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The Buzz

A Beerfly's view. If you see anything here that seems crazy, click here.

Vintage Buzz

2007 Buzz

June '07: Blind, But now I see

May '07: They're Baaaack...

Apr. '07: Deadly Serious

Mar. '07: Defined or Divided?

Feb. '07: Intro to Blog

Jan. '07: Best of 2006

2006 Buzz

Dec. '06: 10 Predictions

Nov. '06: Cold November Rain

Oct. '06: Just Because You Can

Sept. '06: It's Worth It

August '06: Messin' With Us

July '06: Break the Chains

June '06: Viva El Hefe!

May '06: Just Like Wine

Apr. '06: Mixed Messages

Mar. '06: We Print the Truth

Feb. '06: The Fairer Sex

Jan. '06: Best of 2005

2005 Buzz

Dec. '05: Look at Me Drink!

Nov. '05: Malt Monsters

Oct. '05: Sweetness

Sep. '05: When to Fold

Aug. '05: Little Nightmares

July '05: American Spirit

June '05: Miller Time 

May. '05: Breathing Beer 

April '05: Now It's Personal

Mar. '05: 7% Ain't Enough

Feb. '05: Down to 18 

Jan. '05: Best of 2004 

2004 Buzz

Dec. '04: Joys of the Dark 

Nov. '04: The Next Store 

Oct. '04: Beer's Image 

Sept. '04: Clearly Insane 

August '04: Love of Lager

July '04: Speak Up!

June '04: Get Drafted

May '04: Shedding Tiers

April '04: Keg Party

March '04: Ultra Madness

February '04: Case Law

January '04: Best of 2003

2003 Buzz

Dec. '03: Wine good!

Nov. '03: Say Anything

Oct. '03: Shots at Saveur

Sept. '03: Pay For It!

August '03: Subtlety

July '03: RIP, Corner Bar

June '03: Screw 'Em!

May '03: Extreme Beer?

April '03: Liquor Taxes

March '03: St. Patrick's

February '03: Coffee

January '03: Taxes

July, 2007

Taste: Part II

The beer pours in an amber cascade, heavily-freighted with estery scents of just-ripe forelle pears, fresh-cut orange marmalade, and Rowntree's Fruit Pastilles (the blackcurrants). Foam builds in a parchment flowering, a range of fine to medium-fine spheres. The first taste rolls into the mouth like a fleet of crystal malt bicyclists
with a brisk following breeze of Chinook hop flavor, but it quickly turns heavy and sticky with butterscotch toffee flavors...

Beer is an attractive copper-brown color, with fruity esters over a nice cap of light tan foam. Clear malt and hop flavors balance well; there is a hint of diacetyl which is not appropriate to style. Beer finishes clean with a slight lingering bitterness.

Good beer.


Same beer? Yup. Same taster? Not likely. Last month's Buzz, about blind tasting, got me thinking again this month about another aspect of tasting: recognizing and communicating. If you're just tasting for yourself, that's simple enough. But if you're tasting to judge, or rate, or write, you've got to strive to describe accurately, in some depth, and with some sense of where a beer should be.

One of the hallmarks of descriptive drinks writing is the conjuring of multiple adjectives and lengthy metaphor. Some of it is simply boredom: you can only say "Good body, nice hop flavor, clean finish" so often. Likewise, even the dullest reader (or editor) is going to suspect something's up when all your beer reviews say "Good beer," "Okay beer," or "This one sucked," so you've got to do better.

The question is where does 'better' become ridiculous. As an editor, I've had folks send tasting notes on whiskies or beers that were simply right over the top, pure creative writing. I see the same thing in magazines or in the beer-rating websites; folks who let their vocabulary and enthusiasm carry them right out across the plains, out of control, drunk as lords. It's become silly.

Of course, on the other end of the scale, you've got these folks who think any verbiage is overdone. They see taste and aroma descriptors as being "stolen from wine labels" (as if wine marketers had the exclusive rights to words...) and generally a load of horsedung. "You can't taste that in beer!" I've been told any number of times by folks who mostly refused to sample the beer I was describing. 

Does it really matter? Who really reads tasting notes anyway, other than the marketing department? I've been told over and over again by brewers that they don't pay any attention to tasting notes (must be why they get so pissed about them when they don't agree...), I know I'm not usually that interested in reading them, I'd rather go and taste the beer myself. So other than when I'm paid to do it, why do I bother writing them?

Because the act of writing tasting notes focuses my senses on the beer, or the whiskey. Writing these notes isn't so much for you, the readers (though they do serve as a start-point for discussion, and maybe a basis for comparison), because of the "it's my mouth, not yours" issue. It's because writing down what I think about the beer, what I smell and see and taste, makes me think more deeply about whether I like the beer, and why. 

To know what I'm tasting in a beer (and to know what I'm talking about) requires me to think about tasting and smelling everything: what I eat, what I drink, what I smell as I cook, on the breeze as I walk or drive, in front of me when I work (one lambic reminded me exactly of the smell of freshly cracked granite). That's the most useful thing I can tell you about how to write about tasting beer, meaning how to focus on tasting your beer more deeply: look for comparisons to things you know

Does the beer smell like another beer? Valid descriptor, use it. Does it smell like bread? Check, but what kind of bread? Does it smell like raisins, pears, corn, smoke? Fresh raisins? Chewed-on raisins? Golden raisins? Ripe pears, just-ripe pears, overripe pears? Anjou or Barlett? And so on. Once you start making these comparisons, you start to think about them every time you eat, and that makes you a better taster. 

Why? What is the point of being a "better" taster? Let me go back to one of the most influential discussions I've ever had, an interview with beer importer (and, at the time, manager of Ommegang) Don Feinberg back in 1999. I had asked him: "If you could find some kind of control room to muck with the American palate, what would you change?" This was his answer:

What I would do for the American palate is to say, you should enjoy life and part of that is eating well. Knowing whether youíre eating well is understanding your own likes and dislikes. Understanding your own likes and dislikes requires that you have experience. So what I would wave the magic wand about would be to say, experience many things, and see if you like it. After a while you will amass a book of what you like and donít like, and that will be your taste. Which means that having taste doesnít mean youíre a snob, itís knowing what you like, and there is nothing wrong with that. But that knowledge, particularly in food, is missing. Look, if itís worth putting in your mouthóand like Goethe said, you are what you eatóitís worth being good. And you can be the judge of that. But knowing what good is, yeah, that takes a little bit of experience.

It's not about being a snob. It's not about knowing what something tastes like, or telling other people what they should be tasting. That's not the point. The point is to enjoy life, and to do that, it's good to know your own taste. Americans don't react very well to connoisseurship, which simply means "knowing." There's nothing in the definition about lording your knowledge over other folks, or lifting your pinkie. 

But it does take experience. It doesn't necessarily have to be beer-drinking experience; I've met wine people and food people who pick up tasting beer very quickly, because they understand about deeply tasting things already; they just need to learn a new vocabulary. You can't just walk in with a thesaurus and start spouting, though. It's best to come to it naturally, through experience. 

So. Learn to taste, and do so by tasting many things to decide if you like them. When you find the things you like, start to find other similar things that you might like. Write notes, and when you come across another beer or food with similar tastes, make a note, figure out why!

Do that, and your life will be better, no matter how many or how few things you have to enjoy, because you will surround yourself with the good you continue to experiment, of course. Things will be more enjoyable, because you will taste more deeply. And maybe you'll realize that those first three tasting notes could indeed be done by the same person...over a period of a few years of writing that book that is their taste.

Your homework this month: enjoy life, eat well and drink well. 


Copyright © 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: July 01, 2007