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
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.
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
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
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
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
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 ones...as 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