There’s a rudimentary meme that outlines craft beer drinkers’ development. It’s a play on the “Evolution of Man” graphic, called “Evolution of a Beer Snob.” Instead of transforming from one species to another, the beer snob evolves from drinking lager, to IPA, “big stouts,” sours, and then, finally, back to lager.
Though reductive, there’s some truth to this meme. It reflects many craft beer drinkers’ experiences. And yet, it’s hardly the whole story. Whether your beer journey begins with macro lagers, or if you jump in at barrel-aged stouts, there are some biological reasons as to how your palate develops.
“If you give a two-year-old child a sweet flavor, it will trigger a positive response because we are genetically programmed to appreciate sweet flavors,” says beer sommelier and judge Dean McGuinness. “We genetically understand that sweet indicates ‘source of calories.’ If you give the same two-year-old a bitter flavor, you will get an immediate negative response.”
Perceived bitterness triggers “a signal in our brain, ‘Caution, could be poison,’ ” says McGuinness. “The same thing happens with sourness, ‘Could be spoiled food.’ ”
Your first sour beer might be an affront to your senses. A couple of Berliner Weisses later, you start to come around.
These impulses affect how contemporary drinkers perceive different types of beer. “We can think of the initial stage of beer appreciation as the ‘immaturity’ stage,” he says. “Response to the flavor is dictated primarily by these genetic responses.”
During this phase, people may look for relatively bland beers, or ones with what they feel possess “safe” flavors. It can be a hurdle for some to enjoy more challenging beers. It requires a person to unpack their perspective.
“Just because we have a genetic response to specific flavors, this does not completely control our reaction to these flavors,” says McGuinness. “People can move from the ‘immaturity’ phase to the ‘flavor appreciation development’ phase.
“For this to happen, our brains need to learn an alternative interpretation to these flavors and to understand that these flavors do not, of necessity, have to be interpreted negatively. This can happen in many ways, not necessarily just through beer flavor experiences.”
This helps to explain how we come to enjoy beer in the first place. Many of us remember our first sip of beer as disgustingly bitter, and how we grow accustomed to other styles as we fall further down the craft beer rabbit hole.
Your first sour beer, for example, might be an affront to your senses. A couple of Berliner Weisses later, you start to come around.
But presupposing beer drinkers progress along such linear paths presents problems. It presumes that everyone starts at a common point: lager. This is at least partially rooted in gender, race and class.
“The idea that people have this predictable cycle is likely limited to a certain cultural group,” says Dr. Jessica Gaby, an assistant professor at Middle Tennessee State University. “That is, the typical American diet is relatively bland, high in sugar and salt, low in spice. So people from cultures where bitter and sour flavors are more normalized are likely to start at a different point in the ‘cycle.’ ”
Preferences can shift as we age, in part due to biological factors like taste-bud development and hormonal changes. But they can be hugely impacted by our environment, culture and those around us.
“Did you grow up on a chicken farm? The smell probably means something vastly different to you than to a passerby who grew up in the city,” says Gaby. “Did you once get incredibly bad food poisoning after eating green curry? You probably turn down invitations for Thai food.
“And because the olfactory system is so tightly linked with emotion and memory, it is easier for us to form these associations, and our reactions are more visceral than experiences mediated by the other senses.”
There’s a social influence, too.
“Think about beer culture in general,” she says. “Our parents’ generation drank Coors all the time, partially because beer culture said ‘Coors is what beer is supposed to taste like.’ Now that there are more options on the table, people have a wider variety to choose from, and what is ‘good beer’ has shifted. But, again, only for some populations [or] cultures.
“Go to Prague, and you’ll find that most restaurants just serve one beer. Maybe they have a light and a dark beer, if you’re lucky.”
If everyone around you drinks just one brand of lager, you’re less likely to explore other styles compared to someone regularly exposed to alternatives. And, by McGuinness’ logic, you’re also unlikely to cultivate fondness for more challenging flavors.
“When we progress to the beer flavor development stage, many people flip a switch,” he says. “They move from reacting negatively to bitter and sour flavors to understanding that these flavors can be positive in a certain context, to challenging oneself to greater intensity of these flavors.”
You might also crave variety because you’re more aware of the spectrum of available beer flavors.
Why, then, do we grow to appreciate different beers at different times? That’s the most interesting question, Gaby says, and there’s no simple answer.
“These things are definitely a combination of nature and nurture,” she says. “Your preferences are rooted in your perceptual experience, which is determined by your genetics, what you can and can’t smell and taste.
“But the way you interpret those flavors is based on your environment, learning and social factors. And those things can change over time, taking your preferences with them.”
And as for that meme and why we might come back around to lager, the answer is relatively simple. Greater knowledge and appreciation of diverse flavors, styles and beers throughout the craft community means that lager is no longer a starting point for beer geeks, nor the often-derided “fizzy yellow” that one needs to grow out of to be “serious” about beer.
Instead, we realize that lager is simply delicious—and it was so all along.