Category Archives: food and society

Judging Coffee and Beer: Answer to DoubleShot Coffee Company

DoubleShot Coffee Company: More Espresso Arguments.

I’m not in the coffee biz but I do involve myself in some coffee-related things, including barista championships (sensory judge at regional and national) and numerous discussions with coffee artisans. In other words, I’m nobody important.

In a way, I “come from” the worlds of beer and coffee homebrewing. In coffee circles, I like to introduce myself as a homeroaster and blogger.

(I’m mostly an ethnographer, meaning that I do what we call “participant-observation” as both an insider and an outsider.)

There seem to be several disconnects in today’s coffee world, despite a lot of communication across the Globe. Between the huge coffee corporations and the “specialty coffee” crowd. Between coffee growers and coffee lovers. Between professional and home baristas. Even, sometimes, between baristas from different parts of the world.
None of it is very surprising. But it’s sometimes a bit sad to hear people talk past one another.

I realize nothing I say may really help. And it may all be misinterpreted. That’s all part of the way things go and I accept that.

In the world of barista champions and the so-called “Third Wave,” emotions seem particularly high. Part of it might have to do with the fact that so many people interact on a rather regular basis. Makes for a very interesting craft, in some ways. But also for rather tense moments.

About judging…
My experience isn’t that extensive. I’ve judged at the Canadian Eastern Regional BC twice and at the Canadian BC once.
Still, I did notice a few things.

One is that there can be a lot of camaraderie/collegiality among BC participants. This can have a lot of beneficial effects on the quality of coffee served in different places as well as on the quality of the café experience itself, long after the championships. A certain cohesiveness which may come from friendly competition can do a lot for the diversity of coffee scenes.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that it’s really easy to be fair, in judging using WBC regulations. It’s subjective in a very literal way since there’s tasting involved (tastebuds belong to the “subjects” of the sensory and head judges). But it simply has very little if anything to do with personal opinions, relationships, or “liking the person.” It’s remarkably easy to judge the performance, with a focus on what’s in the cup, as opposed to the person her-/himself or her/his values.

Sure, the championship setting is in many ways artificial and arbitrary. A little bit like rules for an organized sport. Or so many other contexts.

A competition like this has fairly little to do with what is likely to happen in “The Real World” (i.e., in a café). I might even say that applying a WBC-compatible in a café is likely to become a problem in many cases. A bit like working the lunch shift at a busy diner using ideas from the Iron Chef or getting into a street fight and using strict judo rules.

A while ago, I was working in French restaurants, as a «garde-manger» (assistant-chef). We often talked about (and I did meet a few) people who were just coming out of culinary institutes. In most cases, they were quite good at producing a good dish in true French cuisine style. But the consensus was that “they didn’t know how to work.”
People fresh out of culinary school didn’t really know how to handle a chaotic kitchen, order only the supplies required, pay attention to people’s tastes, adapt to differences in prices, etc. They could put up a good show and their dishes might have been exquisite. But they could also be overwhelmed with having to serve 60 customers in a regular shift or, indeed, not know what to do during a slow night. Restaurant owners weren’t that fond of hiring them, right away. They had to be “broken out” («rodés»).

Barista championships remind me of culinary institutes, in this way. Both can be useful in terms of skills, but experience is more diverse than that.

So, yes, WBC rules are probably artificial and arbitrary. But it’s easy to be remarkably consistent in applying these rules. And that should count for something. Just not for everythin.

Sure, you may get some differences between one judge and the other. But those differences aren’t that difficult to understand and I didn’t see that they tended to have to do with “preferences,” personal issues, or anything of the sort. From what I noticed while judging, you simply don’t pay attention to the same things as when you savour coffee. And that’s fine. Cupping coffee isn’t the same thing as drinking it, either.

In my (admittedly very limited) judging experience, emphasis was put on providing useful feedback. The points matter a lot, of course, but the main thing is that the points make sense in view of the comments. In a way, it’s to ensure calibration (“you say ‘excellent’ but put a ‘3,’ which one is more accurate?”) but it’s also about the goals of the judging process. The textual comments are a way to help the barista pay attention to certain things. “Constructive criticism” is one way to put it. But it’s more than that. It’s a way to get something started.

Several of the competitors I’ve seen do come to ask judges for clarifications and many of them seemed open to discussion. A few mostly wanted justification and may have felt slighted. But I mostly noticed a rather thoughtful process of debriefing.

Having said that, there are competitors who are surprised by differences between two judges’ scores. “But both shots came from the same portafilter!” “Well, yes, but if you look at the video, you’ll notice that coffee didn’t flow the same way in both cups.” There are also those who simply doubt judges, no matter what. Wonder if they respect people who drink their espresso…

Coming from the beer world, I also notice differences with beer. In the beer world, there isn’t really an equivalent to the WBC in the sense that professional beer brewers don’t typically have competitions. But amateur homebrewers do. And it’s much stricter than the WBC in terms of certification. It requires a lot of rote memorization, difficult exams (I helped proctor two), judging points, etc.

I’ve been a vocal critic of the Beer Judge Certification Program. There seems to be an idea, there, that you can make the process completely neutral and that the knowledge necessary to judge beers is solid and well-established. One problem is that this certification program focuses too much on a series of (over a hundred) “styles” which are more of a context-specific interpretation of beer diversity than a straightforward classification of possible beers.
Also, the one thing they want to avoid the most (basing their evaluation on taste preferences) still creeps in. It’s probably no coincidence that, at certain events, beers which were winning “Best of Show” tended to be big, assertive beers instead of very subtle ones. Beer judges don’t want to be human, but they may still end up acting like ones.

At the same time, while there’s a good deal of debate over beer competition results and such, there doesn’t seem to be exactly the same kind of tension as in barista championships. Homebrewers take their results to heart and they may yell at each other over their scores. But, somehow, I see much less of a fracture, “there” than “here.” Perhaps because the stakes are very low (it’s a hobby, not a livelihood). Perhaps because beer is so different from coffee. Or maybe because there isn’t a sense of “Us vs. Them”: brewers judging a competition often enter beer in that same competition (but in a separate category from the ones they judge).
Actually, the main difference may be that beer judges can literally only judge what’s in the bottle. They don’t observe the brewers practicing their craft (this happens weeks prior), they simply judge the product. In a specific condition. In many ways, it’s very unfair. But it can help brewers understand where something went wrong.

Now, I’m not saying the WBC should become like the BJCP. For one thing, it just wouldn’t work. And there’s already a lot of investment in the current WBC format. And I’m really not saying the BJCP is better than the WBC as an inspiration, since I actually prefer the WBC-style championships. But I sense that there’s something going on in the coffee world which has more to do with interpersonal relationships and “attitudes” than with what’s in the cup.

