Next Session Challenges You To Drink Differently

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For our 84th Session, our host is Oliver Gray from Literature & Libation. During the day he works as a technical writer and studies the non-technical type by night at John Hopkins, and in his spare time blogs about both lit and getting lit. For his topic, he’s chosen Alternative Reviews, asking you to drink differently, or at least think about the beer differently, perhaps it’s more correct to say review the beer differently. Anyway, here’s how Oliver put it:

We, as beer bloggers, tend to get caught up in this beer appreciation thing, forever chasing an invisible dragon of taste, doing our best to catalog our experiences on the page or in a database. We get obsessed with the idea of quantifying our experience – either so we can remember specifics ad infinitum or use the data as a point of comparison for other beers – and often forget that beer is just as much art and entertainment as it is critic-worthy foodstuff.

So for my turn hosting The Session, I ask all of you to review a beer. Any beer. Of your choosing even! There’s a catch though, just one eentsy, tiny rule that you have to adhere to: you cannot review the beer.

I know it sounds like the yeast finally got to my brain, but hear me out: I mean that you can’t write about SRM color, or mouthfeel, or head retention. Absolutely no discussion of malt backbones or hop profiles allowed. Lacing and aroma descriptions are right out. Don’t even think about rating the beer out of ten possible points.

But, to balance that, you can literally do anything else you want. I mean it. Go beernuts. Uncap your muse and let the beer guide your creativity.

I want to see something that lets me know what you thought of the beer (good or bad!) without explicitly telling me. Write a short story that incorporates the name, an essay based on an experience you had drinking it, or a silly set of pastoral sonnets expressing your undying love for a certain beer. If you don’t feel like writing, that’s fine; plug into your inner Springsteen and play us a song, or throw your budding Van Gogh against the canvas and paint us a bubbly masterpiece. Go Spielberg, go Seinfeld, go (if you must) Lady Gaga. Show me the beer and how it made you feel, in whatever way strikes you most appropriate.

Was there something you always want to try or write, but were afraid of the reception it might receive? This is your chance. A no judgement zone. I encourage everyone who sees this to join in, even if you don’t normally participate in The Session, or aren’t even a beer blogger. This is an Equal Creation Opportunity. All I ask is that you not be vulgar or offensive, since this blog is officially rated PG-13.

My goal is to push you out of your default mode, to send you off to explore realms outside of the usual and obvious. I want you to create something inspired by beer without having to worry about the minutiae of the beer itself. Don’t obsess over the details of the recipe, just revel in the fact that you live in a place where you have the luxury of indulging in such beautiful decadence.

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So crack open a beer, and take a sip. After you’re done tasting it in the usual way, start thinking about it differently. What else can you say about it? How else can you talk about it? In what other way can you describe it or write about it? Let everybody know what your take on that beer is on Friday, February 7. Post your response on Oliver’s announcement post or tweet him with your antidote to the boring beer review.

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Session #83: Against The Grain

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Our 83rd Session is hosted by Rebecca Patrick, who writes online at The Bake and Brew. Her topic for this session is decidedly against the grain, so much so that it is specifically Against the Grain.

How much is our taste or opinion of a craft beer affected by what friends and the craft beer community at large thinks? What beer do you love that no one else seems to get? Or what beer do you say “no thanks” to that everyone can’t get enough of?

I can find myself wondering sometimes when I’ve had an extremely popular beer, but haven’t been all that “wowed”…is it me? Am I missing something here? Was there too much hype? Could there be such a thing as taste inflation? If we really want to dive further into this, is it really only “good” if a large portion of the craft beer community says it is or is our own opinion and taste enough?

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You only have to watch the lines at GABF at the beginning of each session to know that hype and brand perception do play a role in a brewery’s success. There are a handful of breweries whose lines are suddenly longer than most of the others, seemingly immediately after the doors open and the people rush inside. Many make a beeline to a select number of brewer’s booths. Many of these remain more crowded throughout the session. Are they better than other breweries? Perhaps, but probably not. They certainly make good beer, and beer which has, for whatever reason, captured the public imagination. That intangible popularity, whether manufactured or developed organically, is at least a part of the company’s success. Any business needs to have customers want to buy their products or they won’t survive. I know that sounds obvious, like the sports announcer who says the team has to score more points in order to win, but I think we sometimes forget that.

