O captain! My captain!

A brief reflection on the freedom to like or dislike beers, inspired by an 80s melodrama.

A7E8GA DEAD POETS SOCIETY Robin Williams in the 1989 Warner film

To fully understand poetry, we must first be fluent with its meter, rhyme and figures of speech, then ask two questions: 1) How artfully has the objective of the poem been rendered and 2) How important is that objective? Question 1 rates the poem’s perfection; question 2 rates its importance. And once these questions have been answered, determining the poem’s greatness becomes a relatively simple matter.

You may recognize those lines.  They are quoted from a fictional professor of the English language by doomed student Neil Perry in the movie, Dead Poets Society. (The clue that it’s a fake is the opening split infinitive.)

It is the crux of a scene in which Robin Williams’s anti-establishment English teacher, John Keating, is attempting to instill freedom of thought in his poetry appreciation class.  He tricks Perry into reading the first few lines of a banal poetry textbook aloud, before declaring the words to be “excrement” and vivaciously instructing every student to rip the pages from his book.

As my beloved beer industry evolves, and as beer drinkers become more aware than ever of styles, ingredients and so on, I’m reminded slightly of the salutory lesson of Dead Poets Society.  The film goes a little far with its implication that suicide is preferable to artistic frustration, but the central message – that the merit of art is in its enjoyment, not its critical appreciation – resonates with me.

I’m all for the educated appreciation of beer, although it’s far from necessary for the enjoyment of the drink.   I support the efforts of the Cicerone Program, that now lists almost 77,000 people as having passed at least one of its four levels of beer knowledge accreditation.  I read and enjoy magazines such as All About Beer and Draft, and I have a shelf groaning under the weight of a growing number of excellent books about beer.

But I get a little nervous about any perception that there are beers you “should” or “should not” like.  There’s a bit of a vibe gnawing at me that if a beer has a perfect score on a rating website, or if it sells in such small quantities that people line up outside the brewery for it, it must be “great” and you should like it.

Rather like the fictional Pritchard method for plotting the greatness of a poem on a chart, if we plot online rating on one axis, and scarcity on the other, can we easily measure the greatness of a beer?

Of course not.

The Pritchard Model Of Measuring A Beer’s Greatness

Writer Aaron Goldfarb recently remarked that small batch double IPAs and barrel-conditioned Imperial Stouts inevitably seem to top the charts these days.  He argues the point that just because a beer is rare, it shouldn’t automatically be considered better than a beer in more abundant supply.

Which is not quite the point I want to make.   My argument is that the appreciation and enjoyment of beer is subjective, and that subjectivity is a valuable liberty.  It depends on context, it depends on individual preferences, it depends on emotional connections to people, places and traditions.  Just like John Keating’s visceral instructions to his class to be confident to draw their own conclusions about a poem, so I implore you to be free to like or dislike a beer as you please.

I make no bones with the idea of online ratings, reviews and recommendations.  I travel a lot, and heaven knows how I’d get on unless my phone could give me a few pointers about hotels, restaurants and bars I should look out for.  (Or, indeed, which ones to avoid!)

But I’d rather we don’t create a world where it’s okay to turn one’s nose up at somebody else’s beer choice.  I think we should all be free, as the Dead Poets Society was, to live deliberately, live deep and to suck the marrow out of life.  Or, at least be free from the judgement of others while sucking the beer from a glass.

That’s my particular vision.  If it rings true for you, great.  Just please don’t get up on your desk the next time you see me.  It would be terribly awkward and probably a little embarrassing for us both.

A great beer? A scarce beer? Worthy of the hype? Well, I liked it.


  • Apologies to Walt Whitman
  • I was in part inspired by my friend Chris McClellan’s post on CraftBeer.com
  • I actually quite like Dead Poets Society and there’s a small chance I’m mushy enough on the inside to get a bit teared up when watching it.

3 Comments on O captain! My captain!

  1. Jeff Alworth // December 10, 2016 at 5:43 pm // Reply

    Split infinitives are no crime, except to grammar teachers who believe far too much in arbritrary, prescriptivist rules. Hobgoblins, little minds and all that.

    Otherwise, excellent thinking. I imagine that the goal of every brewer is to create a great-selling classic. It’s the hardest thing to do in beer.

    • I have no real issue with split infinitives. However, I believe it was specifically planted in that “quote” to indicate it wasn’t a real book as there’s no way an old-school English professor in the 1950s would have allowed its presence.

      On reflection, the thinking is okay: I’m now not sure what the greatness of the beer would be (scarce or not scarce?) and think it may therefore be a redundant metaphor. Heigh-ho. That’s what I get for dashing off a 700 word post in haste 🙂

  2. Hear, hear for the value of championing the right to hold an opinion about a beer that differs from ones own (or worse, from the received wisdom of the cool kids)!

    for heavens’ sake though, whatever about the split infinitive, please don’t have a pop at the Oxford comma

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