Monday, August 26, 2013

Can you really argue taste?

I’ve been writing beer reviews for well over five years now. One thing I’ve noticed is people love to tell me when they disagree with my take on a beer. And by “people” I mean anonymous strangers on the internet. I’ve had disagreements with friends over beer, but I’ve yet to have a complete stranger walk up to me and tell me they disagree with me. As is the nature of the internet, people hide behind anonymity and/or distance and say whatever they want with no regard to common courtesy, making a rational argument, or even seeking to engage in intelligent discussion. We’re all guilty of this.

But what is it about our opinions of relatively trivial matter that makes everyone full of self-righteous indignation? I say trivial, because as much I love beer (and you probably do too if you’re reading this), the fact remains beer is a luxury item. You don’t need it to survive – it’s something consumed for recreational purposes. The same can be said about sports, movies, TV, music, books, and other forms of entertainment.

There definitely is an objective approach when it comes to judging beer. For example: being able to identify brewing flaws, infection, or how well a beer conforms to established style guidelines. The Beer Judge Certification Program and Cicerone Certification Program are two professional organizations intended to handle objective analysis. But whether you actually like or dislike a beer – whether it’s massively flawed or a perfect example of the style – is up to you. That’s called taste, and it’s not something you can argue.

Yet, I occasionally see comments on my reviews telling me my opinion was wrong. Actually, “incorrect” is a more accurate term. Though I fail to see how an opinion can ever be correct or incorrect, right or wrong, true or false, etc. An opinion can be poorly argued (a review is an argument after all), poorly worded, use incorrect terms, etc. But can the opinion itself ever be incorrect? I say no, because that’s what separates subjectivity from objectivity. If taste were merely a matter of “getting it right,” then wouldn’t everyone come to the same conclusion – like solving a math problem? Wouldn’t all the experts have the exact same thoughts on a beer?

Speaking of experts, someone with extensive knowledge on a subject is usually held in higher regard than the layman when it comes to arguments of opinion. This is known as the “appeal to authority” argument, and it’s not empirical evidence or proof of “correctness.” I notice that people who leave nasty comments on my reviews and blogs claim to be a better authority on beer than me, which makes their opinion “correct” (in their view).  But again, it’s a matter of taste. If this person finds Beer X to be disgusting and you find it delicious (or vice versa), how does that change the fact that each person simply reported what their taste buds relayed to them?

The literal sense of taste is a biological function and it can change and adapt over time. If you’re a craft beer enthusiast, I’m sure that at one point you had a completely different taste in beer than you have now. And I’ll bet it’s something that didn’t happen overnight, either. So why is it that beer snobs even exist? Surely, even the most uppity of snobs didn’t come into beer absolutely loving all the “correct” beers (you know, the ones that rate highly on certain websites). So why the hostility, snobs? Why do people feel the need to impose their opinions on others? Why do people get bent out of shape when someone disagrees over how “good” or “bad” a beer is?

I made this cartoon to demonstrate how absurd the snob mindset can be. Some of the quotes are taken verbatim from discussions I’ve had with people who tried to argue taste as a matter of objectivity. If you find yourself identifying with the “Beer Review Police,” you might need to re-evaluate your priorities in life.