The constant quest for variety…

Variety. It’s a double-edged sword. I guess like everything else it is best applied in moderation. When it comes to beer I have a preference for trying new things, seeking out beers and brewers that I haven’t tried before, or dabbling in styles that are new to me. On arrival at a beer festival I’m almost certainly going to be heading towards the names of breweries that I haven’t had the chance to sample in the past. Sometimes this can result in finding a little gem, other times I find something I’ll know to avoid next time – that’s part of the beauty of beer, there’s so much scope for variety, as long as you open yourself up to the risk that there are some that simply don’t appeal.

On the other hand, taking this approach sometimes means I’m torn between the new and unknown territory waiting to be explored, and the more comfortable, familiar, favourites that you know are worth a revisit. Especially when it is a known favourite that you only get to have once in a blue moon. Exploring new things was what brought me to taste Magic Rock High Wire, which instantly became one of my top beers of 2011. Even better that I was able to taste keg and cask versions on consecutive nights and discover both great similarities and subtle differences in the two. As a result of this discovery, what was a new beer to me is now one that tempts me away from experiencing other new beers on the occasions when I encounter it again.

My favourite venues are also those that provide a good variety, particularly where the range is sufficient for me to swap between pale and dark, strong and light, hoppy and mild. But more than that, ideally I want to move between cask, keg and bottled beers too. For a new pub to really capture my heart it needs to offer me the maximum variety. There’s been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere about how my nearest city of Birmingham needs to have a great new beer venue, and for me it will be one that offers me all of the above. The most recent new addition to the central Birmingham pub scene does well in the cask and foreign bottles stakes. The whispered-about rumours of a Brewdog bar would bring some great keg and bottled beers. Both will be priority detinations for me (assuming in the latter case it actually happens). But if swapping between cask and keg also means changing venue then I’ll reserve the right to remain just a tiny bit disappointed. I keep in my mind another firm favourite – the Euston Tap – which is not unique in its offering of a wide range of good cask, keg and bottled beer and very much look forward to the day when a similar “one stop shop” opens up a little closer to home.

However, the big question for me when constantly seeking variety is whether a one-off tasting of a particular beer can be a reaonable basis on which to make a proper judgement of it. Is it right to dismiss a brewer’s range because you tried it once and it wasn’t to your taste? What if it was badly-kept (confidence here depends how well you know your venue I guess) or at the end of a barrel? I’ve had the same beer in the same pub a few days apart, and it can make a huge difference. What if you’re basing your experience of a whole style on a single example which might even not be classified very well? If you never try anything of that style again on that basis you could miss out on something you actually would really like. And sometimes I find it takes time for some beers to grow on you, when it would be easy to dismiss on a first tasting.

I think the answer, for me, is that you can’t make a sweeping judgement based on a single sample, it is necessary to revisit, maybe at a different time, in a different context or a different place, and try again. But in the quest for variety, for new experience, sometimes that opportunity doesn’t always come again, or by the time it does, you’ve forgotten the details of the previous experience altogether. That’s what I find anyway. Maybe I should be keeping notes of what I’ve tried, so I can check back more readily. I certainly don’t want to give up on seeking out new beers, sticking just to what I already know. But perhaps there is also some merit in returning to old favourites more often as well.

What I do know above all else is that there is a stunning variety of beer out there, and I’m happy to keep experiencing as much of it as I can!

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