The Secret to Great Tasting Beer

The Taipan Wall at sunset - The Stone Mind

This is the story of the best beer I’ve ever had. It wasn’t a fancy beer, by any means. In fact, I think it was the sort you could buy in any grocery store or gas station in that part of Australia. But in the years since I imbibed this particular brewski, it has remained in my memory while a thousand other beers, many of more prestigious pedigree, have come and gone. You’ve probably had a similar experience—maybe not with beer, but with whatever aprés-climb beverage you prefer—and I guess now there’s even a scientific explanation for the whole phenomenon.

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The hike from the Stapylton Campground to the Taipan Wall starts with a steep climb up a long stone slab. You follow a winding dirt path, dodge a few grazing kangaroos (not really… but possibly), navigate some tightly vegetated corridors, and arrive drenched in sweat 30 minutes later at one of the most epic pieces of stone ever bolted. The boldly streaked orange face rises with steady overhang 200 feet into the air and shrinks horizontally into the distance as if without end. The routes themselves are mostly questing and run-out. As such, they require great technical skill to ascend, or, barring that, preternatural endurance. An iron constitution, common amongst the local climbing populace, is also handy here.

On my visit I had only middling technique and a constitution of a more malleable sort (perhaps copper or tin?), not to mention a boulderer’s endurance. Luckily, my belayer, who I’d met in the campground, was trustworthy, encouraging, and loaned me his No. 2 Camalot that would end up keeping me off the deck on the first of many long falls I’d take during my early encounters with the great wall of Taipan.

All told, my first day was a long one, what with the early morning approach, the sandbagged routes, the many hours of exertion with minimal provisions (thanks to a tight budget and poor planning), and the return to the car at dusk. Back at the parking lot, one of my new Aussie compatriots, glowing from a hard-fought last-go-best-go send, handed me a cold one. I pried it open with a lighter and stood in the dark next to his van with the small crew of down-under rock jocks.

The chilled bottle glass soothed my fingertips, worn raw from the grit of the stone. My exhausted shoulder quivered as I lifted the beer to my lips. But when the malty ambrosia flooded my dehydrated mouth, a radiating warmth cascaded down through my body. I was divided: should I guzzle the whole thing in an effusive paroxysm of gustatory joy? Or would it be better to nurse it, to better savor each effervescent sip? I chose the latter, growing mellower and mellower as the bottle drained into my empty stomach, until finally the world faded into mellow satisfaction and I was left starting up into the shimmering mist of stars, phasing into existence above our heads.

You’ve probably guessed it by now, but it was the exertion, the tribulations, yes even the acute pain of a long day spent grappling with a soaring wall of stone that resulted in a transubstantiation of a lowly beer into a Hero Beer—the type of beer that you taste on a nigh-molecular level rather than just swill down perfunctorily.

Though this phenomenon has been long known to outdoors people, there appears to be some new science to back it up. In a recent study on the effects of pain on the experience of pleasure, a team asked participants to hold their hands in a bucket of ice water for as long as they could, then gave them a cookie (on a side note: where do I sign up for these studies?). Not only did those who held their hand in the bucket indicate enjoying the cookie more, but follow-up studies showed that “pain increases the intensity of a range of different tastes and reduces people’s threshold for detecting different flavours.” Of course, we don’t need a study to tell us that food and drink taste better after a gnarly outing, but it’s interesting to know that there’s more to it than just being hungry and thirsty.

The same study pointed out that the pain of physical exertion can cause our bodies to produce opioids responsible for feelings of euphoria, that pain focuses our attention and “brings us in touch with our immediate sensory experience of the world,” and that pain helps to create bonds between individuals who’ve experienced it together. These findings point to so many of the things we love about climbing (transcendence, immediacy, camaraderie), and remind us that the absence of pain does not, in fact, equal pleasure. Pain, at lest a certain type of it, can actually be a key to pleasure—at least to the deep, resonant pleasure that climbers experience during and after an experience lovingly known as a “sufferfest.”

This study also leads us to reconsider so-called “alpinist’s amnesia,” which leads many a battered, malnourished, and frostbitten mountaineer to return to the peaks that flogged them. Maybe it’s not that they forget the pain, but that they actually crave its side-effects, among them a heightened sense of reality.

Plus, it makes even a cheap beer taste amazing.

Flappers, Gobies, and the Perception of Pain

Climber hands
Pain isn’t absolute; it is increased or diminished by context. Photo: Leici Hendrix.

“If my hands felt this way because they were burned, it would be really upsetting,” she said. “But because they feel like this from climbing hard, I kind of like it. Is that weird?”

Just back from a long session at the climbing gym, my wife held out her hands, palm up, to display skin worn raw from the sandpapery texture of the plastic holds. The callus just below her knuckle had grown so pronounced that she could no longer squeeze her wedding ring over it. Her fingers were tattered and torn, but she presented them with pride.

I didn’t think it was weird. After all, what athlete hasn’t gotten a sense of satisfaction from the pain of hard work? We climbers nearly always return home with some abrasion or other: scraped knees and elbows and ankle bones, hands covered with gobies from being jammed into cracks, bloody flappers on our fingers were rough stone caught soft skin and didn’t let go…

While these injuries might sound bad to an outsider, they are no less than badges of honor, satisfying reminders that we have, for a time at least, embraced our physicality without holding back. Like the soreness from a hard bike ride up a canyon or long day spent skinning up and skiing down, these wounds are the result of passion and dedication, and the associated pain is transformed for it.

The same week my wife made her observation, I heard via Radiolab about a medical study from 1956 called “Relationship of Significance of Wound to Pain Experienced,” which found that soldiers wounded in battle tended to experience less severe pain than civilians who suffered comparable injuries. The reason, the study suggested, wasn’t that soldiers are tougher than everyone else, but that their injuries meant something different to them.

For a soldier in WWII, a gunshot wound might mean a trip home, a way back to the things he loved. For a civilian, the same wound carried little upside: would he be able to work? Would insurance cover the medical bills? How would the injury affect his family? Civilians with gunshot wounds experienced pain more profoundly, amplified as it was by mental anguish, and asked for more painkillers as a result.

“The pain that you feel when you’re hit by the bullet is not just about the bullet,” explains Robert Krulwich in the Radiolab episode titled “Placebo.” “It’s just as much about the story that comes with the bullet.”

Another example of this: have you ever noticed the way professional athletes respond to serious injury, like a torn ACL or badly sprained ankle? The pain visibly grips their bodies and contorts their faces as they lie on the field or the court. Clearly, it hurts like hell, but I think what we’re seeing is the reaction to the frightening implications of such an injury. “For many athletes, their sport is their identity. An injury that takes them out of the game can feel like the end of the world,” wrote a blogger on the topic.

The decades-old study and my wife’s observation went hand in hand. Pain, like so many of the things we experience, is as much in the mind as in the body. When we look at our pain from one angle, it is only pain, only a bad thing. When we come at it from another direction, it becomes a sign of dedication or a chance to grow. Taking control of our inner perception of things, rather than seeking merely to control things themselves, is among the biggest challenges we face in this life, but also, I think, among the most important.