Compound drinker

In the first part of a new series, Rachel Hendry shares a manifesto for drinking outside your lane

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We are what we drink, as the saying more-or-less goes. What kind of person you are can be neatly defined by your order at the bar, it seems, and I am ‘a wine person’. Or so I have been told.

I was drawn to wine not for its social status or its alcohol by volume, but for the world it helped me to unlock. The topics I encountered when studying for my first WSET qualification were the same topics I regretted not paying enough attention to outside of school: geography, culture, psychology, language, biology, history, geology. An entire world of fermented flavour slowly revealing itself to me, one 125ml glass at a time.  

But it was not long before I began to suffocate under the weight of expected knowledge. 

Off the top of my head, I cannot list all ten crus of Beaujolais, nor do I care to, but that did not stop me from being asked at industry events as a way of proving myself. Men in grey suits, with personalities to match, would ask me for my tasting notes on an Albari​​ño only to tell me that I was wrong. A customer reduced me to tears over a decanter while his wife observed in silence. 

The more I learnt about wine, the more I wanted to escape it. I found solace instead, not with any oenological peer, but with friends who worked in beer. “I do not think, therefore I do not am,” I would joke as I ordered a half pint of lager at the bars at which they worked. And it was there, among the Pilsners, the IPAs, and the complete absence of expectation, that the questions started.

ILLUSTRATION: Heedayah Lockman

What does it mean to double dry hop, I would ask. How does brettanomyces translate to beer, I wondered aloud. Did you know that the waxy haze that clouds the skin of a grape is brewer’s yeast in its natural habitat, I would be quizzed in return. And that in Ancient Europe they used to throw in grapes and raisins to the brews to kick-start fermentation?

There was a camaraderie in this shared knowledge, this eager curiosity, this careful piecing together of two worlds. As it went on, I found I wasn’t just improving my understanding of beer, but the way I thought about wine was sharpening into focus, too. 

Where I used to feel confined in my tasting notes, I began to feel free. In explaining the characteristics of a Riesling I did not feel compelled to recite systematic tasting jargon, but was liberated to express what it is that I felt; that a Riesling tastes like the relief of clinking ice cold water on a hot summer's day, like sticky swirls of lime cordial slowly sinking to the bottom of the glass, like deep inhalations sitting in the backseat of a car at a petrol station. 

When presented with a new beer in return, I didn’t have the relevant dictionary to hand, forcing me to reach for genuine opinion, not rote-learned fact. Beers tasted not of recited pages from a textbook, but like eating a Twix on the walk home from school, like rounds of slightly charred toast for breakfast and the relief of watching the grass of my local park be mown in preparation for summer. 


Where I used to feel confined in my tasting notes, I began to feel free

The more I drank outside of wine and the more questions I asked – and was asked in return – the more confident I felt in truthfully communicating what was right in front of me. These tasting notes would have won me no points or prizes in an examination, but they felt truer to the drinks themselves. I was no longer tasting to prove myself, but to know myself. 

So, here is my opinion about drinking widely; a philosophy which, from this point, I shall refer to as Compound Drinking Theory: there is far more to learn together than there is apart.

Being strictly a ‘wine person’ did me more harm than good. If the whole point of learning about wine is to understand the wider world, then who am I to dictate where that world begins and ends? Because, despite what some people may have you think, there is no clear boundary between wine and beer; versions of one would not exist without versions of the other. To not acknowledge this relationship is to lose historical versions of ourselves in the process, too. 

ILLUSTRATION: Heedayah Lockman

I become frustrated when people who work in beer or in cider tell me they don’t “do” wine. There is an arrogance, I think, in declaring this purity of study. Wine, beer and cider have not evolved in their own disparate, parallel timelines, but in an undulating chorus of discovery that spans centuries, a chorus that will continue to sound out long after we have gone. To renounce wine in your reverence of beer and vice versa is to declare yourself ignorant of what it is to really think about what, how and why you drink the way you do. 


Despite what some people may have you think, there is no clear boundary between wine and beer

For example, in learning how cider has influenced wine, which has in turn influenced beer, I am becoming an archaeologist, slowly unearthing common ground, discovering a foundation upon which a larger coalition can be built. How can we expect the wider, systematic issues of harm and diminishment in the drinks industry to be tackled when there is such an insistence on drinking and thinking within your lane? To encourage empathy is to acknowledge similarities and to respectfully learn from differences—it is here that a framework for dealing with shared struggles begins to reveal itself. This is not a movement that can occur by sticking to what you know. 

One thing I know for sure is that I do not currently know as much as I’d like, and I have no hope in improving on that by sticking exclusively to wine for the rest of my life. I want to start exploring the boundaries that have been built between these different drinks, to see what lies behind them. Have they always been there and looked like this? What patterns are there to be pieced together? What lessons to be learned?

My hope for this column is that by beginning to shine a magnifying glass on the shared histories between beer, cider, wine and a wider range of alcoholic drinks, I might encourage curiosity and care whenever a new beverage is stumbled upon. That drinks that may have been previously classed as irrelevant are dusted off and brought back into conversations. That maybe even the most experienced professionals may learn something new. 

Welcome, my friends, to Compound Drinking.

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