All this time, those of us who don’t make a living through coffee but still live it with passion may be left out. And we do our own things. We may listen to coffee podcasts, witness personal conflicts between café owners, hear rants about the state of the “industry,” and visit a variety of cafés.
Yet, slowly but surely, we’re making our own way through coffee. Exploring its diversity, experimenting with different brewing methods, interacting with diverse people involved, even taking trips “to origin”…

Coffee is what unites us.

How I Got Into Beer

Was doing some homebrewing experimentation (sour mash, watermelon, honey, complex yeast cultures…) and I got to think about what I’d say in an interview about my brewing activities.

It’s a bit more personal than my usual posts in English (my more personal blogposts are usually in French), but it seems fitting.

I also have something of a backlog of blogposts I really should do ASAP. But blogging is also about seizing the moment. I feel like writing about beer. 😛

So…

As you might know, the drinking age in Quebec is 18, as in most parts of the World except for the US. What is somewhat distinct about Qc with regards to drinking age is that responsible drinking is the key and we tend to have a more “European” attitude toward alcohol: as compared to the Rest of Canada, there’s a fair bit of leeway in terms of when someone is allowed to drink alcohol. We also tend to learn to drink in the family environment, and not necessarily with friends. What it means, I would argue, is that we do our mistakes in a relatively safe context. By the time drinking with peers becomes important (e.g., in university or with colleagues), many of us know that there’s no fun in abusing alcohol and that there are better ways to prove ourselves than binge drinking. According to Barrett Seaman, author of Binge: What Your College Student Won’t Tell You, even students from the US studying at McGill University in Montreal are more likely to drink responsibly than most students he’s seen in the US. (In Montreal, McGill tends to be recognized as a place where binge drinking is most likely to occur, partly because of the presence of US students. In addition, binge drinking is becoming more conspicuous, in Qc, perhaps because of media pressure or because of influence from the US.)

All this to say that it’s rather common for a Québécois teen to at least try alcohol at a relatively age. Because of my family’s connections with Switzerland and France, we probably pushed this even further than most Québécois family. In other words, I had my first sips of alcohol at a relatively early age (I won’t tell) and, by age 16, I could distinguish different varieties of Swiss wines, during an extended trip to Switzerland. Several of these wines were produced by relatives and friends, from their own vineyards. They didn’t contain sulfites and were often quite distinctive. To this day, I miss those wines. In fact, I’d say that Swiss wines are among the best kept secrets of the wine world. Thing is, it seems that Swiss vineyards barely produce enough for local consumption so they don’t try to export any of it.

Anyhoo…

By age 18, my attitude toward alcohol was already quite similar to what it is now: it’s something that shouldn’t be abused but that can be very tasty. I had a similar attitude toward coffee, that I started to drink regularly when I was 15. (Apart from being a homebrewer and a beer geek, I’m also a homeroaster and coffee geek. Someone once called me a “Renaissance drinker.”)

When I started working in French restaurants, it was relatively normal for staff members to drink alcohol at the end of the shift. In fact, at one place where I worked, the staff meal at the end of the evening shift was a lengthy dinner accompanied by some quality wine. My palate was still relatively untrained, but I remember that we would, in fact, discuss the wine on at least some occasions. And I remember one customer, a stage director, who would share his bottle of wine with the staff during his meal: his doctor told him to reduce his alcohol consumption and the wine only came in 750ml bottles. 😉

That same restaurant might have been the first place where I tried a North American craft beer. At least, this is where I started to know about craft beer in North America. It was probably McAuslan‘s St. Ambroise Stout. But I also had opportunities to have some St. Ambroise Pale Ale. I just preferred the Stout.

At one point, that restaurant got promotional beer from a microbrewery called Massawippi. That beer was so unpopular that we weren’t able to give it away to customers. Can’t recall how it tasted but nobody enjoyed it. The reason this brewery is significant is that their license was the one which was bought to create a little microbrewery called Unibroue. So, it seems that my memories go back to some relatively early phases in Quebec’s craft beer history. I also have rather positive memories of when Brasal opened.

Somewhere along the way, I had started to pick up on some European beers. Apart from macros (Guinness, Heineken, etc.), I’m not really sure what I had tried by that point. But even though these were relatively uninspiring beers, they somehow got me to understand that there was more to beer than Molson, Labatt, Laurentide, O’Keefe, and Black Label.

The time I spent living in Switzerland, in 1994-1995, is probably the turning point for me in terms of beer tasting. Not only did I get to drink the occasional EuroLager and generic stout, but I was getting into Belgian Ales and Lambics. My “session beer,” for a while, was a wit sold in CH as Wittekop. Maybe not the most unique wit out there. But it was the house beer at Bleu Lézard, and I drank enough of it then to miss it. I also got to try several of the Trappists. In fact, one of the pubs on the EPFL campus had a pretty good beer selection, including Rochefort, Chimay, Westmalle, and Orval. The first lambic I remember was Mort Subite Gueuze, on tap at a very quirky place that remains on my mind as this near-cinematic experience.

At the end of my time in Switzerland, I took a trip to Prague and Vienna. Already at that time, I was interested enough in beer that a significant proportion of my efforts were about tasting different beers while I was there. I still remember a very tasty “Dopplemalz” beer from Vienna and, though I already preferred ales, several nice lagers from Prague.

A year after coming back to North America, I traveled to Scotland and England with a bunch of friends. Beer was an important part of the trip. Though I had no notion of what CAMRA was, I remember having some real ales in diverse places. Even some of the macro beers were different enough to merit our interest. For instance, we tried Fraoch then, probably before it became available in North America. We also visited a few distilleries which, though I didn’t know it at the time, were my first introduction to some beer brewing concepts.

Which brings me to homebrewing.

The first time I had homebrew was probably at my saxophone teacher’s place. He did a party for all of us and had brewed two batches. One was either a stout or a porter and the other one was probably some kind of blonde ale. What I remember of those beers is very vague (that was probably 19 years ago), but I know I enjoyed the stout and was impressed by the low price-quality ratio. From that point on, I knew I wanted to brew. Not really to cut costs (I wasn’t drinking much, anyway). But to try different beers. Or, at least, to easily get access to those beers which were more interesting than the macrobrewed ones.

I remember another occasion with a homebrewer, a few years later. I only tried a few sips of the beer but I remember that he was talking about the low price. Again, what made an impression on me wasn’t so much the price itself. But the low price for the quality.

At the same time, I had been thinking about all sorts of things which would later become my “hobbies.” I had never had hobbies in my life but I was thinking about homeroasting coffee, as a way to get really fresh coffee and explore diverse flavours. Thing is, I was already this hedonist I keep claiming I am. Tasting diverse things was already an important pleasure in my life.

So, homebrewing was on my mind because of the quality-price ratio and because it could allow me to explore diverse flavours.

When I moved to Bloomington, IN, I got to interact with some homebrewers. More specifically, I went to an amazing party thrown by an ethnomusicologist/homebrewer. The guy’s beer was really quite good. And it came from a full kegging system.

I started dreaming.

