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?