SCENE. EXT. THE FUTURE. RAIN HITS THE PAVEMENT HARD FROM THE SKY. NEON LIGHTS UP EVERY BUILDING, WHICH IS A SKYSCRAPER, BECAUSE IT IS THE FUTURE, AND THE ONLY BUILDINGS WE CAN DEAL WITH NOW ARE EXCEPTIONALLY TALL AND CONCRETE ONES. YOU KNOW THE ONES. TYPE OF BUILDINGS ALAN SUGAR WALKS SLOWLY ALONG THE TOP OF DURING THE FINAL SHOT OF THE APPRENTICE OPENING TITLES. ONLY: MORE IN THE FUTURE. ROBOTS CLEAN THE STREETS NOW. THE HOVER-POLICE CAREEN AROUND A CORNER, SKIDDING ON AN ENDLESS NOTHING, IN PURSUIT OF A HYPER CRIMINAL. CLOSE IN ON A PUB. THE PUB IS CALLED SOMETHING FUTURISTIC LIKE 'THE iPAD & WILL.I.AM.' GO INSIDE. AT THE BAR, HUMANS MINGLE WITH ROBOTS. ALL OF THE HUMANS HAVE GRIZZLED LOOKING FULL-HEAD SCARS AND LIKE MELTED SCALPS AND EMBEDDED FACIAL DIRT, INJURIES FROM THE MEME WAR OF TWO-THOUSAND SIXTY-TWO. THE ROBOTS ALL DRINK PLASTIC PINT GLASSES OF NUTS AND BOLTS AND OIL. AND THEN, THERE IN THE CORNER, THERE'S THIS DICKHEAD DRINKING A BOTTLE OF BEER WHILE WEARING A SAMSUNG VR HEADSET, THE ABSOLUTE FUCKING STATE OF HIM, JESUS FUCKING CHRIST:
When somebody offers you a sweet nectar-like taste of the very future of beer itself, you take it. Because, largely, beer has remained unchanged for centuries. It's some hops and barley and water mashed in a big tin and let to go all fermenty and then, uh, brewed I guess (?), and long story short somehow it comes out of pumps marked 'Stella' in pretty much every pub in Britain and then you buy it and drink it and three to six pints later you think it's acceptable to sing Oasis songs out loud and piss on buildings. In many ways, this Friday night ritual is a cornerstone of British culture: we consume beer, we piss it out; we are only brave enough to truly be lairy when under its influence; almost all leisure-time unsexual adult interactions are spent with a pint of it on a table in between. Take beer away and you slaughter our culture. Stop yeasting beer together in a big tub and we'll all forget how to talk to each other. But does it really need altering, at all? It's an extremely basic juice we use to help punch each other. Does it really need any embellishment?Innis & Gunn seem to think so, which is why they have invited me to a pub in north London at 5pm in the afternoon to sink into a virtual reality (VR) hellscape designed to help provoke my tongue into tasting beer differently. The theory is pretty neat: you know how beer tastes differently when you're in a field, the breeze stirs gently through your hair, your brow misted softly with the honest sweat of a good job well done, perhaps a tent you put up, perhaps a pig you just roasted, the sweet flesh of it salty against the soil-like smell of the earth? Or how that first crisp taste of a cool bottled lager retrieved fresh from a babbling brook tastes so sweet, so good, that rush of cold and fizz, perhaps you have been up since five fishing, hooking through the rivers for a carp to feed your family, feed your small but mighty boy, your boy monstrously strong, for his age, a prodigy of power and strength, he is only five but he can lift you and your good wife too, you fear him, the boy, you fear that one day soon you will not have the strength to control him, you will either have to kill him or turn him loose, his passion for strength tears at his little body, but for now he needs his food, and you your beer? Or remember how that one time you were at Download and you were parched and thirsty and you found a can of trod-on Red Stripe on the ground outside your tent and you're pretty sure the wet on top of it was either rain or piss but it tasted so good, so good, your body needed liquids no matter how cheap and malty?
Well, the idea is that you hand over the faculties of sight and sound to a Samsung VR headset and headphone combination and there you are transported into various Scottish vistas – orange crops shimmy in the wind, a peaceful soft-floored wood is illuminated with brisk clear sunlight, the sea swishes soft and grey against the beach, a large bright cave with no sinister vibe about it at all, a lazy river, a heavy heathered moor – and then you drink beer while looking at them. The idea is that your simple human mind is tricked into forgetting it is in a pub in Highbury surrounded by a temporary wooden wall, and instead thinks it is braced by the wind in Scotland, and adjusts the taste of the beer in your mouth accordingly.Does it work? Astoundingly yes.
Firstly, it is my sad duty to report that the human mind is a crock of shit. It is so, so easily tricked by a Samsung Galaxy slid into a facial device and some over-ear headphones. I don't think my brain suspended disbelief for even one full second into the VR experience, it just instantly assumed: oh, okay, I am in Scotland now, guess I best reappraise how this beer tastes accordingly. I am furious with my mind with how easily it is tricked by computers. I thought we had a bond of trust set up but apparently not, no.Secondly, much as I wanted to be cynical about standing in a VR scene in the middle of a pub drinking beer, it did genuinely make the beer I was drinking taste different. Not completely different, obviously – this isn't some Willy Wonka-style science, it still is fundamentally some beer and some headphones – but certain notes and flavours came out more than others. As Innis & Gunn's founder Dougal Sharp told me, drinking beer in another reality is similar to an old blind-tasting trick brewers have done for years, where you use low light, blacked-out pint glasses, blindfolds and various other ways of muffling how much sensory access you get to the beer, so the actual in-the-mouth tasting of it is a purer experience.
"You basically desensitise all the key things you use to interpret," he told me. "Look at a stout. If you can't see that it's black – you can't see what's in the glass – your taste perception is more open. You're more prone to think more clinically and analytically." It's the same with an Oculus Rift telling you you're in some woods. "Picture standing in a forest: you often get that mossy, that kind of damp humidity? Actually, that seemed to set your taste buds up really well to taste the vanilla and toffee flavours of the beer."A lot of what your taste perception is is built up on memories," Dougal explains, citing experts they worked with when developing the experience whose name I didn't really catch (I was in a VR forest getting pissed, journalistic integrity went out the window). "So when you're in a pub, you've got millions and millions of pub visits for your tastebuds and your taste memory to fall back on. You know what beer is going to taste like: you've got a basic taste memory. But the interesting thing here is, once you take yourself out of that, you can't fall back on those memories. It does totally change your perception." Plus, importantly, it's kind of fun. Not 'stop talking to your actual mates to go and hang out in virtual reality' fun, but fun nonetheless.Is this the future of beer? Nobody wants to go that far exactly (plus, the fear, obviously, is synthesising an entire new constructed reality in which to drink beer will leave to an Inception-like loss of grip on which level of reality you actually exist in, and a figment-of-your-imagination Marion Cotillard stabs you to death while you, pissed and wearing a Google Cardboard on your face, desperately try and find your mouth with a pint of Heineken) but still, it's something to shake up a pretty tired old recipe, isn't it. Until #brands get fully onto the idea, of course, and you're not allowed to buy a pint of Foster's before sitting through a six-minute long immersive VR advert where two Australians shout "HOO ROO!" and throw volleyballs at you. That's actually the future, I've just realised. Somehow we will conspire to ruin beer.