Brewpubs, beerpubs, and microbreweries were already part of my life. For instance, without being a true regular, I had been going to Cheval blanc on a number of occasions. And my “go to” beer had been Unibroue, for a while.

At the time, I was moving back and forth between Quebec and Indiana. In Bloomington, I was enjoying beers from Upland’s Brewing Co., which had just opened, and Bloomington Brewing Co., which was distributed around the city. I was also into some other beers, including some macro imports like Newcastle Brown Ale. And, at liquor stores around the city (including Big Red), I was discovering a few American craft beers, though I didn’t know enough to really make my way through those. In fact, I remember asking for Unibroue to be distributed there, which eventually happened. And I’m pretty sure I didn’t try Three Floyds, at the time.

So I was giving craft beer some thought.

Then, in February 1999, I discovered Dieu du ciel. I may have gone there in late 1998, but the significant point was in February 1999. This is when I tried their first batch of “Spring Equinox” Maple Scotch Ale. This is the beer that turned me into a homebrewer. This is the beer that made me changed my perspetive about beer. At that point, I knew that I would eventually have to brew.

Which happened in July 1999, I think. My then-girlfriend had offered me a homebrewing starter kit as a birthday gift. (Or maybe she gave it to me for Christmas… But I think it was summer.) Can’t remember the extent to which I was talking about beer, at that point, but it was probably a fair bit, i.e., I was probably becoming annoying about it. And before getting the kit, I was probably daydreaming about brewing.

Even before getting the kit, I had started doing some reading. The aforementioned ethnomusicologist/homebrewer had sent me a Word file with a set of instructions and some information about equipment. It was actually much more elaborate than the starter kit I eventually got. So I kept wondering about all the issues and started getting some other pieces of equipment. In other words, I was already deep into it.

In fact, when I got my first brewing book, I also started reading feverishly, in a way I hadn’t done in years. Even before brewing the first batch, I was passionate about brewing.

Thanks to the ‘Net, I was rapidly amassing a lot of information about brewing. Including some recipes.

Unsurprisingly, the first beer I brewed was a maple beer, based on my memory of that Dieu du ciel beer. However, for some reason, that first beer was a maple porter, instead of a maple scotch ale. I brewed it with extract and steeped grain. I probably used a fresh pack of Coopers yeast. I don’t think I used fresh hops (the beer wasn’t supposed to be hop-forward). I do know I used maple syrup at the end of boil and maple sugar at priming.

It wasn’t an amazing beer, perhaps. But it was tasty enough. And it got me started. I did a few batches with extract and moved to all-grain almost right away. I remember some comments on my first maple porter, coming from some much more advanced brewers than I was. They couldn’t believe that it was an extract beer. I wasn’t evaluating my extract beer very highly. But I wasn’t ashamed of it either.

Those comments came from brewers who were hanging out on the Biéropholie website. After learning about brewing on my own, I had eventually found the site and had started interacting with some local Québécois homebrewers.

This was my first contact with “craft beer culture.” I had been in touch with fellow craft beer enthusiasts. But hanging out with Bièropholie people and going to social events they had organized was my first foray into something more of a social group with its associated “mode of operation.” It was a fascinating experience. As an ethnographer and social butterfly, this introduction to the social and cultural aspects of homebrewing was decisive. Because I was moving all the time, it was hard for me to stay connected with that group. But I made some ties there and I still bump into a few of the people I met through Bièropholie.

At the time I first started interacting with the Bièropholie gang, I was looking for a brewclub. Many online resources mentioned clubs and associations and they sounded exactly like the kind of thing I needed. Not only for practical reasons (it’s easier to learn techniques in such a context, getting feedback from knowledgeable people is essential, and tasting other people’s beers is an eye-opener), but also for social reasons. Homebrewing was never meant to be a solitary experience, for me.

I was too much of a social butterfly.

Which brings me back to childhood. As a kid, I was often ostracized. And I always tried to build clubs. It never really worked. Things got much better for me after age 15, and I had a rich social life by the time I became a young adult. But, in 2000-2001, I was still looking for a club to which I could belong. Unlike Groucho, I cared a lot about any club which would accept me.

As fun as it was, Bièropholie wasn’t an actual brewclub. Brewers posting on the site mostly met as a group during an annual event, a BBQ which became known as «Xè de mille» (“Nth of 1000”) in 2001. The 2000 edition (“0th of 1000”) was when I had my maple porter tasted by more advanced brewers. Part of event was a bit like what brewclub meetings tend to be: tasting each other’s brews, providing feedback, discussing methods and ingredients, etc. But because people didn’t meet regularly as a group, because people were scattered all around Quebec, and because there wasn’t much in terms of “contribution to primary identity,” it didn’t feel like a brewclub, at least not of the type I was reading about.

The MontreAlers brewclub was formed at about that time. For some reason, it took me a while to learn of its existence. I distinctly remember looking for a Montreal-based club through diverse online resources, including the famed HomeBrew Digest. And I know I tried to contact someone from McGill who apparently had a club going. But I never found the ‘Alers.

I did eventually find the Members of Barleyment. Or, at least, some of the people who belonged to this “virtual brewclub.” It probably wasn’t until I moved to New Brunswick in 2003, but it was another turning point. One MoB member I met was Daniel Chisholm, a homebrewer near Fredericton, NB, who gave me insight on the New Brunswick beer scene (I was teaching in Fredericton at the time). Perhaps more importantly, Daniel also invited me to the Big Strange New Brunswick Brew (BSNBB), a brewing event like the ones I kept dreaming about. This was partly a Big Brew, an occasion for brewers to brew together at the same place. But it was also a very fun social event.

It’s through the BSNBB that I met MontreAlers Andrew Ludwig and John Misrahi. John is the instigator of the MontreAlers brewclub. Coming back to Montreal a few weeks after BSNBB, I was looking forward to attend my first meeting of the ‘Alers brewclub, in July 2003.

Which was another fascinating experience. Through it, I was able to observe different attitudes toward brewing. Misrahi, for instance, is a fellow experimental homebrewer to the point that I took to call him “MadMan Misrahi.” But a majority of ‘Alers are more directly on the “engineering” side of brewing. I also got to observe some interesting social dynamics among brewers, something which remained important as I moved to different places and got to observe other brewclubs and brewers meetings, such as the Chicago Beer Society’s Thirst Fursdays. Eventually, this all formed the backdrop for a set of informal observations which were the corse of a presentation I gave about craft beer and cultural identity.

Through all of these brewing-related groups, I’ve been positioning myself as an experimenter.  My goal isn’t necessarily to consistently make quality beer, to emulate some beers I know, or to win prizes in style-based brewing competitions. My thing is to have fun and try new things. Consistent beer is available anywhere and I drink little enough that I can afford enough of it. But homebrewing is almost a way for me to connect with my childhood.

There can be a “mad scientist” effect to homebrewing. Michael Tonsmeire calls himself The Mad Fermentationist and James Spencer at Basic Brewing has been interviewing a number of homebrewer who do rather unusual experiments.

