Does Familiarity Breed Contempt, Or Is It A Safety Blanket?

Way back at the end of July, I won a Don’t Drink Hophead t-shirt from Dark Star via Twitter. The idea appeared to be to get people wearing the t-shirts at GBBF, as some sort of reverse psycology subversive stealth marketing. One thing I didn’t expect I’d get while wearing it was abuse from other GBBF punters. Most of which was good natured, I have to say, but there were a few people who made it be known, in no uncertain terms, that they thought Hophead was shite.

Their complaints seem to be along the lines of it’s not what it used to be and this got me thinking. I came up with three possible reasons for their complaints, one, the beer has actually changed for the worse over time. Two, they have drank so much of it, that they have now become so used to it and are thus ambivalent toward it. Three, they have under gone some level of Lupulin Threshold Shift and can’t taste the hops anymore.

Let’s look at each of these points, firstly, has the beer actually changed for the worse over time? I doubt it, but like all real ale, it’s susceptible to variations in malt and hops from year to year, so I would think the recipe gets tweaked every now and again to compensate. It’s also at the mercy of pub landlords and we all know they can fuck up a perfectly good beer and make it taste like shite. However, I really doubt Dark Star would deliberately modify one of their flagship beers to make it taste worse, as it just doesn’t make good business sense.

Secondly, have they become ambivalent to it? I know that I go through phases of drinking certain styles of beer or certain beers, but then I want a change and I don’t go back to those beer styles or beers for ages, if ever. Take BrewDog Punk IPA, I’ve drank loads of it, it’s still the beer I’ve checked into more than any other on Untappd. It’s not a bad beer, but I’m just so over it, it doesn’t excite me anymore, that coupled with their legendary consistency issues and knobend (IMHO) marketing and I’d rather spend my money on another brewers beer.

I’ve also drank loads of Thornbridge Jaipur and I now ration it, so that it doesn’t go the same way as Punk IPA. If I’m in Waitrose, which I’m not that often anymore, then I might buy one if I see it, but gone are the weeks of drinking it endlessly. So it’s perfectly possible that these people have drank so much Hophead, or had too many duff pints, that they’ve become ambivalent to it and in some cases quite anti the beer.

Finally, could these punters have suffered from the mythical Lupulin Threshold Shift? While this last point is slightly tongue in cheek, it’s certainly possible, as one of the most vocal abusers works in a Cambridge pub and I know he’s a bit of a beer geek and has tried all sorts of exotic beer. Maybe Hophead is now too subtle for him and he craves more bitterness, more ABV or more of something else. Having said that, he was highly critical, scathing and negative about practically everything, so you have to take these things with a pinch of salt…

For the record, I’ve only ever had a half of Hophead, it’s not a beer I’ve come across very often, in fact, I think I’ve only ever seen it for sale twice. I really liked it and I can see why lots of people hold it in such high esteem. I’d love to try some more, but I always feel that I’m missing out on something if I don’t try beers I haven’t had before. There’s something to be said for the familiarity of a certain beer though, a know quantity, especially with some of the shockers you end up trying in your quest for the next great beer.

Bailey, of Boak and Bailey fame, commented on my bemoaning of Free Houses that serve the same beer as tied pub in the same locale. He relates a tale of locals haranguing the Landlord:

And, a bit of insight – we were in the George Inn at Middlezoy in Somerset last year where the landlord had gone to a lot of trouble to get local beer from Moor, Butcombe and (I think) RCH, but was being harangued by his regulars: "Get London Pride on!"

He explained that it cost more for him to buy, had to travel a long way and that he liked local beer.

They didn’t care. "Get London Pride on!"

This got me thinking again, while familiarity can breed ambivalence and contempt, maybe it can also act as a safety blanket. Bailey’s comment reminded me of an incident at my wedding, I’d gone to the trouble of getting in a couple of polypins of beer from the local Milton Brewery and was quite chuffed to have some decent beer to offer the guests. I told my parent’s next door neighbour, who I’ve known since I was a child and so was a guest, as I know he likes his beer. I was shocked at the time by his reply, as he said he’d rather just have a few pints of John Smiths, as this is what he drinks down the pub on his weekly outing with his friends.

To him, the constant nature of John Smiths is a safety blanket. He goes out once a week and knows that the few pints he has, will all be the same and will all taste the same as they did last week and the week before that. If they choose to go to another pub and it serves John Smiths, he knows it will taste the same there, he has his safety blanket. He’s not interested in trying different styles of beer, chopping and changing between pale and hoppy, stouts, lambics and the like. Maybe he doesn’t want to run the risk of having a bad pint, he’s only out once a week after all, so just wants to enjoy himself with a known constant.

I used to have a regular beer too. When I was a student at Heriot-Watt, I lived just off Leith Walk for a year and we used to frequent Robbie’s. The round was two pints of Scrumpy Jack and a Harviestoun Ptarmigan and we were in there so often, we didn’t need to ask, just a nod and the drinks were poured. I couldn’t tell you what other beer they sold, I only had eyes for Ptarmigan 85/-, as it was called back then. I don’t go to the pub often enough to have a regular beer anymore and the pubs I like to frequent, don’t normally have a regular beer either, which suits me just fine.

I started this blog because I’d got stuck in a rut, I was drinking the same old beers at home, week in week out. I suppose drinking them week in and week out was a safety blanket of sorts, I knew what I was getting. However, I can’t remember the last time I had a bottle of Adnams Explorer, Fullers Discovery and Wychwood WychCraft at home. I wouldn’t say that familiarly bred contempt, I’ve just moved on, my tastes have since changed.

I’m not really sure what I’m trying to say with this blog, I feel like I’m rambling, so I think I’ll try and conclude.

Just because one person likes to drink John Smiths at the exclusion of everything else, doesn’t make them a bad person who has no taste, they just want something different from you and me. Also, just because a beer tastes different to how you remember it, doesn’t necessarily meant that beer has changed. Our tastes can change over time, the change can be quite subtle, or happen in a heart beat. Just because we no longer drink a certain beer due to our tastes changing, doesn’t suddenly make it inferior or bad, just different.

If I were to make a point though, I suppose it’s that everyone is different and wants different things from beer. Just because someone wants something different from you doesn’t mean their wrong, or that you’re wrong. I don’t think there is a right and wrong when it comes to beer, just a difference of opinion.

My opinion? I’ll be drinking Hophead at the next available opportunity. I’m a sucker for reverse psychology…

6 Replies to “Does Familiarity Breed Contempt, Or Is It A Safety Blanket?”

  1. Beerier-than-thou types love to tell you that a beer you’ve just discovered isn’t what it used to be — we’ve been told that Jever, Pilsner Urquell, the beer at the Brunswick in Derby, Hoegaarden, and many others, are shadows of their former selves. We still think they taste good, though!

    I do think familiarity breeds contempt or at least apathy. On Lupulin shift, we certainly thought that SNPA was mindblowingly hoppy when we first had it, and now find its level of hopping pretty unremarkable, but that’s definitely us, not the beer.

    We think Hophead is great but it might fall between two stools: it’s not stolid and traditional, but nor is it experimental and extreme.

  2. I used to love hopead but then once got a whole slise of ham in it made me o ill was viomiting into an old man hat and wok up in bed with a sheep

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