The vocabulary of tasting

The tasting of lambics previously promised by the New York Times arrived today. Well worth your time.

Discussions about the article already include many more words than are in it. A few:

Burgundian Baggle Belt.

Rate Beer.

Beer Advocate.

At the Babble Belt there’s also side conversation about the use of wine vocabulary in a beer story, and the question pops ups, “Are we validated by them (wine snobs), or are we secure in what we know to be some of the greatest flavors and complexity of any beverage?”

That’s a fair question. The short answer would be, no, we shouldn’t feel validated just because a wine writer pens something nice about beer.

However, language is another matter. Those who try to describe beer in technical terms reserved for wine – and the Times article certainly does not – should be made fun of. But well used vocabulary is well used vocabulary.

Firestone Walker brewmaster Matt Brynildson discussed this recently. Firestone Walker is located in Paso Robles, Calif., in the midst of scores of wineries. After the winery tasting rooms close at 5 p.m., wine tourists and winery workers often congregate at the brewery tasting room, which is open until 7 p.m.

“The wine world has an incredible vocabulary,” Brynildson said. “They seem to conjure up more of a food vocabulary.

“A lot of brewers pick it part by just talking about the technical characteristics.”

(I can certainly be guilty of that. The other day a brewer mentioned he was tasting a Belgian-brewed tripel. “Good beer,” I said, “but it could use more hops.” What I should have said is that I would like it better if it were a bit more dry, with a touch of bitterness to balance the beer’s sweetness.)

“I learn a lot when I drink beer with winemakers,” Brynildson said. “They talk about it and look at it from a different angle.”

That’s why even if you already know all you want to about lambics you should be sure to check out Lambics: Beers Gone Wild. You’ll still learn something.

Finding nuance at a bargain price

What does the phrase “beer is the new wine” mean?

Using it as a chapter heading in The Big Book of Beer, Adrian-Tierney Jones favors the idea that beer will claim a place at the British dining table where glasses of wine currently reside. Other writers refer to a sense that beer has taken on an aura of sophistication, or that if you want to spend $10-$15 for an interesting (750ml) bottle of an alcoholic beverage that hunting for beer has become as interesting as hunting for wine.

Todd Wernstrom doesn’t use the phrase in a column in the February/March issues of Wine News, but the idea fits in perfectly with his discussion of wines at this price lower in food stores (a price range considered high end for beer). He writes: “What matters now isn’t what’s in the bottle but what’s on the bottle: labels with little animals; labels with bright colors; labels with names that range from the silly to the vulgar.”

He’s just getting started.

… if I have to see one more collection of pretty people with impossibly straight and white teeth exulting the moment while hoisting a glass of some $8 wine that glints in a prosaic sunset, I’ll end up sideways with stomach cramps. These so-called “lifestyle” shots are an even more cynical selling strategy than using bodacious babes to sell cheap beer. Even the most obtuse Bud drinker knows deep down that putting away a six pack will get him nothing but drunk.

In a publication where the word beer is almost never used, he discusses “looking again for nuance.” Then he writes, “Beers that actually capture the essence of what has been lost in everyday wine are largely made by the micro-size brewers. Names like Sierra Nevada, Firestone Walker, Brooklyn Brewery, Victory, New Belgium Brewing Company and Allagash are now well known in my house and among my friends.”

He makes several points:

– They are all unique.
– The embrace their terroir – and although the idea of beer terroir is even murkier than wine terroir (but worth exploring later) he defines it as a function not of where beer is made but of the choices made by the brewmaster.
– They convey their sincerity and genuineness in their marketing efforts.

The bottom line: “The best part of all these beers is that they are bargains when compared to the vapid entry-level wine we are being peddled.”

Here we might part company. Bargain is a tricky word. He would argue fairly that an expensive bottle of wine is a better choice than beer because he prefers wine to beer. Here the view is that beer often surpasses the best wine in many situations.

However, I share his frustration with marketers, no matter the alcoholic beverage.

Sadly, the advertsing whizzes just don’t think we’re smart enough to make choices based on something other than pretty pictures, and the winemakers don’t think we can taste the difference anyway.

By the way, the column was headlined, “Make it real.”

A beer sommelier?

This New York Post features Aviram Turgeman, New York’s first beer sommelier.

Cheers to Cafe D’Alsace for showcasing beer as much as wine. “I love beer, and we had a lot of great beers at L’Express (the bistro on Park Avenue South he also owns), but no one knew about them,” said owner Simon Oren.

The restaurant does all the right things: a well-resented menu, good glassware, and Turgeman suggests beer and food pairings. This has to be a step in the right direction for beer.

But can you really have a beer sommelier? defines sommelier as “A restaurant employee who orders and maintains the wines sold in the restaurant and usually has extensive knowledge about wine and food pairings.” That would make wine sommelier redundant and beer sommelier meaningless.

But enough of semantics. While you might be able to just call yourself a beer sommelier, nor there is no legal requirement in the U.S. to be certified as a wine sommelier, if you want to put M.S. (Master Sommelier) after your name that’s an entirely different matter.

The Court of Master Sommeliers requires candidates pass three levels of examinations. The first level is the Introductory Sommelier Course. Next is the Advance Course. SF Sommelier Consulting provides this description of the Advanced Course exam:

The first section is theory. It is an 82 question test with 20 multiple choice and 62 short answer questions. One hour is allowed for completion.

The second section is blind tasting. The candidate enters a room with a table with six glasses of wine on it and two Master Sommeliers sitting on the opposite side of the table. They listen as you swirl, sniff, taste and talk about each wine. You have 25 minutes total to identify all six. These wines can be from anywhere in the world, but they stick to classic examples. Points are given for your analysis and deductive reasoning as well as your identification of the wines.

The final section is the hardest of all. Restaurant service somehow seems harder when it is in a test environment. There are service stations where the Master Sommeliers judge your skills at opening still and sparkling wines, decanting, cigar service, freehand pouring of spirits, wine and food pairing, proof reading of wine lists, setting tables for a variety of menus, conversing with the guests and complaint resolution. While this is going on they also throw questions at you to see how you react. A passing score of 60% is required on all three sections. Approximately 25% of candidates pass this exam.

Pass that an you qualify for the Master Dipolma exam, which is even tougher. Then you can put M.S. after your name.

For the record, there are 74 professionals who hold the title Master Sommelier in North America. Of the North American Master Sommeliers, 61 are men and 13 are women. There are a total of 120 Master Sommeliers worldwide.

But only one (so far) beer sommelier in New York.

Beneficial inefficiency

Good Grape – you guessed it, a blog aimed a wine drinkers – credits Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Brewery with creating the economic theory of “Beneficial Inefficiency.”

The author is moved to ask this question:

Isn’t a really relevant question here, maybe the wineries have it all wrong? Maybe they don’t need to grow bigger, maybe they won’t be able to sustain a market of new customers buying direct in the Midwest, maybe what they should do is create less product and market it better.

Now substitute the word “breweries” for “wineries” and read it again.

I’m not supporting the concept of aritificial shortages, but perhaps it is better for all of us if breweries have the option of producing less and still making money – because that allows them to focus on quality.