Indeed, many people complain mightily about hyped and over-hyped beers, forgetting that hype is the engine that drives awareness and, ultimately, sales. Honestly, if you don’t want to wait in a line all day for some rare (or even artificially rare) beer, I think I see a way out. Don’t go. But what I don’t understand is the need to piss on everybody else’s enjoyment of the event. The many release parties and events that numerous breweries create are generally well-attended, despite the complaining, so what’s the problem? It sometimes feels like we’re entering a phase in craft beer akin to the music world where as soon as a band becomes popular, their fans who were with them in the beginning accuse them of “selling out” or say they’re no good anymore, moving on to the next unknown. It was ridiculous when I was in the music business, and it’s no less absurd when it comes to beer.

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But that brings us back to Rebecca’s question about whether or not “our own opinion and taste [is] enough?” Yes. Yes, it is. If you’re a longtime reader of the Bulletin, you’ve probably noticed that I rarely post “reviews” of beers. Unless it’s part of a specific assignment, I generally don’t. I’ve been writing about beer over twenty years, and been judging at competitions for around fifteen years, and been drinking critically far longer than that, and still I don’t really understand why anyone would take my advice on how good a beer is. Whenever anyone writes a review, it’s personal. By design and definition, what I say about a beer is just how it tastes to me — what I like or don’t like about it — on that particular day and under the specific circumstances it was sampled (time and place). But your experience will vary. Your palate isn’t the same as mine. If I’ve learned anything from tasting with the same people for many years (on tasting panels and commercial judging) it’s that tastes vary. Different people have tolerances and sensitivities to certain flavors and those vary from person to person. It’s not a problem in most instances; spaghetti tastes like spaghetti to almost everybody. But when you examine anything more closely, the minute differences become more important when you’re paying close attention and looking for them. With so much variation, you’d think that beer judging would be little better than a crapshoot, and yet many beers that as a community we agree are at least good, tend to rise to the top and win awards multiple times. By careful selection of judges with different backgrounds and experience, and by making the standards for judging as unambiguous and detailed as possible, these differences seem to work themselves out. That’s been my experience, as least.

But having worked retail a lot when I was younger, I’ve also witnessed that many people do honestly want to be told what to try. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. You ask someone who knows more than you for advice about what’s good, what’s worth trying. In theory, they should know more, and in practice that is often the case. At BevMo, though, I can’t tell you how many times I witnessed people walking the wine aisles with a Wine Spectator open to their ratings pages, shopping the scores. That seems less effective, to me because you don’t know how your own palate matches up to the reviewer (or how honest the review was).

One nice thing about beer, at least, is taking a bad recommendation won’t break the bank. If you try a pint or even a six-pack of something you end up not enjoying, you’re not out too much money. You may not take that person’s advice again, especially if happens several times, but that’s about it. If I start doing more reviews, which is always a possibility, my only goal would be to suggest beers to try, and perhaps why you’d want to, not why I like them, or why you must, too. I know there’s wide disagreement among writers on this issue, but I prefer to talk about what’s good, and not write bad reviews, in effect telling people what to avoid or what’s unappetizing. There’s just too much beer out there, with much of it quite good, to waste ink (or bytes) on tearing down a beer I didn’t happen to enjoy. I understand the counter-arguments, and realize bad reviews have their place, it’s just not for me.

I’m not quite sure that answers the question, or even does go against the grain, though it does ramble around in the vicinity of the topic. I don’t mind the hype surrounding many popular beers, mostly because I don’t get caught up in it. I think it’s a necessary part of there being so many breweries all trying to gain the attention of consumers. Each brewery has to find some way to stand out. Some of their attempts work better than others, naturally, but that’s to be expected. I’m probably not the typical beer consumer, and so am not swayed too much by opinion or popularity. On the other hand, I’ll try almost anything, and in fact am interested in doing just that, all the time. I rarely say “no thanks” to trying anything. I find these days it’s harder to be “wowed,” but I think that’s more about having tried so many beers in my lifetime. There’s certainly no shortage of great beers being made these days, and I’m still just as excited to try each new one I can. And as much as I’m happy to have a job talking about what beers I like and love, you should trust your own palate about what you enjoy most. I hope I can help steer you to something new or worthwhile from time to time, but if you love a beer than that alone makes it a great beer.

