Beer and music simply belong together

By Pete Brown

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Beer Sense

Pete Brown: "Beer will never lose its ability to engage and amaze, no matter how long you spend studying it"
Pete Brown: "Beer will never lose its ability to engage and amaze, no matter how long you spend studying it"
The overlapping influences of our senses play a key role in our choices of drinks and music, says Pete Brown.

One thing I hear a lot these days, as more new enthusiasts fall in love with beer, is a self-deprecating remark along the lines of “Oh, I haven’t been drinking beer very long. I’m still learning all about it.”

The implication is that because I’ve been doing it for a long time, I know everything there is to know about beer. But while I certainly know an awful lot more than a novice, in the big picture I doubt I’m that much further on than they are. I’m still learning all the time.

I still have a few gaps in my knowledge about conditioning and cellaring. I’ve never really got my head around German beer styles as I’ve done with other traditions. And I probably could only name half the breweries who have opened in London – where I live – over the past five years.

I really must try harder.

But as well as these fairly obvious shortcomings, which I eternally seek to address, I’m also learning more about beer in completely new and unexpected areas.

Sensory perception

Regular readers will know I often use music analogies when discussing beer. I did so in my last column. And I take a keen interest in bands that launch their own beers.

A few years ago I started doing a jokey ‘beer and music-matching’ event as a different, fun way of doing beer tastings — an affectionate spoof on beer and food-matching.

No-one was more surprised than I when it turned out I was on to something, and leading neuroscientists working in the field of sensory perception were quite interested in what I was doing.

Neuroscience in its current form is a very new discipline. The new technologies we have for gene analysis and the mapping of brain functions are less than 20 years old, and are revealing a great deal about how the brain works.

One of the most fascinating areas of research is in how we perceive the world around us. Headlines include the revelation that we have more than five senses, which are not separate: they overlap with each other.

The ear does much more than hear. A lot of what we think of as hearing is actually visual. Flavour is far more about smell than taste. Oh, and often, your brain lies to you about where you experience sensory information, and is far more influenced by environment, knowledge and memory than you think.

Musical styles

It’s all very mind-blowing — and you can explore these concepts in laboratory conditions with flavour compounds on bits of paper and pure sonic tones recorded on a computer.

But where’s the fun in that? You can also do similar things in a room above a pub using beer and iTunes. Even if it does contaminate the experiment a little, it’s possible to show that different musical styles map on to the four basic flavours of sweet, bitter, salty and acidic.

And once you’ve established that, you can scientifically match different styles of music that enhance the experience of different flavours. And it really works.

For me this helps explain a lot of stuff. There’s a reason I talk about music so much in a beer context: they belong together. Working on this project has made me think about the importance of pubs in launching the careers of new bands, and of how important a singsong around the piano was before the age of rock-and-roll.

The first Victorian music halls were pubs — and they went on to give us not just popular music, but the whole concept of variety entertainment. Pub gigs for established musicians seem to be newly in vogue, with Coldplay’s Chris Martin and, just a couple of weeks ago, Blur’s Damon Albarn, popping into their local to belt out a few tunes.


Beer and music are both communal, both celebratory, and both have been around for as long as civilisation itself.

I appreciate the delights of a quiet pub where I can hear myself think as much as anyone, especially as there seems to be a growing number of bar staff who don’t realise that inflicting on us their personal taste in music is not necessarily the best way to create an appropriate ambience.

But beer and music belong together. And studying them together, how they work and bounce off each other, is a whole new learning experience. Beer will never lose its ability to engage and amaze, no matter how long you spend studying it.

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