If you are a serious student of beer, or are headed in that direction, you’re likely to find yourself being asked to talk about it. What are you smelling? What are you tasting? How does the beer finish?
It’s all part of the culture. Sometimes it’s fun. But often, it can be intimidating.
As in most things, people don’t like to stand out. They repeat what they hear others are saying. We wind up with a common language for things, whether it’s the study of literature, the game of golf or tasting wine, beer or coffee.
If you look at beer websites and online forums, especially at “Beer Advocate,” you’ll see tasting notes that all sound the same, as if every beer snob is sharing one beer brain. Read in big bites, these “tasting notes” can make craft beer seem like one giant, unfortunate cliché.
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I’m starting to see this with fine coffee. It is a big topic – and a significant problem – in wine. And beer seems headed in that direction, too.
It doesn’t have to be that way. As I see it, there are two ways to stand out. One way is to simply enjoy the beer and talk about other stuff – current events, politics, books you’re reading – and liberate yourself from having to assess and summarize exactly what you’re drinking. Now, the pressure is off. You enjoy a good beer while weighing in on the designated hitter rule or the pros and cons of single-payer health care.
Another way is to come up with your own way of talking about beer – your own language and personality. I know, right? Weird.
Sure, we need shorthand to make things easier and to keep us on track – hoppy, bitter, malty, rich, amber, pale, smooth, clean, cloudy, complex, etc. But using your own terms will make you sound different. Some tasting snobs will snicker, but secretly, they’d like to be their own person, too, and likely feel trapped in this oddity of language.
In his book, “How To Love Wine,” New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov has an insightful chapter called “The Tyranny of the Tasting Note.” He addresses why many folks feel intimidated about wine and rightfully points out the wine itself is not the culprit. Wine is wonderful.
“No, what’s baffling and confusing,” Asimov writes, “is not the wine but the way we talk about wine. Perhaps you’ve felt the fear yourself, a sort of paralysis that comes over you if by chance you are privy to a discussion among wine connoisseurs and then suddenly are asked for your opinion.”
He goes on to say that “people who have no idea how one is supposed to talk about wine are far more creative and clear in discussing it than those who have read some books or undergone some training in wine classes.”
In the excellent book “What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life,” scientist and smell expert Avery Gilbert notes that “the average person becomes tongue-tied when trying to describe a smell.” But he thinks “we make too much of our poor ability to describe smells.” To become a good describer of smells (and by extension, tastes) – an olfactory artist – Gilbert says we need three traits: awareness, empathy and imagination.
“To be odor-aware, a person needs only an adequate nose, not a super-sensitive one,” the author opines.
People are susceptible to suggestion. Gilbert recalls one test in which water mist was sprayed in a scent-free room. One group was told the smell was unpleasant – and those folks later claimed the room smelled bad. I see similar things in tasting groups all the time.
There are aroma/flavor wheels for wine, beer, chocolate and coffee. I was on a tasting panel at UC Davis recently in which we came up with a flavor and aroma wheel for honey. To help calibrate our senses, we had access to dozens of scents in individual cups arranged on a table. If we were confused about whether the honey had a note of orange blossom or lemon, say, or if we needed to get it straight whether we were picking up lilac or lavender, we could sniff in the appropriate cups.
So if you want to taste better, you probably need to work on your smell game. You don’t have to have special talents, but you may need to become more aware. Smell things. Lots of things and often. Remember them. Then see what you pick up on the nose the next time you have a beer with friends. Don’t parse the smells, necessarily, but assess how the melding of smells creates a bigger general aroma.
Then do as Asimov suggests and not be so caught up in convention when you go about describing. Let’s allow our personalities – and the personalities of our palates and other senses – to shine through without fear of being scolded.
If it’s liberating to dance as if nobody’s watching, perhaps it’s equally ideal to taste, smell and describe as if you don’t know what you’re supposed to say.
Beer drinkers shouldn’t feel intimidated about giving their opinions. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll elevate the way we talk about beer and invite more folks to the party.
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.