Context is all

You’re in a far away bar with the sun streaming down, in a happy place, and naturally there’s a glass of beer to hand. What’s it like? Hoppy, bitter, dry or sour? I dunno, comes the reply from Pete Brown, who explains that context is essential when considering the best beer you’re ever drunk


What’s the best beer you’ve ever drunk? 

I’ll go first.

I remember it so well. We were on honeymoon in Zanzibar, in Stone Town, and there’s a bar there right on the harbour that goes out over the water on a wooden pontoon. When you sit right at the end you’re in the middle of the water, and the dried palm roof above the deck puts the table half in shade and half not. Except the situation is never fixed: the sun slowly creeps round, and if you’re there long enough, you find yourself directly in its crosshairs.  

This happened more than once. We didn’t notice at first, because we were sitting there with our shades on, alternating between reading our books and drinking in the view. The water was bright, the sun was sparkling off the ripples like twinkling stars. I’d never seen anything so blue, so pure. Every 30 seconds or so, a shoal of flying fish would break the surface and skip along it. We couldn’t take our eyes off the water, and suddenly we realised we were baking in the sun and viciously thirsty. 

We ordered a couple of beers, and two minutes later there was a waiter in a white starched jacket with a silver tray. There were two Pilsner glasses, frosted because they’d obviously just come out of the freezer, and two bottles of beer with chunks of ice sliding slowly down the sides. The waiter poured the beer and it had a thick foam on top of the gold, and we. Just. Necked. Them. 

The best beer I have ever, ever had.

At this point, you could be forgiven for responding, ‘That sounds amazing. What was the beer?’

I’m afraid I have absolutely no idea. The local beer. Doesn’t matter.

‘What did it taste like? Was it particularly bitter? Clean? Watery? Strong?’

Sorry mate, can’t remember.

I’ve asked this question of many other people, and while I haven’t yet met anyone else who can corroborate my experience that Blues Bar in Stone Town harbour is the best beer bar in the world, their answers are otherwise very similar. Variations involve weddings, infinity pools — lots of infinity pools — hotel roof terraces, significant birthdays and toasts to lost friends or relatives. 

So far, they have never involved evaluations of hop bitterness, head-shattering sourness, or the subtle interplay of balance and flavour. 

The beer is a catalyst for a magical moment that can be recalled in incredible detail, in every respect — apart from the beer itself. Without the prompt, the cue, of the beer, the memory wouldn’t be so complete. But the memory is of the moment the beer created, a memory shaped like a big fat doughnut.

A cup of tea a is always better if you’re outdoors. Guinness tastes better in Ireland. And Ouzo cannot be drunk outside Greece.

We all know this. But often, when we have these experiences, we dismiss our impressions as sentimentality. When we bring that bottle of Ouzo, or whatever that bottle of Zanzibari beer was, back home in a suitcase, open it under leaden grey skies and find it severely lacking, we beat ourselves up for having been so impressionable. 

But we weren’t being stupid: these things really do taste better in the right situation. 

Context is everything. What we see, hear and feel has a massive effect on our perceptions of flavour. On top of that, all this sensory information isn’t just splashing onto a blank mental canvas. If you’re happier or more relaxed, if you’re comfortable and warm, if you have less noise going on in your head, there’s simply more capacity to truly experience what you’re tasting, and a more favourable environment in which to appreciate it.

So stop feeling guilty that you once proclaimed Mythos lager, or that fruity young red that only cost you two euros from the market, or even grappa —yes, grappa — to be the best thing you’d ever tasted. At the time — in the context you tasted it in — it really was.