Generally if you name a food or drink, people know whether they like it or not. It is rare for someone to drink a merlot, or try pizza from a new restaurant — toasted bread, melted cheese, tomato sauce and toppings - and be wildly surprised at their reaction to the taste.
I can't quite figure that out for pale ales though. Some pale ales and IPA's had flavors I really liked, and some had flavors I really disliked. I had a tough time predicting which ones I would like and not like.
I had some suspicions - I didn't think I liked beers with much higher ABV than normal or beers that had citrus in them. But I also liked some beers with high ABV and one of my favorite "everyone has it" beers - Sierra Nevada - describes itself as "pine and citrus," so that wasn't quite right.
Anyway, I decided to be somewhat rigorous about this and order a few different types of beers from the bottle shop, and then figure out what I liked or didn't like about them. It turns out the key is the hops - there are some hop varieties (Cascade, Chinook, Noble) that I like a lot, and other hop varieties (Citra, Galaxy, Enigma, others) that I don't at all. If the hop description mentions passion fruit, I probably won't like it. Other than that, I can keep lists.
This is both satisfying - I can predict which beers I will like and not like, now — and frustrating. Why is this so difficult for consumers to figure out? Why does the category definition of "pale ale" include so much stuff? Like imagine if you ordered a "cheese pizza", and sometimes it would come with anchovies and sometimes with pineapple, and sometimes with nothing. People would demand better words to describe the differences between the things.
If you have ideas or answers, I would love to hear from you.
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