On Credibility and Community: AKA the Infamous Taste Test Fail of 2017
Let me start by saying I'm an anxious test taker. The first time I took the SAT, I fared about as well as George W. Bush. In middle school, I failed a test that would track me into an accelerated academic track, while my sister - my identical twin - passed. I have a distinct memory of forgetting the name of the state of Illinois on a US map test when I was in fourth grade, and more than two decades later, the torture of this moment remains as fresh as the day it happened.
I recently visited Leigh and Ray, two lovely people who have been homebrewing for about eight months. They generously invited me to their apartment in Alexandria, VA, to talk about their experimentations and try some of their homebrews. Shortly after I arrived, Ray went to the kitchen and surreptitiously poured three different glasses. He placed them in front of me, and Leigh explained the process: when folks come and visit, they pour them two homebrews and one mass produced beer. I was to try them and guess which two they had brewed.
And I knew exactly at that moment that I was going to croak.
Soldiering onward toward my doom, I tried the first beer, which had the telltale smell of lager yeast. It was light, thin-bodied, and, I'll be honest, pretty easy drinking for the hot summer afternoon. The second beer was darker, fuller, but also sweet. And the third beer was complex, malty, and mildly bitter - something more pronounced after trying the first two decidedly non-bitter beers.
Ray and Leigh, like all kind people who are good at masking their true feelings for the sake of someone else's dignity, assured me they would not be insulted if I guessed incorrectly. In my panicked paranoia, I was convinced that they had somehow crafted a lighter beer to intentionally trip me up. If I had thought it through for, oh, two more seconds, I would have realized that there is no way they could have made any lagers or pilsners - they are new homebrewers! In their spare time! Living in a tiny apartment! Unless the kegerator was in some secret second home, nothing was being lagered in that kitchen.
But I spiraled deeper into groundless delusion and, like ripping off a bandaid, named the first two beers I tasted as the ones they had homebrewed.
"Close!" said Ray, in the nicest way anyone has ever told me, "that is not at all close."
The third beer was a Belgian dubbel they had homebrewed. The second beer was a cream ale, also homebrewed. The first beer was...Miller Lite.
Yes. I said they had homebrewed Miller Lite.
This story is so mortifying that it absolutely had to go on the internet. I, of course, felt terrible, although Ray and Leigh still managed to find it in themselves to finish the interview and treat what I was saying as if it were sound and valid, despite me having just destroyed any semblance of credibility I might have had right out of the gate. ("Why yes, I guess you could say I do know one or two things about beer! *sips Miller Lite* Mmm...so crisp! Did you make this?")
But the beauty of this experience is that I didn't leave feeling mortified. My visit with Leigh and Ray was actually everything I adore about beer culture all wrapped up together. It's about openness, exploration, and trying out new things, and talking about real struggles, and people being seen and heard and valued, regardless of who they are or where they are coming from. It's about sharing brews with friends, acquaintances, and total strangers, just because you love something.
I often struggle with trusting my brain and my palate in a culture that overvalues total expertise, experience, and fluency. We don't expect someone to learn a new language right away, but if you even dip your toe into the world of beer, you'll find there is a lot of pressure to be fully versed on hop aroma and flavor profiles overnight. There is not a lot of room for making mistakes.
After the taste test, I caught myself having fallen into the trap of measuring myself by rules that serve to keep me feeling uncertain and small and silly. Spending time with people like Leigh and Ray - welcoming, thoughtful, curious, and learning, just like me - upended these rules. They created exactly the kind of compassionate space where it's possible to thrive and grow and feel connected, no matter how badly we mess up.
I share this story to say that, if you ever feel uncertain and small and silly in the world of beer - and if you are not an automaton, you will feel uncertain and small and silly in the world of beer - remember first that learning about a new thing is hard, and for a while you'll be rather bad at it. This is uncomfortable and embarrassing, yes, but also humbling and vulnerable and true, and it makes you a real human just like anyone else who ever strived for something. And remember second that someone you know once confused Miller Lite as a homebrew and remained unashamed and undaunted and still striving (okay, maybe a teensy bit ashamed and daunted, but she is trying to practice radical empathy over here).
And know also this above all: perfection is stale and lonely and harmful, while the mind of the beginner is where biggest, grandest, most expansive possibilities lie.