Yesterday I introduced the idea of describing real beer, and over the next few weeks we are going to examine why we should how to do it, and some of the intricacies of flavors and aromas found in beer. Here is part 1, Why Describe Real Beer:
The very reason why I love real beer so much is because it has so much to offer. When I first started drinking and learning about real beer I was instantly exposed to a huge spectrum of flavors, aromas, spices, textures and styles of beer which I had no idea even existed. This was an incredibly exciting sensation for me, but also very overwhelming. Now that I was trying beers which offer so much flavor and complexity it became difficult to understand and absorb everything that these beers were showing me. Why would you drink real beer if you can’t understand them?
In short, my palate was overrun with stimulus and my brain did not know how to organize and comprehend all of it. One of the primary reasons why this happens is because we are not accustomed to experiencing this type of flavor by a beverage; it is a brand new sensation for our brains to deal with. Of course we can typically break down complex flavors in foods, but we have become used to that, and it is easy for us to conceive food flavors in food. But trying to pick out multiple flavors or aromas from a beverage is more difficult to the untrained palate.
Most beverages that we drink are very one sided; milk takes like milk, orange juice like oranges, coffee, cola, lemonade, etc. Of course there are some beverages which get slightly more complex, but generally we are used to easily being able to discern flavors from a beverage.
Describing and isolating flavors in real beer is no different than describing wine, or whisky, or any sort of artisanal beverage. What you have to do is train your brain to make flavor associations in the beer with what it already knows in food; and this just takes experience. We know what honeydew tastes like, and what baker’s dark chocolate tastes like. But how do you find those flavors in your beer?
It’s all association, and it starts by watching and listening to those who already have the associations built in their palate. For example, when I first started to dive into the world of Imperial Stouts my palate was overrun by flavors, and I couldn’t get a grasp on what was going on. But as I drank a Rogue XS Imperial Stout and a listened to a much more experience beer aficionado describe the roasted malts, bitter chocolate, dry espresso, and crisp bitter hop found in the beer, I could start to identify those flavors. My brain needed to build the association, and now that I have those flavors built into my repertoire I can more easily pick them out in other beers.
It is absolutely no different that tasting and describing food, we are just not used to it – it really is a new way of thinking about flavor. Try to break free of thinking about flavor in only its raw form. Maraschino cherry doesn’t only exist as a jarred cherry; it is a flavor that can be found in foods, wine, spirits and beer. Orange peel and coriander are flavors typically found in Belgian Wit beers. Grapefruit is a powerful citrus which is a characteristic of specific hops common in many American Pale Ales. Even leather, earth, tobacco, oak, hay field, medicine, bread, and pepper. All of these have a very unique flavor that transcends the literal definition of what it is.
Once you have learned to identify and isolate individual flavors and aromas you can understand your beer and potentially how it was made on a whole new level. For me it elicits passion and personal connection for the beer that I am drinking. I mean, once again, I am drinking real beer because I refuse to settle for bland fizzy yellow beers with no flavor. I am drinking real beer because I want flavor, I want to be entertained, and I want to be thrilled by the beer. Sometimes I want to be challenged, other times I want to be soothed. And because I have the ability to properly describe, and hence understand real beer, I can also better choose the beer which is best suited for my mood.
In fact, it is really no different than anything else we love in life. People who are in love with a sport become historians of the sport. They study the players, learn the stats, and focus on current events surrounding the sport. All of this attention gives them a greater appreciation and understating of the sport, and also a better ability to interpret what is happening in it. Musicians do the exact same thing; they study those who came before them and others who have already mastered their craft, because you can learn from other experiences to be able to understand and interpret your passion to a greater degree.
Regardless of what you are passionate about, your knowledge of it, ability to speak its language and understand its nuances makes you appreciate it more, and allows you to get more out of it. You become of fan of your passion, just like we are all fans of real beer.
That’s why we describe beer, because it allows us to fully absorb everything that real beer has to offer. A great example is the Belgian Quadruple, one of the worlds more exquisite and also most complex beer styles. Those familiar with them know exactly what I mean, and also know why they are so magnificent. However if you are new to this world, tasting a Quad may throw you off because you can’t yet follow and isolate everything that is going on. But please, don’t be frustrated or turned off by such beers, they really have so much to offer, and it just takes some experience. Isn’t that the fun part anyways?
Next week we will look at how to understand the flavors that can be found in beer, and look at some that you never may have thought about before.