Saturday, February 28, 2009

Words to taste beer by

Wine writer Eric Asimov said this about wine —but he could have been just as easily speaking about craft beer:

most people assume that the key to enjoying wine lies in the path towards connoisseurship, rather than simply drinking wine with a meal as if it is just another food group. <...> when it comes to loving and enjoying wine, somehow everyone thinks that you really, truly need to know a lot about it.<...> some critics and writers seem to do only one thing: generate more tasting notes. Which has led to a wine loving public that unduly focuses on two things: numeric scores and increasingly specific strings of adjectives that aim to describe every last hint of flavor and aroma in the glass. <...> This almost clinical approach to wine criticism ... is killing our budding wine culture.

Eric Asimov and the Tyranny of the Tasting Note in American Wine Culture
VINOGRAPHY: a wine blog
Alder Yarrow

Beer is not immune to this formalism and elitism. Consider, for example, the weed-like proliferation of published beer styles.

Or overwrought beer descriptions.

True, there are supertasters and there are ageusiasts (those with severely diminished sense of taste).

But for most of us, it's not that we lack the inability to discern a flavor or aroma; we lack the vocabulary to describe that sensation. (For me, for example, it takes a lot diacetyl to discern 'buttery', but well before that I will sense a different sort of 'maltiness'.)

A superior palate is developed not born with. A certain level of expertise —that is, education— is welcome and helpful. But flights of fancy and showy shamanistic displays hinder useful descriptions of beers and their flavors.

Here's a program —curiously called Cyclops— begun in the UK to help to train bar staff to describe beers (many of which are cask ales) to their customers. The program reduces the description of a beer's flavor to the essentials, avoiding superfluous adjectives. It keeps things simple.

The beer remains the star attraction, not the 'expert'.

Cyclops review of Batemans

Cyclops® was developed by a group of industry bodies [CAMRA, Cask Marque, SIBA, IFBB] to help to de-mystify beer. For too long we have used long, flamboyant tasting notes to confuse ourselves. This in turn mean little to bar staff and make it very hard for drinkers to understand what it is that they like about certain beers. The principals are simple:

  • Describe the beer in what it looks like, smells like and tastes like using no more than 3 words for each area

  • Make sure the terms used are aimed at the average drinker.

  • When describing the taste do not use distinctive terms such as orange, chocolate, toffee unless the beer is a flavoured beer. Rather use terms such as fruity, strong, refreshing

  • Then scores (out of five) are allocated for Bitter and Sweet depending upon the bitterness units, present gravity and most importantly what it tastes like!

  • Cyclops® Beer System

    Words to taste beer by? Keep it simple, silly!
    • I was alerted to Eric Asimov's comments by a post at Appellation Beer.
    • UPDATE: Interesting reaction by Aleluminati blogger Damien Lawrie. He found my reduction to simplicity too far in one direction. "Death to Tasting Notes? A Question of Context".

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