery while simultaneously thinking that people should just like what they like, even if they like Bud Light or Blue Moon instead of my beer. I can reconcile it easily enough, though, since I do think we make damn good beer that appeals to the upper echelon of the beer elite as well as to people who just say “I like beer, what do you have?” Beer as populism.
Do objectively “good” beers exist? I really don’t know, and if they do I shouldn’t act as gatekeeper: in the Box of Hops I liked the Double Zilla best, which according to the Buffalo Beer Geeks Facebook group apparently I should hate. I’ll forgive you if you interpret my populism as repressed jealousy.
When I was first getting involved with the Niagara Association of Homebrewers I went to a cider tasting. The host, Gary Awdry, knew a hell of a lot about the subject and taught us about the various styles and flavors that we could find in cider2. He told us about scrumpy: cloudy cider that peasants would make and drink. By “proper” standards it doesn’t taste particularly good and is riddled with off flavors, but the people that drink it love it and prefer it over “real” cider.
So, should we swoop down and confiscate the scrumpy and replace it with corked and caged bottles produced from the best cultivars?
Back to Ethan: I brought up E-Prime, which I learned about from Robert Anton Wilson but which was first proposed by D. David Bourland, Jr. in the 1940s. E-Prime (E’) is a version of English that eliminates all forms of the verb to be3. I’m neither a linguist nor a philosopher but I find both interesting4. I think E’ works well when discussing beer, because I don’t think you can objectively determine anything beyond a beer’s measurements: original and final gravity, IBUs, etc. So, under E':
This beer isn’t hoppy enough to be an IPA
could be rephrased as
I expect more hops from an IPA
It says the same thing, except the former declares the beer to be something — not hoppy enough — and forces everyone else to either accept your statement as fact or to disagree with you on fundamental beer styles. This might seem like excessive nitpicking, but as someone with self-diagnosed impostor syndrome I assure you that they have subtle but important differences. “I’d like more hops” leaves much more room for “Oh, well, I quite like it” than “This isn’t hoppy enough.”
Of course, you can still make authoritative declarations with E': the above paragraph follows its prescriptions and still takes a pretty definitive stance. In any case, for the most part it makes writing more clear. We don’t need to implement it in our daily speech, though you should try to for a little bit just to see how damn pervasive that silly little verb is5, but it does have its uses.
“The music is bad” and “I think the music is bad” both mean the same thing. Adding “I think” is unnecessary.
You might consider the “I think” implied, but that doesn’t mean everyone will, or that you or they will always remember it. Declaring things to be a certain way invites the appeal to authority fallacy: this expert says it is so, and I find them intelligent, so it must be. Language has power, and the only people who say otherwise benefit from that power. The words you use matter, and while using E’ won’t function as some grand panacea its use can improve discussion and discourse.
For instance, beer styles: what is a stout? I see utility in styles as shorthand for a series of characteristics, but does a beer need to have all of them, or just some? Who decides which characteristics get included? If I tell you “This beer is a stout” you now have expectations and biases. What if you would have enjoyed the beer but find it lacking in quintessential stoutness? The utility of beer styles might seem irrelevant to this discussion, but saying a beer is a style means that you’re declaring it the Platonic ideal of the style.
Going forward I’ll try to follow E’ whenever I write about beer. I have more Music Boxes in the pipeline, and they could benefit from the clarity as much as I could benefit from the challenge of having to think about what I want to say. In general, though, you’ll get regular old English from me, because this post has taken much longer to write than usual. E’ is hard.
It is, okay? It just is6.
- I enjoy rereading Confessions and Compulsions because very little has changed [↩]
- The strange taste in the one I had made was “mousy”! [↩]
- I have not missed the irony in that sentence [↩]
- Maybe we can read Steven Hales’ Beer & Philosophy for the next book club [↩]
- See? Right there! (alternate phrasing: “just how much it pervades what you say”) [↩]
- For instance, this post took me three hours to write because I wanted it to follow E’ rules [↩]