Best way to be a better drinker is drink bad beer and learn what has gone wrong with it. https://t.co/gCvOGwJLAu
— Em Sauter (@PintsandPanels) January 3, 2020
In Drink Better Beer, author Josh Bernstein writes about spending a day with the sensory panel at Allagash Brewing in Maine, acting briefly as a panelist himself.
I ponder my sample of White, the brewery’s flagship witbier, which should taste slightly sweet and sour, mildly bitter, and faintly of minerals. “Tastes overly harsh,” I write in the iPad set up with sensory software from DaughtLab, which collects data on panelists’ impressions. “Too astringent.” I move on to the Belgian-style Tripel, a beer evocative of honey, bubble game, grapes, and green apples. “This is a sourness I don’t love,” I write. The coffee-infused James Bean, a triple aged in bourbon barrels, has a “drying sourness that turns me off,” while the smoothly malty House Beer hits its pear and grapefruit notes.
Whow, that was a lot of flawed beer, I think.
Except, it turns out only the Tripel was adulterated, dosed with acetic acid.
Later Bernstein tastes three different samples of White, and documents the flaws in each. Except, it turns out two are flawless, and in fact, the same beer. “It’s a combination that I use often with guests and new tasters to show when they are overly critical,” says Karl Arnberg, who manages the sensory program as Allagash.
Think about it for a moment. Why look for reasons not to like a beer? No doubt, quality is important. That’s why Bernstein invested a day in Portland, Maine. There’s good reason for those in the beer business to learn to identify what are classified as off flavors, and it useful to some to understand what causes them.
However, I’m not convinced that the “Best way to be a better drinker is drink bad beer and learn what has gone wrong with it.” I wrote a blurb for the back of Em Sauter’s excellent book, Beer is for Everyone!, and always enjoy drinking beer with her. I expect to again during the Craft Brewer’s Conference. I hope she’s forgiven me by then for disagreeing with.
Here goes: I think the best way to be a happy (OK, I concede I have substituted happy for better, and that’s a significant change) drinker is to drink great beer and learn what makes it great. Learning to identify positive attributes expands the number of beers you might appreciate.
Consider the discussion in Milk The Funk following Good Beer Hunting’s report yesterday about dwindling sales of barrel-aged mixed-fermentation beers. It is all over the place, but what should be obvious is that many consumers cannot tell the difference between an outstanding mixed-fermentation beer and one less interesting. Mediocre mixed ferm beers are the villains in the story as much as quick soured beers or hoppy/hazy ones.
Sure, drinkers should understand that THP is an off flavor, one that not only may not taste right but which also masks desirable flavors. But drinking great examples beers is the only way to appreciate the next level of complexity they achieve or understand the role acidity plays.
Charlie Bamforth, who may know more about as much about beer as any human on earth, has famously said that if a brewer is going to try to sell a beer with flaws that said brewer should make it with the same flaws every time.
Think about that in this context. A study in Germany several years ago concluded, “The success of a brand cannot be described by a trained panel because of the missing reflection of consumers liking or disliking of a beer.” (Acceptance of Off-Flavors in Beer by Common Consumer, World Brewing Conference 2012) Granted, figuring out what consumers like is different that noticing unpleasant aromas and flavors, but remembering that they have not been trained to dislike those flavors still matters.
In this study Martiz Krahl and Stefan Hanke found that beers with diacetyl flavor were rejected by consumers, but DMS seems to be an acceptable flavor. Meanwhile, you probably know consumers who enjoy a bit of diacetyl on some beers. You may be one.
Finally, a paragraph from Hop Queries, my free monthly newsletter. Last month, I visited Lexington, Kentucky, to ramble on a bit about hops. Members of Brewers of Central Kentucky (B.O.C.K) made three beers for the presentation, one of them hopped only with Citra.
“Before we tasted the beers, I talked about when a tasting panel at Sierra Nevada Brewing began evaluating beers brewed with Citra before the hop even had that name. Men on the panel described tropical fruit flavors, while women called the same beer catty or said it reminded them of tomato plants. A surprising number of attendees in Lexington, most of them men, noticed some cattiness in the Citra-only beer. I did as well, but that’s been increasingly common in the dozen years since brewers began using the hop. You train yourself to look for an aroma and you are more likely to find it. It is a curse rather than a blessing.”