Thursday, August 7, 2008

Does Guinness Taste Better in Ireland? Or Context with Wine and Beer

The answer to the question above is yes, but only a little bit. You have probably heard this before from anybody who has traveled to Ireland - that Guinness here is mediocre but fantastic in Ireland. Why would this be the case? People will tell you that Guinness doesn't travel well, but that's wrong. I know this because I can tell no difference between Guinness in London and Guinness in Fredericksburg, and London is much closer to Dublin. My theory is that the domestic recipe is slightly different, or perhaps they use higher quality ingredients, but the bigger explanation is Context. Context is very important with wine and beer but usually ignored.

I often have people tell me about how they just can't find this wine they had in France/Italy/Spain or wherever, but it was so amazing. I'm sure the wine was good, but probably not that good. Part of how a wine tastes has to do with where we are. If you are in a bar in Paris or near the beach in Barcelona, you want that wine to taste good. How you feel will actually affect the flavor. You might think Sherry is gross, but if you're on the beach in southern Spain, the Mediterranean breeze hitting your face, that salty Sherry will taste like the beautiful sea itself. This is what elevates wine and beer (whiskey too, I suppose) above other beverages - it is an experience, not just a drink. That's why wine has this ability sometimes to bring back memories or transport us to another place. It's the beauty of the beverage. When you're in a cozy pub in Ireland, on vacation, chatting away with a friendly Irishman, of course that Guinness is going to taste better than the can you had at home.

Remember context the next time you search out a wine or beer you had on vacation - you will probably be disappointed. But the good news is that the European wines and beers you get here are just good as those in Europe. They will only seem not as good, at least at first. I never had a beer in England better than the J.W. Lees beers available right here. And California wine tastes exactly the same in London as it does in Napa as it does in Fredericksburg.

So the next time you are deciding whether you like a wine/beer or not, remember the context in which you are trying it. Guinness tastes better in Ireland, Scotch tastes better in Edinburgh, Chianti tastes better in Tuscany, and nowhere does Virginia wine taste better than in Virginia.

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