Monday, December 27, 2010

Some Thoughts On Tasting Beer - A Resolution

It's going to be the new year next week. So, in advance, I'm highlighting something that you will see more of this year - tasting beer. Not just drinking it and analyzing it, but taking it apart, breaking it down, and getting into the flavors of beer.

Now, I'm no "supertaster" like Robyn [ed note: something she didn't mention: women are far more likely to be supertasters than men - 35% to 15%, respectively, actually], and generally my palate is fairly challenged, though it is getting better. So the point of this exercise is to train my palate to recognize flavors when they present in the beer. So, knowing, for example, that a Belgian Dubbel might have "clove" or "plum" or "fig" flavors, it would probably help to know what those things taste like in a beer. Hence, the point of this post.

I have to admit I was inspired by Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head and his weekly 60-minute infomercial on Discovery called "Brew Masters." So far I have stayed away from writing about it, because I don't really think I'm an unbiased reporter of things Dogfish Head; you either like Sam and his company or you don't. I like what Sam does, but find it really hard to write about because, for the most part, it's not really about what is in your glass, how it tastes, or what you think of it - it's about the process and research and experimentation. Whether it should be put into a bottle for general availability is an entirely different issue.

In any event, I was actually very interested in his episode about the draft-only Dogfish beer Ta Henket. It was the process of flavoring this beer that I found utterly fascinating. First, Sam and a few others went to a spice market to find spices that would be candidates for inclusion in the beer. They discussed why they thought a particular spice would or wouldn't work (too strong/very floral/pungent, etc.) and they purchased enough to use for testing. They went back to their tasting facility - in this case, a table outdoors - and made a "tea" of sorts out of a plain yellow-fizzy beer (unsure which it was) and each of the spices. They smelled, tasted, and combined each of the teas until they found a combination that worked. It was very similar to a coffee cupping.

Now, I know, the brewers out there are going to tell me: but we all make teas all the time with the beer and hops and spices. Fair enough, but it wasn't until I saw Sam go through this ritual that the idea seemed really useful on a consumer-level as well. The connection of beer to food was never as visceral to me for some reason.

And, really, could this be a new step in my beer-cocktail obsession? We'll see...

In conjunction with implementing this in some form or another, I am going to start homebrewing more seriously. I've managed to get myself up to simple all-grain recipes, but I'd like to start undertaking a more concerted effort to actually learn what the hell is going on with the creation of beer. I'll have some limitations because of my lack of a dedicated refrigerator for lagering, etc. but I'll worry about that when I have to. But few things have the impact of teaching taste than creating beer - each step teaches what flavors on top of flavors taste like. It is easier to taste and smell the differences in grains and hops when they are fresh, raw, materials.

I'll try to let you know when I'm undertaking such experiments and you can follow along at home. If there's enough demand, maybe we'll do a public testing and see how that goes.

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