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A few words about words about beer

The Unicode Technical Committee recently announced it would not add a white-wine emoji to Unicode’s standard emoji mix, despite a 19-page proposal and well-organized petition campaign supported by winemaker Kendall-Jackson.

“If certain news outlets are to be believed, white-wine drinkers everywhere were devastated,” Stephen Harrison wrote in Slate. He doesn’t particularly care one way or another, and instead poses a question “. . . more philosophical in nature, namely, whether emoji are supposed to represent broad emotions and concepts or something more specific.”

Coincidentally, last week Jonny Garrett traced “the origins of beer language, from Michael Jackson to emojis” at Good Beer Hunting.

So what changed since Heinrich Knaust wrote Funff Bücher, von der Göttlichen und Edlenn Gabe, der Philosophischen, hochthewren and wunderbaren Kunst, Bier zu brawen in 1573? (Plenty was written about beer centuries before that, but this is a blog not a complete history of beer writing, and Richard Unger calls Knaust’s book the first extensive and comprehensive work on brewing.)

Knaust listed about 150 beers from Germany, although his descriptions didn’t exactly focus on flavor. He wrote, for instance, “The noble Hamburg beer is the queen of all other white, or white, beers, just as the Danzic (Gdansk) beer has the precedence and is queen of all the other barley, or red, beers.”

Describing flavor is hard, whether the topic is beer, wine or just about anything else. Flavor wheels gave writers more of a vocabulary. Morten Meilgaard introduced the beer flavor wheel 1979, and Ann Noble at UC-Davis developed a wine aroma wheel in 1984. Cheese wheels, coffee wheels, chocolate wheels and still more wheels followed. The Beer Flavor Map adds even more adjectives, and now there are individual flavor maps for different raw materials. There are plenty of adjectives available. If there were an emoji for each would that make it easier to communicate about beer?

I’m full of similar questions. (Because the best read story here this year will be “Words to describe what you are tasting,” and it has been every year since it was posted in 2008.)

Do people want precise analysis of flavors (as if that were possible)?

Do they want to know how a particular beer will make them feel (beyond intoxicated)? Call it the emoji question, and understand that is no easier to do than writing about flavor.

More verbs? More nouns?

Who? What? Why? How? Where? When?

Much has changed since Knaust. Garrett chooses to start the history with Michael Jackson, skipping about 400 years. If you haven’t visited his article, now would be the time. In a special issue of Beer History dedicated to Jackson, Zak Avery wrote about how the Beer Hunter’s observations evolved, pointing specifically Fuller’s ESB.

Avery wrote, “There is a move in MJ’s writing from an amateur understanding (in the true sense of the word, the amateur as a lover of something), to an adoption and, crucially, a demonstration of understanding of technical terms, to a move toward describing beers purely in sensory terms.”

He concludes, “Clearly then, there are many ways that we can talk about the taste of beer; the technical, physical properties; the aromas and flavours, what they remind us of and what they stir in us; where a beer sits in a brewery’s range, or within the stylistic pantheon. But the simple act of focusing on what a beer does as it passes over your palate, noting the attack, mid-palate and finishes, picking our aromas and flavours, is the overlooked key to wringing every last piece of flavour and enjoyment from this humble drink that we so love. That is the art of tasting beer. And after all, if you can’t taste it, why bother?”

This is something important to remember. Sure, Jackson was a terrific writer, but he was also a terrific taster, and he could turn what he tasted into words (have I mentioned how hard that is?). He was lucky to do this at a time in history his words would be appreciated.

I’m still astonished to read a letter he wrote to Charles Finkel in 1981 — well before he was known as the Beer Hunter — about what he would be remembered for: being the first writer to attempt an international study of beer styles, championing beer at the table, and using a “literate” vocabulary in his beer writing. He played a role in the change that made all that relevant, but he was also a beneficiary. The emergence of “something new” in beer gave him the freedom to create the legacy he imagined.

Were Jackson alive today he would be 77 years old. We can’t disregard that he had Parkinson’s disease, but as long as we are pretending, imagine sitting in a pub with him discussing how he might communicate with beer drinkers in 2019, or what it might be like in 2029. His Beer Hunter television series looks a bit nostalgic today, but was ground breaking at the time. He understood the importance of how to communicate was well as the importance of what he was communicating.

Would he suggest emojis today, words, video, something else? Those are all how.

Would he choose something other than words?

“However much of a beer geek (There’s a bit of vocabulary that wasn’t around when Jackson started) people think I am, I think of myself first as a writer,” Jackson said several years before he died. “Writing, speaking, broadcasting — they all have their own skills. You need a proper knowledge of the subject, but when I’m taking notes, I’m always thinking mainly about ways to write a story from them.”

When I read Jonny Garrett’s story my first thought was that it presented a reason to write about the mysteries of flavor, how much more is understood than a dozen years ago, and how writers describe it. This post went another direction about the time I read about the proposed white-wine emoji, and somehow ended up being this. Along the way, there was an essay from Hugh Johnson about the evolution of wine writing and language. He mentions the influence of Henry Vizetelly, best known for what he wrote about Champagne in the 19th century.

Vizetelly also wrote a bit about beer, specifically Berliner Weisse in Berlin Under the New Empire in 1879. He described publicans uncorking stone bottles and pouring beer into huge glasses. “In front of everyone stood a gigantic tumbler which could have been fitted with ease upon any ordinary head, and which contained a liquid pale and clear as Rhine wine, surmounted by a huge crown of froth not unlike a prize cauliflower. This was the famous ‘weiss,’ the mere mention of which suffice to send a Berliner into raptures and into the mysteries of which I was about to be initiated.” Berlin was “the city where the kühle blonde is obtained in the greatest perfection and where bier-stuben offering no other beverage to the frequenters abound. The beer is drunk by preference when it is of a certain age, and in perfection it should be largely impregnated with carbonic acid gas and have acquired a peculiar sharp, dry, and by no means disagreeable flavor.”

Beer language, like all language, will continue to evolve, but some writing remains timeless.

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