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Know Your Beer Flavors: The Beer Pyramid

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Today’s infographic is Know Your Beer Flavors: The Beer Pyramid, created by Jennifer Hood for an article in San Diego’s Locale Magazine, Beerology: How to analyze flavors, why you shouldn’t drink from a can, and why you vote like you drink…

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Click here to see the pyramid full size.

UPDATE: It looks like the material for the pyramid was taken from Cicerone Michael Agnew’s video he did for Betty Crocker. Here’s a link to the video, Beerology: The Flavor Triangle.

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How Cool Is Your Beer?

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Today’s infographic is a chart of Suggested Serving Temperatures. It’s from a nice blog post entitled How Cool is Your Beer? on Fermented Waves, written by the assistant brewer at Boundary Bay Brewery in Washington. The chart he shows of Suggested Serving Temperatures is from Randy Mosher’s book Tasting Beer.

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Click here to see the chart full size.

New Albion Vintage Beer Tasting

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Today I had a great experience that’s been a few months in the making. Last October, one of my newspaper columns was about the 35th anniversary of the date in 1976 when New Albion Brewery, the first modern microbrewery built from scratch, was incorporated by Jack McAuliffe. A homebrewer and beer collector in San Jose, Ed Davis, read my piece in the San Jose Mercury News and contacted me with an intriguing proposal. He had some full bottles of New Albion beer — Ale, Porter and Stout — and did I know anyone who might be interested in them? Obviously, I knew at least one person — me! — and I suggested that it might be fun to open them with Don Barkley, who would been involved in their creation, since he had been the assistant brewer there. Finding a day we were all available took some time, but today Ed and I traveled to Napa to Napa Smith Brewery and met with Don Barkley, who’s now the brewmaster there. But in addition to working at New Albion, Don also founded Mendocino Brewing during his illustrious career, before building and running the new Napa brewery.

Ed told me he’d bought the beers originally at Beltramo’s around 1979 and they’ve been stored in his garage ever since. While they were stored at a slightly higher than cellar temperature, the temperature was relatively consistent and they hadn’t been moved in all that time.

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Ed brought one bottle each of Stout, Ale and Porter.

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Don Barkley, me and Ed Davis each with a 1979 bottle of New Albion beer, that Ed was kind enough to donate to the cause.

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Each of the three beers and their bottles.

Below is a short video (about 14 minutes) of the three of us opening and tasting the three beers.

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After the tasting, Don, Napa Smith lead brewer Michael Payne, me and Ed.

In addition to the New Albion beers, Ed also brought a few additional treats, too.

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A bottle of DeBakker Porter. DeBakker was a short-lived brewery (1980-82, I believe) that was located in my hometown of Novato, California and was started by a fireman, Tom DeBakker, who had been a homebrewer for about a decade before he opened the brewery.

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Ed also brought a run of old Anchor Christmas Ale, 1978, 1980 through 1985, 1991 and 1996.

What a great way to spend a Friday afternoon! I wish all my Fridays could be as enjoyable. The DeBakker porter also held up quite well, it still had a fair amount of carbonation with chocolate notes. The Anchor beers were a mixed bag, some were still terrific, others were past their prime though none were strictly speaking undrinkable. Some of the spicier ones were still showing those spices, though a few of the earlier ones were oxidized, at least a little. The real surprise, of course, was how well the New Albion beers had held up after 33 years. They were bottle-conditioned, which probably helped, but still I expected them to be in worse shape than they were. I think we all thought that, but we were pleasantly surprised. I could stand to be surprised like that more often. Thanks, Ed, for being able to not open those beers for over thirty years and for sharing them with us today. It was like opening and tasting a piece of history.

The Smell Of Vanilla

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Adrian Tierney-Jones — who was my editor when I worked on 1001 Beer You Must Try Before You Die — had an interesting post the other day on his blog, Called to the Bar, entitled What does vanilla smell like? It’s about the difficulties of accurately describing any aroma we encounter in beer, but with vanilla as the jumping off point for the discussion. Especially interesting is the idea of how do you describe aromas without using too much cliché, an inevitable problem when you write a lot of tasting notes. Adrian specifically mentions something he read in the introduction of the Penguin Guide to Food and Drink. Editor Paul Levy notes “how you might find a raspberry note in Burgundy but no Burgundy notes in a raspberry. But what does a raspberry smell of? Raspberry.” It’s a thorny problem for reviewing beers, and worth a read if you want to write thoughtful tasting notes, or just understand the difficulties inherent in them.