I count myself among the ranks of the “Mad Brewers.” Oh, we’re not doing anything completely crazy. But slightly mad we are.

Through the selective memory of an adult with regards to his childhood, I might say that I was “always like that.” As a kid, I wanted to be everything at once: mayor, astronaut, fireman, and scholar. The researcher’s spirit had me “always try new things.” I even had a slight illusion of grandeur in that I would picture myself accomplishing all sorts of strange things. Had I known about it as a kid, I would have believed that I could solve the Poincaré conjecture. Mathematicians were strange enough for me.

But there’s something more closely related to homebrewing which comes back to my mind as I do experiments with beer. I had this tendency to do all sorts of concoctions. Not only the magic potions kids do with mud  and dishwashing liquid. But all sorts of potable drinks that a mixologist may experiment with. There wasn’t any alcohol in those drinks, but the principle was the same. Some of them were good enough for my tastes. But I never achieved the kind of breakthrough drink which would please masses. I did, however, got my experimentation spirit to bear on food.

By age nine, I was cooking for myself at lunch. Nothing very elaborate, maybe. It often consisted of reheating leftovers. But I got used to the stove (we didn’t have a microwave oven, at the time). And I sometimes cooked some eggs or similar things. To this day, eggs are still my default food.

And, like many children, I occasionally contributing to cooking. Simple things like mixing ingredients. But also tasting things at different stages in the cooking or baking process. Given the importance of sensory memory, I’d say the tasting part was probably more important in my development than the mixing. But the pride was mostly in being an active contributor in the kitchen.

Had I understood fermentation as a kid, I probably would have been fascinated by it. In a way, I wish I could have been involved in homebrewing at the time.

A homebrewery is an adult’s chemistry set.

Beer Eye for the Coffee Guy (or Gal)

Judged twelve (12) espresso drinks as part of the Eastern Regional Canadian Barista Championship (UStream).

[Never watched Queer Eye. Thought the title would make sense, given both the “taste” and even gender dimensions.]

Had quite a bit of fun.

The experience was quite similar to the one I had last year. There were fewer competitors, this year. But I also think that there were more people in the audience, at least in the morning. One possible reason is that ads about the competition were much more visible this year than last (based on my own experience and on several comments made during the day). Also, I noticed a stronger sense of collegiality among competitors, as several of them have been different things together in the past year.

More specifically, people from Ottawa’s Bridgehead and people from Montreal’s Café Myriade have developed something which, at least from the outside, look like comradery. At the Canadian National Barista Championship, last year, Myriade’s Anthony Benda won the “congeniality” prize. This year, Benda got first place in the ERCBC. Second place went to Bridgehead’s Cliff Hansen, and third place went to Myriade’s Alex Scott.

Bill Herne served as head judge for most of the event. He made it a very pleasant experience for me personally and, I hope, for other judges. His insight on the championship is especially valuable given the fact that he can maintain a certain distance from the specifics.

The event was organized in part by Vida Radovanovic, founder of the Canadian Coffee & Tea Show. Though she’s quick to point to differences between Toronto and Montreal, in terms of these regional competitions, she also seemed pleased with several aspects of this year’s ERCBC.

To me, the championship was mostly an opportunity for thinking and talking about the coffee world.

Met and interacted with diverse people during the day. Some of them were already part of my circle of coffee-loving friends and acquaintances. Some who came to me to talk about coffee after noticing some sign of my connection to the championship. The fact that I was introduced to the audience as a blogger and homeroaster seems to have been relatively significant. And there were several people who were second-degree contacts in my coffee-related social network, making for easy introductions.

A tiny part of the day’s interactions was captured in interviews for CBC Montreal’s Daybreak (unfortunately, the recording is in RealAudio format).

“Coffee as a social phenomenon” was at the centre of several of my own interactions with diverse people. Clearly, some of it has to do with my own interests, especially with “Montreal’s coffee renaissance.” But there were also a clear interest in such things as the marketshare of quality coffee, the expansion of some coffee scenes, and the notion of building a sense of community through coffee. That last part is what motivated me to write this post.

After the event, a member of my coffee-centric social network has started a discussion about community-building in the coffee world and I found myself dumping diverse ideas on him. Several of my ideas have to do with my experience with craft beer in North America. In a way, I’ve been doing informal ethnography of craft beer. Beer has become an area of expertise, for me, and I’d like to pursue more formal projects on it. So beer is on my mind when I think about coffee. And vice-versa. I was probably a coffee geek before I started homebrewing beer but I started brewing beer at home before I took my coffee-related activities to new levels.

So, in my reply on a coffee community, I was mostly thinking about beer-related communities.

Comparing coffee and beer is nothing new, for me. In fact, a colleague has blogged about some of my comments, both formal and informal, about some of those connections.

Differences between beer and coffee are significant. Some may appear trivial but they can all have some impact on the way we talk about cultural and social phenomena surrounding these beverages.

  • Coffee contains caffeine, beer contains alcohol. (Non-alcoholic beers, decaf coffee, and beer with coffee are interesting but they don’t dominate.) Yes: “duh.” But the difference is significant. Alcohol and caffeine not only have different effects but they fit in different parts of our lives.
  • Coffee is often part of a morning ritual,  frequently perceived as part of preparation for work. Beer is often perceived as a signal for leisure time, once you can “wind down.” Of course, there are people (including yours truly) who drink coffee at night and people (especially in Europe) who drink alcohol during a workday. But the differences in the “schedules” for beer and coffee have important consequences on the ways these drinks are integrated in social life.
  • Coffee tends to be much less expensive than beer. Someone’s coffee expenses may easily be much higher than her or his “beer budget,” but the cost of a single serving of coffee is usually significantly lower than a single serving of beer.
  • While it’s possible to drink a few coffees in a row, people usually don’t drink more than two coffees in a single sitting. With beer, it’s not rare that people would drink quite a few pints in the same night. The UK concept of a “session beer” goes well with this fact.
  • Brewing coffee takes a few minutes, brewing beer takes a while (hours for the brewing process, days or even weeks for fermentation).
  • At a “bar,” coffee is usually brewed in front of those who will drink it while beer has been prepared in advance.
  • Brewing coffee at home has been mainstream for quite a while. Beer homebrewing is considered a hobby.
  • Historically, coffee is a recent phenomenon. Beer is among the most ancient human-made beverages in the world.

Despite these significant differences, coffee and beer also have a lot in common. The fact that the term “brew” is used for beer and coffee (along with tea) may be a coincidence, but there are remarkable similarities between the extraction of diverse compounds from grain and from coffee beans. In terms of process, I would argue that beer and coffee are more similar than are, say, coffee and tea or beer and wine.

But the most important similarity, in my mind, is social: beer and coffee are, indeed, central to some communities. So are other drinks, but I’m more involved in groups having to do with coffee or beer than in those having to do with other beverages.

One way to put it, at least in my mind, is that coffee and beer are both connected to revolutions.

