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Words to describe the beer you are tasting

Until robots take over our tasting world we’re left to consider how to communicate the aromas and flavors we experience with beer.

A review of “Perfumes: The Guide” in the current New Yorker magazine makes that point.

The words and the references are really useful only to people who have had the same experiences and use the same vocabulary: those references are to a shared basis of sensory experience and a shared language. To people who haven’t had those shared experiences, this way of talking can seem like horse manure, and not in a good way.

The book was written by Tania Sanchez and Luca Turin, and since Turin was the protagonist in the delightful book “Emperor of Scent” five years ago it gives me an excuse to quote this vaguely relevant passage:

“Look at beer, which is a very interesting cultural product. Beer smells like a burp. Gasses from someone’s stomach. Lovely. Again a product of fermentation, which is to say decay. Decay enhances smells and flavors, yet we have a sharp ability to identify decay, because decaying things will kill you. Bacterial and yeast decomposition.

“Which can give you ‘I wouldn’t touch that in a million years’ and, at the same time and in the same culture, mind you, ‘I will pay great sums to consumer Rodenbach,’ which is a miracle of a beer from Belgium. A miraculous, powdery apple flavor. Those Rodenbach yeast have an I.Q. of at least two hundred. Fucking genius yeast.”

Returning to the point. A shared tasting vocabulary serves a certain purpose. So I pass this along to do with as you please. It comes from the Merchant du Vin newsletter. (Use the link to read more or to sign up for the newsletter.)

1. Words to describe malt flavors: Malty, biscuity, breadlike, grainy, rich, deep, roasty, cereal, cookie-like, coffeeish, caramelly, toffee-like, molasses-like, malt complexity, smoky, sweet, autumnal, burnt cream, scalded milk, oatmeal, rustic, layered.

2. Words to describe hop flavor and bitterness: Piney, citrusy, grapefruity, earthy, musty, spicy, sharp, bright, fresh, herbal, zippy, lemony, newly-mown lawn, aromatic, floral, springlike, brilliant, sprucelike, juniper-like, minty, pungent, elegant, grassy.

3. Words to describe fermentation flavors deriving from yeast: Fresh-baked bread, clovelike, bubblegum, yeasty, Belgiany, aromatic, tropical, subtle, fruity, clean, banana-like (and for some sour or extreme beers) horseblankety, earthy, musty.

4. Words to describe conditioning (carbonation): Soft, effervescent, spritzy, sparkling, zippy, pinpoint, bubbly, gentle, low carbonation, highly carbonated.

5. Words to describe body & mouthfeel: Rich, full, light, slick, creamy, oily, heavy, velvety, sweet, dry, thick, thin.

6. Words to describe warm ethanol (alcohol) flavors from strong beer: Warm finish, heat, vodka, esters, pungent, strength.

19 Responses to Words to describe the beer you are tasting

  1. SteveH March 11, 2008 at 6:38 am #

    Autumnal. Hmm.

  2. Neal Stewart March 11, 2008 at 6:53 am #

    Stan-

    This is a beer reviewer/label copy/website content/bloggers dream. Thanks!

    -Neal

  3. Matt March 11, 2008 at 8:27 am #

    Great timing Stan. In my beer school for servers today we’ll be discussing flavors derived from malt, hops and yeast. You’ve just given me a whol lot more descriptors to use/pass along!

  4. Alan March 11, 2008 at 8:40 am #

    Not to be contrary….oh, what the hell…there are two problems with this. People taste differently for one thing. The combination of chemicals in the mouth form differently for many. For one person, the 27 chemicals in the mouth may gather into 4 lumps adding up to green pea, tobacco, apple juice and bubblegum while the other may add them up into 3 lumps tasting like bark, leather and pear. Connected to this is the result that for the two “malty” may mean either what is malty (a bad descriptor as it is describing a thing by the thing itself) is different for two different people or the two people have two different words for the taste in their mouths as their associative triggers are simply different.