The Impact Of Texture On Taste Perception

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On Food Navigator, there was an interesting short interview with Matthew Patrick, VP of R&D for TIC Gums where he suggests that “food and beverage product developers spend a shockingly low amount of time examining how texture may impact a finished product.” In beer, of course, texture is more often referred to as “mouthfeel.” And while when judging beer, mouthfeel is a consideration it’s usually not the primary one. Honestly, I’m really not sure how often brewers tinker with their recipes specifically to get a particular mouthfeel though it’s clear that many beers have great ones and many otherwise solid beers suffer for having a less than pleasant or ideally suited mouthfeel.

He’s talking primarily about texture in food and non-alcoholic beverages, though he singles out what he refers to as “low-viscosity beverages” like “tea” as products who didn’t give much thought to their texture. Beer’s viscosity has quite a range, from thin pilsners and golden ales to thick, rich oatmeal and imperial stouts so I can’t say where beer falls in TIC Gums’ viscosity scale. But there’s no doubt that mouthfeel is at least one of the many factors that add up to a beer’s overall taste profile. What a brewer can, or should, do about it seems like a worthy discussion to have.

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There’s also a summary of the interview from the Food Navigator website:

Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA at the Research Chefs Association conference and expo in Atlanta, Patrick explained that texture can have wide-ranging influence on consumer perception of a food or beverage product.

For example, texture can influence the way saltiness or sugariness is perceived, meaning that different textures can make a product seem more or less sweet or salty even if the level of sugar or salt remains the same. That effect is something that product developers need to be particularly aware of, as many are cutting sugar or salt in products in response to demand for healthier foods and drinks.

Patrick added that low-viscosity beverages, such as teas, represent one area in which there is particular potential for enhancing consumer experience of a product through subtle textural differences.

Simplifying Tasting Descriptions

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Eric Asimov, who writes The Pour for the New York Times, had a very interesting post today on simplifying tasting notes for wine, entitled Wine in Two Words. Here’s the crux of his idea:

While it may seem heretical to say, the more specific the description of a wine, the less useful information is actually transmitted. See for yourself. All you have to do is compare two reviewers’ notes for a single bottle: one critic’s ripe raspberry, white pepper and huckleberry is another’s sweet-and-sour cherries and spice box. What’s the solution? Well, if you feel the urgent need to know precisely what a wine is going to taste like before you sniff and swallow, forget it. Experience will give you a general idea, but fixating on exactitude is a fool’s errand. Two bottles of the same wine can taste different depending on when, where and with whom you open them.

Besides, the aromas and flavors of good wines can evolve over the course of 20 minutes in a glass. Perhaps they can be captured momentarily like fireflies in a child’s hands, yet reach for them again a minute later and — whiff! — they’re somewhere else.

But the general character of a wine: now, that’s another matter. A brief depiction of the salient overall features of a wine, like its weight, texture and the broad nature of its aromas and flavors, can be far more helpful in determining whether you will like that bottle than a thousand points of detail. In fact, consumers could be helped immeasurably if the entire lexicon of wine descriptors were boiled down to two words: sweet or savory.

Asimov goes on to give greater detail to his idea of simplification, going so far that at the end he gives a list of varietals and where they fall in the sweet or savory list, admitting obvious exceptions will occur. And while I believe beer flavors are somewhat more complex, because of a greater number of ingredients and the endless combinations of them along with variations in the brewing process, the basic notions are sound and applicable.

Like wine, it’s true that the flavors of a particular beer change as it warms, too, and on any given day there are numerous things that can effect how a beer tastes. But even so, I don’t think you could distill beer down to just two descriptors. But I could see a smaller number being devised that could be useful in communicating basic information about the expectations of how a beer might taste, or at least its core components. There are specific styles that certainly have very recognizable characteristics, but just as many don’t or are exceptions to any rules. In a sense beer is like the English language, where there’s an exception to virtually every rule. Still it might be worth the effort to try and see what emerges and whether it could be useful. Anybody have any thoughts?