Coffee is community-oriented from the very start as coffee beans often come from farming communities and cooperatives. The notion, then, is that there are local communities which derive a significant portion of their income from the global and very unequal coffee trade. Community-oriented people often find coffee-growing to be a useful focus of attention and given the place of coffee in the global economy, it’s unsurprising to see a lot of interest in the concept (if not the detailed principles) of “fair trade” in relation to coffee. For several reasons (including the fact that they’re often produced in what Wallerstein would call “core” countries), the main ingredients in beer (malted barley and hops) don’t bring to mind the same conception of local communities. Still, coffee and beer are important to some local agricultural communities.

For several reasons, I’m much more directly involved with communities which have to do with the creation and consumption of beverages made with coffee beans or with grain.

In my private reply about building a community around coffee, I was mostly thinking about what can be done to bring attention to those who actually drink coffee. Thinking about the role of enthusiasts is an efficient way to think about the craft beer revolution and about geeks in general. After all, would the computer world be the same without the “homebrew computer club?”

My impression is that when coffee professionals think about community, they mostly think about creating better relationships within the coffee business. It may sound like a criticism, but it has more to do with the notion that the trade of coffee has been quite competitive. Building a community could be a very significant change. In a way, that might be a basis for the notion of a “Third Wave” in coffee.

So, using my beer homebrewer’s perspective: what about a community of coffee enthusiasts? Wouldn’t that help?

And I don’t mean “a website devoted to coffee enthusiasts.” There’s a lot of that, already. A lot of people on the Coffee Geek Forums are outsiders to the coffee industry and Home Barista is specifically geared toward the home enthusiasts’ market.

I’m really thinking about fostering a sense of community. In the beer world, this frequently happens in brewclubs or through the Beer Judge Certification Program, which is much stricter than barista championships. Could the same concepts apply to the coffee world? Probably not. But there may still be “lessons to be learnt” from the beer world.

In terms of craft beer in North America, there’s a consensus around the role of beer enthusiasts. A very significant number of craft brewers were homebrewers before “going pro.” One of the main reasons craft beer has become so important is because people wanted to drink it. Craft breweries often do rather well with very small advertising budgets because they attract something akin to cult followings. The practise of writing elaborate comments and reviews has had a significant impact on a good number of craft breweries. And some of the most creative things which happen in beer these days come from informal experiments carried out by homebrewers.

As funny as it may sound (or look), people get beer-related jobs because they really like beer.

The same happens with coffee. On occasion. An enthusiastic coffee lover will either start working at a café or, somewhat more likely, will “drop everything” and open her/his own café out of a passion for coffee. I know several people like this and I know the story is quite telling for many people. But it’s not the dominant narrative in the coffee world where “rags to riches” stories have less to do with a passion for coffee than with business acumen. Things may be changing, though, as coffee becomes more… passion-driven.

To be clear: I’m not saying that serious beer enthusiasts make the bulk of the market for craft beer or that coffee shop owners should cater to the most sophisticated coffee geeks out there. Beer and coffee are both too cheap to warrant this kind of a business strategy. But there’s a lot to be said about involving enthusiasts in the community.

For one thing, coffee and beer can both get viral rather quickly. Because most people in North America can afford beer or coffee, it’s often easy to convince a friend to grab a cup or pint. Coffee enthusiasts who bring friends to a café do more than sell a cup. They help build up a place. And because some people are into the habit of regularly going to the same bar or coffee shop, the effects can be lasting.

Beer enthusiasts often complain about the inadequate beer selection at bars and restaurants. To this day, there are places where I end up not drinking anything besides water after hearing what the beerlist contains. In the coffee world, it seems that the main target these days is the restaurant business. The current state of affairs with coffee at restaurants is often discussed with heavy sighs of disappointment. What I”ve heard from several people in the coffee business is that, too frequently,  restaurant owners give so little attention to coffee that they end up destroying the dining experience of anyone who orders coffee after a meal. Even in my own case, I’ve had enough bad experiences with restaurant coffee (including, or even especially, at higher-end places) that I’m usually reluctant to have coffee at a restaurant. It seems quite absurd, as a quality experience with coffee at the end of a meal can do a lot to a restaurant’s bottom line. But I can’t say that it’s my main concern because I end up having coffee elsewhere, anyway. While restaurants can be the object of a community’s attention and there’s a lot to be said about what restaurants do to a region or neighbourhood, the community dimensions of coffee have less to do with what is sold where than with what people do around coffee.

Which brings me to the issue of education. It’s clearly a focus in the coffee world. In fact, most coffee-related events have some “training” dimension. But this type of education isn’t community-oriented. It’s a service-based approach, such as the one which is increasingly common in academic institutions. While I dislike customer-based learning in universities, I do understand the need for training services in the coffee world. What I perceive insight from the beer world can do is complement these training services instead of replacing them.

An impressive set of learning experiences can be seen among homebrewers. From the most practical of “hands-on training” to some very conceptual/theoretical knowledge exchanges. And much of the learning which occurs is informal, seamless, “organic.” It’s possible to get very solid courses in beer and brewing, but the way most people learn is casual and free. Because homebrewers are organized in relatively tight groups and because the sense of community among homebrewers is also a matter of solidarity.  Or, more simply, because “it’s just a hobby anyway.”

The “education” theme also has to do with “educating the public” into getting more sophisticated about what to order. This does happen in the beer world, but can only be pulled off when people are already interested in knowing more about beer. In relation with the coffee industry, it sometimes seems that “coffee education” is imposed on people from the top-down. And it’s sometimes quite arbitrary. Again, room for the coffee business to read the Cluetrain Manifesto and to learn from communities.

And speaking of Starbucks… One draft blogpost which has been nagging me is about the perception that, somehow, Starbucks has had a positive impact in terms of coffee quality. One important point is that Starbucks took the place of an actual coffee community. Even if it can be proven that coffee quality wouldn’t have been improved in North America if it hadn’t been for Starbucks (a tall order, if you ask me), the issue remains that Starbucks has only paid attention to the real estate dimension of the concept of community. The mermaid corporation has also not doing so well, recently, so we may finally get beyond the financial success story and get into the nitty-gritty of what makes people connect through coffee. The world needs more from coffee than chains selling coffee-flavoured milk.

One notion I wanted to write about is the importance of “national” traditions in both coffee and beer in relation to what is happening in North America, these days. Part of the situation is enough to make me very enthusiastic to be in North America, since it’s increasingly possible to not only get quality beer and coffee but there are many opportunities for brewing coffee and beer in new ways. But that’ll have to wait for another post.

In Western Europe at least, coffee is often associated with the home. The smell of coffee has often been described in novels and it can run deep in social life. There’s no reason homemade coffee can’t be the basis for a sense of community in North America.

Now, if people in the coffee industry would wake up and… think about actual human beings, for a change…

Taste and Judgement (Draft)

This post isn’t ready to be written. So this is just a placeholder. But, given my RERO mantra, I guess I should still publish it as a “placeholder” of sorts.

