Jan 7 2011

You want to improve your beer tasting skills? Go try something else.

“The misconception is you need to learn how to taste. It’s more a sense of recognition than a sense of taste.”Jerald O’Kennard of the Beverage Testing Institute in Chicago on tasting beer

I saw this tweeted some time ago, and it stuck in the back of my head. It did so because it cut though the mysterious fog around tasting beer with a clean blade.

Rewind: I had probably been homebrewing for 10 years, and obviously loving beer for much longer than that, before I figured out that I should get some expertise in tasting beer.  This was sensible move since I needed to be able to diagnose my beers to make tweaks in dialing in my process and recipes, but also to identify what characteristics I enjoyed in commercial brews that I wanted to replicate in my homebrews.

Back to now: I can’t tell you that in the passing years that I’ve developed an amazing palate, or that I’ve become some sort of super taster. My questionable taste buds are just the same, but I think I have a better library of memories to compare them to.

Anyone who really, really enjoys beer is also a foodie and likely into other spirits. There is a hedonistic streak that runs through the craft beer lover. We know that pleasure is intrinsically good, within reason, and that we should enjoy the best of what this world can offer us. Those tendencies, to try artisan food and potables, can create quite a catalog to compare to the flavors and aromas we get from beers.

You want to improve your beer tasting skills? Go out and try new things.

Smell and taste everything. Try the things you already know. Figure out why you can tell the difference between a peach and an apricot.

Also seek out what is beyond your experience. Step into that ethic market where you can’t read a single sign or package. The stranger, to you, the better. What do this unusual smells remind you of? Could you work them into the right style of beer?

It might sound like “wet dog in a phone booth”, or “ash”, or “buttered popcorn”, or “new car”, or “summer sweat” would be terrible in a beer. And if that was the single note that you got out of it, then it is likely a poorly made or handled beer. But insert that single note inside of three or four bars of a song, it can be quite interesting and add quite a bit of complexity. Or that flat note could be the thing you want to identify and surgically remove in your next brew session.

You want to improve your beer tasting skills? Go try something else.

What crazy flavors and aromas have you found in good beers?


May 3 2009

My Reading List and WTF is Umami?

I’ve picked up a couple of beer books lately, and they both ought to be helpful for this blog.  I will likely post full reviews when I’m done with each and have had some time to think them over.


The first one is Michael Jackson’s Great Beers of Belgium.  Michael Jackson passed away in 2007, and was universally known as the Beer Hunter, after his British television documentary of the same name.  He was equally knowledgeable about scotch and beer, and his writing prowess precedes him. 


I’m a few chapters into that book, and I am impressed.  His writing style is very straight forward and obviously well researched.  He is capable of writing quite poetic passages, but often keeps things very causal like a conversation between friends.  What has surprised me the most, so far, is his playfulness.  The history and cultural identities he writes about could be quite a chore to get through, but he injects humor into his stories like a wise man that pulls your leg every so often just to make sure you’re still paying attention.


The other one is Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer: An Insider’s Guide to the World’s Greatest Drink.  Randy is a beer judge, homebrewer, graphic artistic and the author of Radical Brewing.  I own and I’ve enjoyed Radical Brewing, but I avoided reading this one for a little while.  Honestly, I think the cover annoyed me and reminded me too much of the “For Dummies” crapfest of books.  I’ve gotten past that is because Randy is a smart cat and knows what he is talking about.


This one looks like a winner, too.  Its chapters cover the early history of beer, the vocabulary of beer, sensory evaluation, beer judging, the various styles of beer and many other topics.  Clearly his is trying to address the interests of the newbie and the seasoned BJCP judge, and his talent as a graphic artist is apparent in the layout of the pages and the charts and illustrations used.


The “huh?” moment for me thus far is the mentions of umami.  Where the F was I when umami became one of the basic flavors?  Did I skip school that day?



That old tongue map is out the window.  Bitter, sour, salty, and sweet are still around, but they have been joined by the flavors of umami and fat. Fat is something we all should be able to get our heads around.  Umami translates to “delicious” in Japanese, and has been acknowledged for thousand of years, but only recognized as having receptors in 2000.  Umami is a savory and meaty quality that appears in beers after extended aging.  It seems to be an important player in the hot and interesting trend of pairing food and beer.


As far as your tongue, he maintains that all sections in your mouth can sense those 6 flavors. The front of your tongue is pretty well balanced, but the back of the tongue is a little better at picking out bitterness, and sides of your tongue are more sensitive to sour tastes.  This makes a lot of sense to me because when I am trying a sour beer I feel as if my tongue is contracting and thinning at the sides.  Very interesting stuff.


I hope that reading Jackon will deepen my knowledge of Belgian beer and influence my writing in a positive way.  I imagine Mosher’s book will improve my ability to taste and review beers, or at the very least explain why I perceive beer the way I do.


Of course, I’m still pissed about the umami thing.  Seriously, how long were you going to keep that from me?