Barley Whine: My Palate Then and Now

My wife has a running joke that whenever I express a strong negative opinion about something, I will end up loving it some time later. I hate to admit it, but when it comes to beer this has been totally dead on.

I began drinking beer at 21 which by Canadian standards is fairly late. My foray into the craft scene started with Innis and Gunn Original which I would buy six pack after six pack. Around this time I began to develop what I thought was my personal taste in beer and one thing was for sure: I hated IPAs. I thought it was stupid that IPA drinkers seemed to compete to find the most bitter beer which, to my inept palate, seemed like an effort to find the hardest beer to drink. 

What changed my opinion was a six pack sampler from the OCB. Among the offerings was Mad Tom IPA from Muskoka Brewery. My friend who was tasting with me also hated IPAs (and does to this day). After trying it out of bravado more than genuine interest, I discovered, much to my surprise that I quite enjoyed it. I then found myself in the curious position of defending a style that not 5 minutes before I had written off as snob-bait.

This pattern repeated itself with several styles including sour beers, fruit beers, wheat beers and strong lagers, although I will admit the last style is still not my go-to. However, one style remained firmly in my bad books: the Barley Wine (or Barleywine depending on who you ask). 

My first example was from Mill Street and both the beer and I were far to fresh to make it work. Aside from my general inexperience with high-octane beers at that point, I had yet to understand that some beers weren’t best straight from the brewery. However, what changed my mind this time was not tasting an especially fine example, but from reading a book on beer and food. I discovered that Barley Wines were far more food-friendly than some of their high-ABV siblings. As such, I’m now actively looking to stock my cellar with Barley Wines for special meals and late-night digestifs. 

The moral of this story: always seek to expand your palate. While I will not stretch to saying there are no bad beers, I would now say with some confidence that there is no bad style. 

My personal suggestions for introducing your palate to new styles:

1) Take it slow: share a well-known example with a friend. Look for one which has rated well, but seems approachable. Simply going toe-to-toe with the most extreme beer in the style will almost guarantee you turn yourself off for some time…only to write a recanting blog post some years later.

2) Try with food: Introducing yourself to new flavours can be easier if you have some familiar flavours to try them against. Look for foods you like and dig in.

3) Don’t force it: Your palate will change over time so if something just isn’t working, leave it and you may pick it up later. Or you might not, and that’s fine as well. 

The idea here is to try to expand your horizons while being honest with yourself about what you are enjoying. Beer ratings are not infallible and they cannot represent everyone’s palate. Don’t feel pressured into drinking beer you dislike just to appear more cultured. I’ve always found it much better to talk to someone with a genuine interest in a narrow set of styles than someone with a passing interest in everything. 


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