I recently served as judge in the Canadian Barista Championship (CBC), here in Montreal. That championship is the national competition pitting against one another baristas (espresso artists) from regional competitions. Rules and regulations (PDF) for this championship closely follow those set by the World Barista Championship (WBC).

Participating in this event, I got to think about taste, evaluation, (inter)subjectivity, coffee, Montreal’s culinary scene, and food culture generally.

Some videos from the event are available, through the event organizer’s uStream channel.

The event was blogged by Anthony Benda. Despite being busy preparing for his café’s grand opening, Anthony managed to give an excellent performance during the championship, especially on the first day. I wasn’t on the panel of judge for his performance but I have reason to believe that Anthony’s performance was really quite good.

I also got to think about my own involvement in such events.

Being a judge at barista championships is still somewhat new to me. I judged during the Eastern regional championship, back in June, and this was my first national championship. I still think that the “barista judge” label fits and I did mention it on occasion, with lots of disclaimers. Most judges at that event were coffee professionals of one type or the other (from equipment distributors to barista champions). My impression is that, despite my limited experience and my somewhat indirect connections to the coffee industry, I was accepted as a peer by other judges.

More importantly, I sincerely think that the judging at this competition was exceedingly fair. My strong perception is that we achieved a high degree of consistency in our judging, both at an individual level and through the group. A large part of what I perceive to be a resounding success comes from the work of WBC’s Brent Fortune, who trained and calibrated the judging team.

One thing I kept thinking about was how different barista judging is from judging homebrewed beer. I haven’t acted as a homebrew judge myself but many of my friends have and I proctored an exam for the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP). Put simply, homebrew competitions are stricter than barista championships. And I mean this to imply that BJCP competitions are in some ways less reasonable than barista championships, though the WBC could learn a thing or two from the BJCP.

Barista championships are based on fairness and impartiality. Though it’s mentioned on occasion, “objectivity” isn’t the core principle in judging. Not emphasizing “objectivity” allows for a sensible approach to tasting since, after all, tasting is as subjective as any other form of sensory perception. In other words, acknowledging the subjective nature of tasting brings realism to WBC-style competitions.

The reason I emphasize the “subjectivity” issue is that homebrewing competitions seem to exist in a radically different world, a world in which “objectivity” is an absolute goal. Though the BJCP style guidelines may allow for some room for variation in judging beer aroma, appearance, flavour, and mouthfeel, the main approach is object-based and a direct connection between a judge’s experience and precise measurements of the beer’s characteristics is assumed. Several homebrew judges do use the term “objective” fairly frequently and “subjectivity” is a “bad word” in many of the homebrew circles which give a lot of weight to those homebrew competitions.

One thing I find fascinating about this distinction between WBC and BJCP competitions is that, to some extent, the coffee professionals are less, well, “anal” than the homebrewers. The level of technical expertise may be as high in both domains. The drinks themselves are comparable on many levels, including in terms of chemical complexity. But the approaches taken to evaluate those drinks are radically different.

I also got to think about the connections (actual and potential) between Montreal’s strong beer scene and its renascent coffee scene. It certainly was fun to have beers at Benelux with a number of participants in the Canadian Barista Championship, including coffee writer Felipe Gonzalez. Myriade’s grand opening, on Monday, will likely serve as an opportunity for me to discuss Montreal’s coffee scene in more depth.

Of course, any of this could be the start of a long monologue on my part. But it’s probably better if I leave this post as it is, to serve as a placeholder for further discussion of taste, evaluation, subjectivity, coffee scenes

Omnivoring Conspiracies

Yup, I occasionally like to jump on bandwagons. Especially when they’re full of food and is being mentioned in a video presenting a cool local event in which I happen to take part. Alejna put the final nail in that coffin with her own use of that list.

From the Very Good Taste blog:

Very Good Taste » blog » The Omnivore’s Hundred.

So, here goes. A list of food items used as a “meme.”

The rules:

1) Copy this list into your blog or journal, including these instructions.

2) Bold all the items you’ve eaten.

3) Cross out any items that you would never consider eating.

4) Optional extra: Post a comment here at www.verygoodtaste.co.uk linking to your results.

1. Venison (I like game)

2. Nettle tea (also nettle wine)

3. Huevos rancheros (but I prefer migas)

4. Steak tartare (especially horse tartare)

5. Crocodile (not yet)

6. Black pudding (not that I really like it but I did have some)

7. Cheese fondue (several different types, including Fribourg’s moitié-moitié, “tarragon fondue” served on potatoes, and the three cheese classic)

8. Carp (fished by hand)

9. Borscht (only once or twice in restaurants)

10. Baba ghanoush (pretty common)

11. Calamari (I prefer fried over stuffed)

12. Pho (in my list of comfort foods, with bánh mỳ)

13. PB&J sandwich (not that frequently)

14. Aloo gobi (had some this afternoon, as a matter of fact)

15. Hot dog from a street cart (although Montreal has rules against them)

16. Epoisses (not sure I did; does it taste a bit like cancoillotte? I do remember having that…)

17. Black truffle (not by itself, though)

18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes (especially if apfelwein counts, but I’ve tasted other fruit wines)

19. Steamed pork buns (why would you have dim sum and avoid those?)

20. Pistachio ice cream (one that I had recently was especially yummy)

21. Heirloom tomatoes (I tend to be rather picky about tomatoes and I should have heirloom ones more frequently)

22. Fresh wild berries (oh, yes! I’m not a big fan of strawberries but wild strawberries are very nice. And the raspberries! Oh, the raspberries! Throughout Quebec, wild berries are really very common.)

23. Foie gras (though not on a poutine)

24. Rice and beans (for a while, it became my mainstay dish)

25. Brawn, or head cheese (and I’ve helped make some)

26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper (not raw but I’ve had a fair bit cooked)

27. Dulce de leche (only discovered it a few years ago but it does go in the comfort food list)

28. Oysters (though I tend to prefer them au gratin than raw)

29. Baklava (I especially like the pistacchio ones but they’re always good anyway)

30. Bagna cauda (Nope! Sounds interesting, though.)

31. Wasabi peas (what I like about these is that the spiciness is just a short little tinge and it leaves your tastebuds able to taste other things)

32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl (the first time may have been at Tufts)

33. Salted lassi (I like those kinds of tastes, almost reminds me of Tibetan tea)

34. Sauerkraut (just tonight, in fact!)

35. Root beer float (and tried other float experiments)

36. Cognac with a fat cigar (I don’t smoke but I did visit some distilleries in the Cognac region)

37. Clotted cream tea (only clotted cream on scones, to accompany tea)

38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O (only a few times: not my kind of thing)

39. Gumbo (I especially like it in Malian tô but I had some Indian gumbo this afternoon)

40. Oxtail (Swiss style)

41. Curried goat (not sure, actually; I’ve had goat, I’ve had curried meats, not sure about curried goat)

42. Whole insects (I’m not against it but I haven’t seeked that out as a culinary experience)

43. Phaal (I don’t think I did but I do like some South Indian dishes like that)

44. Goat’s milk (I’ve had yoghurt, ice cream, and cheese made of goat’s milk but not goat’s milk by itself)

45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more (I’m guessing the cask strength Oban was worth something like that. If not, some of our tasting sessions in Scotland may have including something like this.)