    The second reason is also related – not all people have the same associate taste repertoire. I can only distinguish between hints of fresh fig and hints of dried fig if I have eaten them and one quickly realizes that just as with apples and pears there are many varieties of fig. Twenty years ago, when I worked in Holland as a wholesale florist trainee, I could tell about 50 varieties of red rose from each other. This compounds the difficulty of standard language as if you describe red rose I presume that you are not saying what I say.

    Taste is evocative and therefore personal as to what is evoked.

  5. Stan Hieronymus March 11, 2008 at 9:10 am #

    Agreed, Alan, that any list has its limitations, and for both the reasons you cite. I like this one because it has some focus, at least narrowing the taste repertoire.

    If you look at the New Yorker story the author leads with an example about how a term, in this case grainy, suddenly makes sense when it hadn’t before.

  6. SteveH March 11, 2008 at 9:11 am #

    Alan, while I understand and agree with much you say, isn’t the best way for people to learn tasting and different flavors by learning through experience and by the side of another experienced taster? Sort of as it sounds Matt is doing in his schooling.

    I can remember describing DMS to someone, but they never really got it until they were sitting beside me having a Victory Prima Pils and I asked if they could smell the vegetable character. It was amazing to see the look on the person’s face when they made the connection.

    I learned different flavor characters from BJCP judges, reading Jackson, and plain old experience — as you say, and I think many can learn in the same direction to have consistent observations.

  7. Swordboarder March 11, 2008 at 9:18 am #

    Alan, how are these arguments contrary to this post?

  8. Sam March 11, 2008 at 9:50 am #

    Why reinvent the wheel? We already have an official beer flavor wheel. http://hbd.org/brewery/library/FlavW.html While this version isn’t as pretty as ones with the picture it does a good job showing all the descriptors.

    For Alan’s concern about about people tasting the same thing but interpreting it differently, that’s why there are chemical standards for each of the descriptors in the wheel. Ex. When my friend tastes/smells “Catty” he immediately recognize a cat liter box, to me it comes off as a tropical/pineapple punch. So our words to describe “Catty” are different, but now having been trained to the “Catty” standard, when he tastes a beer, rather that him saying liter box and me saying pineapple, we both say Catty and thus know we are both picking up the same compound in the beer even though we both percieve it differently… we now have a common language to talk about the beer. Does this work for the untrained? As the article states, no, but that’s why perfumers, sommeliers, (and I hope Cicerones) are trained.

  9. Stan Hieronymus March 11, 2008 at 10:07 am #

    Sam – and to give credit to Merchant du Vin again – I think this list is designed with a dual purpose. One is for people selling beer (in stores and particularly on premise) but I like it for consumers who only want to go “so far.”

    A couple weeks ago in brewpub I was discussing “catty” with a brewer and Daria (my wife) turned out daughter and explained we meant the smell of cat urine. Much laughter followed.

  10. Alan March 11, 2008 at 10:27 am #

    SB: I wasn’t really being contrary – that is more of a running joke with me and Stan.

    I think that this is a great idea for a beginner. This is not to be snobby but it is a great start out on the path of exploring taste and that takes a while. What is of no interest to me, however, is to give up my personal lexicon which is created as I go along by how taste is evocative to me. [There is an incredible tangential but interesting point to be made here about how differnt languages work as exemplified by the Mi’kmaq language of eastern Canada but I will refrain.] Let it suffice to say that I would not care to give up that personal relationship to my own words and thoughts a standard table of acceptable words.

    It reminds me, too, of a point Hemingway made in, I think, the preface to “Death in the Afternoon” about being an aficianado of anything. There is a bit in there about the skills of observation and reporting on the observative being quite distinct skills each of which each have to be present for good writing to be created. Refinding and trusting your own perception (his first stage) is a worth goal in itself and if you ever hope to have your reporting being uniquely your own you will have to find your own lexicon based on your own perceptions to report those perceptions. If you are lucky, the lexicon will make sense to another though, as Lew recently exemplified in his good natured (I hope) balking at my reference to “wheat cream” in relation to Girardin Gueuze, that is not necessarily something that can be taken for granted. My usage made perfect sense to me [and I will not be moved from it] but was gobblety-gook to him which I take as a quite honest response.