46. Fugu (nope, but I’ve been intrigued)

47. Chicken tikka masala (all the Indian chicken dishes I like)

48. Eel (mostly in sushi)

49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut (overrated)

50. Sea urchin (mostly in a paste with sake: delicious)

51. Prickly pear (I’m pretty sure I did and I know I’ve had it in juice)

52. Umeboshi (sounds good, though! I’m pretty much a drupe-lover)

53. Abalone (I like most molluscs so I’m guessing I’d like it)

54. Paneer (made some: fun and tasty)

55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal (way back when…)

56. Spaetzle (very common in Switzerland)

57. Dirty gin martini (I probably prefer it without the olive juice, though I like a dry martini with olives)

58. Beer above 8% ABV (I’ve made some)

59. Poutine (Quebec cuisine FTW!)

60. Carob chips (these were trendy at some point)

61. S’mores (a friend made an espresso drink based on those)

62. Sweetbreads (not among my favourite but we’ve done ris de veau at a restaurant where I used to work)

63. Kaolin (clay??)

64. Currywurst (I like pretty much all sausage dishes, though)

65. Durian (heard about it, intrigued about the smell)

66. Frogs’ legs (though most French-Canadians have never eaten them, it’s still the reason we’re called frogs)

67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake (and queue de castor)

68. Haggis (nope, but intriguing)

69. Fried plantain (we even did a whole “fried food” event and fried plantain was a big success)

70. Chitterlings, or andouillette (not among my favourites)

71. Gazpacho (our family version is chunky but I’ve had other versions)

72. Caviar and blini (thanks to French housemates)

73. Louche absinthe (as well as straight)

74. Gjetost, or brunost (sounds interesting)

75. Roadkill (although, it depends how it’s prepared)

76. Baijiu (I’m pretty sure I did but it might have been another liquor)

77. Hostess Fruit Pie (sometimes, convenience store food just makes sense)

78. Snail (especially in garlic butter)

79. Lapsang souchong (among my favourite teas, along with genmaicha)

80. Bellini (I remember the taste so I guess I’ve had it, but I’m not positive)

81. Tom yum (I tend to be picky about it but I do enjoy it)

82. Eggs Benedict (and all sorts of variations on the theme)

83. Pocky (had similar chocolate coate cookies but I’m not sure they taste the same)

84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant. (If only…)

85. Kobe beef (I’m trying to remember… I’ve had tasty Japanese beef but it probably wasn’t ever kobe)

86. Hare (and my ex-wife used to hunt them, as a kid)

87. Goulash (one that I remember was at Les Assassins, in Paris, but it had more to do with the settings)

88. Flowers (not whole fresh ones, though)

89. Horse (among my favourite meats)

90. Criollo chocolate (I probably did but it wasn’t pointed out)

91. Spam (I don’t dislike it but it’s not really my thing)

92. Soft shell crab (I did fish for soft shell crab but we didn’t eat them)

93. Rose harissa (didn’t know about that one but I love harissa)

94. Catfish (one of the first times was as a sandwich at the bus station in Gary, IN and I really liked it)

95. Mole poblano (and if I were still in Austin, I’d be having it regularly)

96. Bagel and lox (especially with real Montreal-style bagels, which I much prefer to New York style ones)

97. Lobster Thermidor (I prefer lobster with garlic butter)

98. Polenta (both as part of savoury dishes and with jam)

99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee (as overrated as overrated can get)

100. Snake (but I imagine I’d like it)

My impression of the list is that it’s somewhat typical of “foodie culture” among Anglo-Americans. Many of these items are quite common in different parts of the world yet they represent “novelty items” in the UK/US. A few items have to do with actual rarity (the rose harissa is a good example) and I perceive foodie culture to be typically oriented toward “making sure you’ve tasted all the rarest items at least once.”

Of course, the list includes a number of items which are supposed to gross out people. In fact, that’s probably a big part of “the whole thing,” the concept behind the “meme.” Though any food culture has a distinction between edible and inedible items, this emphasis on “grossing out” is, I find, very typical of Anglo-American attitudes toward food. In a way, food is compartmentalized by what is perceived as its very nature and little attention is paid to the joy of eating as a social process. In fact, this list places food smack in the middle of consumption culture and takes it away from the culture of experience.

I mentioned that I find Blue Mountain coffee and Krispy Kreme donuts to be overrated. The fact that they’re part of the list seems significant, in my mind. I perceive Krispy Kreme to be a “mass-marketed fad,” even though the donuts are decent. Blue Mountain coffee beans are a bigger issue. Those who don’t know coffee seem to associate certain broad coffee varietals with quality coffee and expensive coffee beans with a guarantee of quality. There are diverse problems with that. Between the quality of the varietal and the taste of the cup are a large number of factors including the specific estate, the specific crop, the picking method, the washing method, the roasting process, the freshness of the beans, and the whole brewing process (including grinding, water, manipulation, and device).

I’ve had coffee made with very expensive beans (more expensive than Blue Mountain) that was really very good and I’ve had much less expensive coffee which produced a wonderful cup. Blue Mountain coffee I’ve had tended to fall below my threshold for quality coffee. Same thing with most Kona beans. And though I’ve never had kopi luwak, I don’t necessarily want to try it just because it’s a novelty item.

One thing about my own list… There are several things which I’m unsure about. It may look like I’m not paying attention or that I’m pretending that I’ve had “the real thing.” But I tend to pay a lot of attention to experience, not to brands or novelty. For instance, I’m quite convinced I’ve had chocolate made from criollo varieties of beans. The criollo varieties might even have been mentioned when I was eating (or drinking) that chocolate. I certainly remember hearing about criollo varieties. But I care more about the taste of a specific chocolate at a given time, in a given context than about making sure I’ve had what’s considered the most “refined” version.

I’m more one to seek out a slightly better muffin. Or, more accurately, I’m one to try out muffins at different places and keep in mind something nice about all the pleasant muffin experiences I’ve had. I have in mind a generic “muffinness” and there are times when I feel like having a specific kind of muffin. But I’m never claiming that one muffin is intrinsically better than the other. Even when I say something is “good” or “better,” I never really have standards in mind, absolute or relative.

One thing I do like about this Omnivore list is that it pushed me to think about different food items. I quite enjoy thinking about food. And the list does include items which are fairly diverse (though they’re all available in semi-mainstream Anglo-American locations). There are patterns (in terms of Indian and Japanese cuisines, for instance), but it’s still a bit more open-minded than the typical stripmall. About the same level of openness to the world’s culinary diversity as a Whole Foods location.