    Also interestingly, I think Hemingway also pointed out that the pursuit of this excellence of description also will destroy your ability to experience the pleasure itself. A useful warning.

  11. Lew Bryson March 11, 2008 at 4:11 pm #

    Also interestingly, I think Hemingway also pointed out that the pursuit of this excellence of description also will destroy your ability to experience the pleasure itself. A useful warning.

    Something I’ve seen in many brewers and homebrew judges. And something I wholeheartedly and earnestly wish to avoid. I’ll stick with adequate descriptions.

    And yes, “The Wheat Cream Incident” was good-natured!

  12. Loren March 12, 2008 at 4:08 am #

    This assembly of words has NOTHING on the vociferous vocabulary of the infamous Bob Klein. Talk about someone who can suck the fun out of any beer, all the while making the world’s WORST beer sound completely palatable!

    Glad I pretty much stopped taking notes on beer. Now it’s as easy as “MMM! Good!” or “Um…yuck!”.

  13. SteveH March 12, 2008 at 5:02 am #

    “I think Hemingway also pointed out that the pursuit of this excellence of description also will destroy your ability to experience the pleasure itself.”

    Funny coincidence, I’m reading “For Whom the Bell Tolls” right now and I think Papa could have learned by his own words. I’ll stick with Chandler as my favorite, his descriptions may be just as involved, but he knows the right spot for a paragraph! ;)

    S.

  14. Alan March 12, 2008 at 7:42 am #

    SteveH: exactly!! Though the short story “Big Two Hearted River” (of the ale allusion fame) is an obsession on the relationshiip between memory and the sense. That can of orange bits is the most important can of orange bits in literature.

    On a “For Whom The Bell Tolls” tangent (as long as I recall correctly and that is the Spanish Civil War book) read the first and last sentences of the book. He expected a certain level of paying attention.

  15. SteveH March 12, 2008 at 8:20 am #

    Alan, I’ve been meaning to read BTHR because of the Bell’s inspiration and because it’s an area of the world in which I’ve spent much time. I’ll give it a go.

    You’re correct on FWtBT as being the Spanish Civil War story — if I can get past some of the deep rhetoric of every characters’ lives (except the 2 I care most about — at least to this point in the story) to the end, I’ll keep your thought in mind. As is, Ernie seems to be doing all he can to keep the attention levels near comatose range — IIRC, I felt similarly about Farewell to Arms when I read it in HS — guess I should have stuck with my original instincts after that one.

    Of course, the Absinthe passages have kept me interested, along with pitchers of beer in Valencia!

  16. Todd March 12, 2008 at 1:37 pm #

    Hey Stan,

    I guess you’re just gonna have to come by and try one of these Chico Ales in a few weeks to try out the tangerine flavor.

    I didn’t see tangerine on the list for hop flavors and I find tangerine quite different that citrus.

    Unfortunately, the little yeasties ate a large portion of the chico corn flavor but they did leave behind some of the earthy, barky, gritty, rustic, smokey flavors.

    I’d like to hear how many descriptors you can find in this NM hops/Chico Ale.

  17. Matt Dunn March 18, 2008 at 10:57 am #

    Little late to the party but…while “fidelity” of description might be worthwhile in a lot of contexts, i.e. judging, assessing for quality control, buying, selling etc., I think there is just too much emphasis on it in today’s beer writing. I say go a bit wild. Write about how it makes you feel when you drink it, when you smell it, what it conjures up in your mind, not necessarily what it tastes like.

  18. Scott January 23, 2010 at 5:35 pm #

    Waaay late to this post, but still a great read (comments too!) I think its important to have at least a base vocabulary that most people can mostly agree upon. From there, things can be made more specific, but this is a great starting point. There’s a lot of times I taste something in a beer and I simply don’t know how to describe it or what it is even. I still have a lot to learn, but things like this are indeed helpful. Thanks!

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