Come to think of it, what if this list had been planted as a way to assess interest for items to be sold by a supermarket chain?

It’s all a conspiracy.

Finally! A Drinking Age Debate

This may be more significant than people seem to assume: university and college administrators in the United States are discussing the potential effects of reverting the drinking age back to the age of maturity in their country (18 years-old). This Amethyst Initiative (blog), which was launched last month, may represent a turning point in not only alcohol policy but campus life in the United States.

This “story” has started to go around recently. And it happens to be one I care about. Read about this on Tuesday, while doing some random browsing.

College presidents seek drinking age debate – Life- msnbc.com.

And it’s coming back as a source of jokes:

College Presidents Rethinking Drinking Age | The Onion – America’s Finest News Source.

Though I may be a big fan of humour, I really hope that people can also take this issue seriously. For some reason, people in the United States tend to react to alcohol-related discussions with (possibly uneasy) humour. Fair enough, but there’s clearly a need for dispassionate, thoughtful, and serious discussion about the effects of current laws or the potential effects of new laws.

I have a lot of things to say about the issue but I’lll try to RERO it.

Now, obviously, the media coverage is typical “wedge issue” journalism. Which might well be working. In a way, I don’t care so much about the outcome of this journalistic coverage.

What I do care about, though, is that people may start discussing the social implications of alcohol prohibitions. It’s a much larger issue than the legal drinking age in the United States. I sincerely hope that it will be addressed, thanks in part to these administrators at well-known academic institutions.

Possibly the best person to talk about this is Indiana University’s Ruth Engs, professor of Applied Health Science. Engs has written extensively on the health effects of alcohol, with a special emphasis on the negative effects of the raised legal drinking age in the United States. She also has fascinating things to say about cultural dimensions of alcohol consumption, which happens to be a topic that I have been exploring on my own.

According to Engs, discussion of responsible drinking are quite rare in public events related to alcohol research in the United States. I personally get the impression that responsible drinking has become a taboo subject in those contexts. I certainly noticed this while living (as full-time faculty) on a “dry campus.”

It’s no secret that I care about responsible drinking. Part of this might have to do with the Éduc’alcool message which has been engrained in Quebeckers over the years: «la modération a bien meilleur goût» (“responsible drinking is more tasteful”). My strong impression is that at least some of those who wish for the drinking age in the United States to remain high share the opinion that, for adults, responsible drinking is more appropriate than binge drinking. They may think that any type of alcohol consumption has negative effects, but it’d be quite surprising if they actually preferred binge drinking over responsible drinking.

Where we seem to disagree is on the most effective strategies to reach the goal of responsible drinking among adults. IMHO, there is at the very least strong anecdotal evidence to show that increasing legal drinking age does very little to encourage responsible drinking. Unfortunately, with issues such as these, there’s a strong tendency for advocates of any position to dig for data supporting their claims. Stephen Jay Gould called this “advocacy masquerading as objectivity.” I may care strongly about the issue but I’m not really taking sides. After all, we’re talking about a country in which I’ve lived but in which I don’t have citizenship.

Let’s call a spade a “spade.” What’s at stake here is the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, which was pushed by the MADD lobby group (Mothers Against Drunk Driving). With all due respect to people involved in MADD and similar anti-alcohol advocacy groups, I have strong reservations as to some of their actions.

As a group, MADD is a “textbook example” of what sociologist Howard Becker has called “moral entrepreneurs.” In the United States, these moral entrepreneurs seem to be linked to what Ruth Engs calls clean living movements. What’s funny is that, though these movements may be linked to puritanism, Puritans themselves did use alcohol in their diet. So much so that the Mayflower landed in Plymouth Rock partly because of beer.

There’s a lot to say about this. From diverse perspectives. For instance, libertarians surely have interesting points about the NMDAA’s effects on state laws. Health researchers may talk about the difficulty of alcoholism prevention when responsible drinking is left undiscussed. Teetotalers and Muslims may see this as an opportunity to encourage complete abstinence from drinking. Road safety specialists may have important points to make about diverse ways to prevent drunk driving. Law researchers may warn us about the dangers to the legal system inherent to laws which are systematically broken by the majority of the population. Border officers may have some interesting data as to the “alcohol tourism” related to college drinking. University and college students clearly have diverse approaches to the subject, contrary to what the media coverage (especially the visuals used) seem to indicate.

My own perspective is quite specific. As a very responsible drinker. As a Quebecker of recent European origin. As a compulsive pedestrian. As an ethnographer interested in craft beer culture in North America. As a homebrewer. And, more importantly, as a university instructor who, like Barrett Seaman, has noticed widely different situations on university campuses in the United States and Canada.

Simply put, it seems quite likely that widespread binge drinking on university campuses has originated on U.S. campuses since 1984 and that the trend is currently spilling over to affect some campuses outside of the United States. College binge drinking is not a global problem. Nor is it a problem entirely specific to the United States. But the influence of U.S. college and university campus culture in other parts of the world often comes with binge drinking.

Apart from the fact that I find binge drinking to be extremely detrimental to physical and mental health, my observation is about campus life in general. AFAICT, on university and college campuses where alcohol consumption by a significant proportion of the student population is illegal, illicit alcohol consumption pushes younger students outside of the broader campus life. This self-segregation makes for a very uncomfortable learning and teaching context. In other words, the fact that students hide in fraternity houses or off-campus locations to binge drink may have the same socialization effects as regular campus life elsewhere on the planet, but the isolation of these people is a net loss in terms of generating an academic environment which is nurturing and tolerant.

To be clear: I’m not saying that the legal drinking age in the United States needs, of necessity,  be brought back to 18 years-old as it was in several States until fairly recently. I’m not even saying that States should necessarily be allowed to set their own drinking age laws. I simply wish for this debate on legal drinking age to happen. Actually, I hope that there will be real, thoughtful dialogue on the issue.

Really, it’s the tasteful thing to do.

Individualism, Freedom, and Food

A surprisingly superficial podcast episode on what could have been a very deep subject.

Open Source » Blog Archive » The End of Free Will?

start a conversation about manipulation, persuasion and freedom from choice

To summarize the main issue of that episode: is marketing and "upselling" by restaurant chains undermining the individual freedom to choose quality food? Apparently simple a question, but billed as much more than that.

Maybe they refrained from delving deeper into any of those issues because philosophical discussions, perhaps aesthetic ones especially, are off limits in "polite company" in U.S. media. Too bad.

Actually, I’m genuinely disappointed. Not necessarily because restaurant chains are very important an issue for me (in Montreal, they don’t seem to have the exact same type of impact and I love to cook). But because the show’s participants all came very close to saying very important things about individualism, food, and freedom. The first two are too rarely discussed, IMHO, and the third could have been the "hook" to discuss the other two.

Ah, well…

If you want to know more about my thoughts on this podcast episode, check out some of the tags below.