But Now I See
I remember a beer tasting, over ten years ago.
I was with two friends, one very knowledgeable on beer, the other an
experienced homebrewer and beer judge. We were tasting beers for a third
friend, a guy who had a small beer importing company. He was trying out
some new prospects on us; Euro-beers that he was considering contracting
to import. He poured the beers in another room, and served them without
comment: we didnít know the name, the country of origin, the type, not
even whether it came from a bottle, can, or mini-keg.
We fumbled our way through the beers: good
pilsner, interesting tripel, another pilsner. Then he brought in a dark
brown beer with a thin cap of foam on it. I smelled it, sipped it, and
thought: dunkelweizen, a dark wheat beer. Really, I swear I did,
and I only remember it so well because of the embarrassment I still
feel, years later, that I didn't confidently assert that. But I
hesitated, and my two friends exclaimed about the delicious Belgian dubbel
we were tasting. 'It is?' I remember thinking, and almost as
quickly dismissing it...but I still didn't say "Dunkelweizen."
In fact, I never did, not even after the
importer laughed, and said, "Caught you, guys, it's a dunkelweizen!"
I didn't tell this story to impress you with my
beer knowledge. To tell the truth, I've
been caught out just as badly a number of times since then, and
I'm not proud of not having had the confidence to buck the trend that
night. The reason I related it was to point up the lessons I learned.
First, have the courage of your convictions. You're often right,
even when you're alone. Second, there are some interesting
similarities between the funky weizen yeast and the funky
yeast used in some abbey-type beers. I've followed up on that, my
interest piqued by that tasting, and it's true.
Finally, and most importantly, blind tasting is
crucial. That's what I really took away from that night, and I've
been impressed with its importance more and more ever since.
The seminal French food writer, Anthelme
Brillat-Savarin, wrote in The Physiology of Taste (1825),
that "...the taste and the sense of smell form but one sense, of
which the mouth is the laboratory and the nose the chimney..." The
senses of smell and taste combine to form one experience, certainly, but
the grade school experiment of holding a sliced apple under your nose
while biting a raw onion proves that one can overwhelm, confuse, and
deceive the other, and make the brain decide something that is
clearly not so: mmmm, smell apple, I am eating apple.
Similarly, there is more to taste and smell and
their perception than simply the raw input of nose and tongue.
Your eyes have input as well, and I'm not talking about what a beer or
whiskey looks like. I'm talking about the label. When I know that I'm
tasting a Buffalo Trace whiskey for the first time, for example, I'm
already in a receptive frame of mind. I like Buffalo Trace
whiskeys, I've learned to expect them to be pleasurable, and that
inescapably colors my perception. But I've also learned that I don't
care for, oh, Boulder Beer Company beers, and I come to them expecting
them to be disappointing (which made Hazed and Infused such a
completely pleasant surprise; hey, Mikey, he likes it!).
You can try to be objective, you can say you're
tasting with your tongue and nose only, you can claim that no prejudice
exists in your mind... But you're only fooling yourself. You can only go
so far. At the back of your mind, working on you in ways you won't or
can't admit, gnawing at the world-ash taproot of your senses, are all
the memories and opinions you have of the producer and their previous
products, the place you got the drink, the way the bottle looked, who
you're reviewing it for, what other people have said about it,
your developed opinion of the general style of the drink...all that,
tearing away at your objectivity.
Remember, Blind Justice has a sword. And blind
tasting can slay that gnawing worm. If you want to find out what you
truly think about a beer or a whiskey, taste it blind in company with
two other similar drinks. You'll need help to do it truly blind:
have your assistant pour in another room, mark the glasses or somehow
make sure you know what's what (I've got my daughter trained, she does a
great job). Ideally, you won't even know for sure what it is you're
tasting beyond what your eyes, nose, and palate tell you.
Is it a lot of work? You bet. It can even look
silly to an outsider (or to you). If you're just a casual drinker, it
may not seem to make a lot of sense to go to all this trouble. But there
is no better way to learn about drinks, to learn just how much
you do or do not know. That tasting I was part of was a regular session
that I did for almost two years, once a month. Blind tastings, eight or
more beers, writing notes in silence, and discussion before and after
unblinding. I consider myself very lucky to have had that experience so
early in my "career," because it honed my tasting
Blind tasting makes you think. It's hard work.
There are no shortcuts, no "yeah, there's that house
character," because you don't know whose house you're in! You've
got to think about what you're tasting, to try to pick up what the
important components are, how it fits together, how it progresses on
your palate. It will make you think deeply about taste, about mouthfeel,
about the importance -- and the triviality -- of styles. It is the
only way to do honest, unbiased tasting.
I can't tell you how many times I've heard people
ask "How the hell did [insert beer name here (usually from a
megabrewer)] win a gold medal?!" I've got a two-word answer: "Blind
tasting." People will tell you that the fix is in, that people
recognize beers, even that money changes hands. Think about my friends
in the beginning. When I judged last year at GABF, there were three
beers I thought I recognized out of all the beers we judged. We never
find out what the beers are, except for the three winners. Of the three
I "recognized," I was right on one that I know of, wrong on
one, and fairly sure I was right on another. That's out of over 150
beers in three days of judging...and two of the beers I thought I
recognized were fruit beers. Experienced judges will tell you: don't
think you know what beer that is; you don't. Blind tasting.
If you really want to get serious, do triangle
tasting. That's blind tasting with a trick question. Take three
similar beers, say Hoegaarden, Allagash White, and Blue Moon Belgian
White. Get your assistant to pour them in three flights, mixed up, and
double them. For instance, the first flight might be two Hoegaardens and
a Blue Moon, the second flight would be all three, the third flight
would be two Blue Moons and an Allagash. This really focuses your
senses, because you don't know if you've got three different beers, two
of one, or -- if your assistant's feeling frisky -- all three the same,
and you're trying to tease out differences.
I talk about blind tasting on BeerAdvocate a lot.
Guys will say they tasted this beer and that beer, and they sucked and
they knew they were going to suck. Sometimes I'll just respond:
"Two words: blind tasting." And I'll have responses that say
"You talk about blind tasting like it's better, or it's the
only way to taste. I can taste a beer honestly, I just put the name
aside." Well, okay...like folks say, man's capacity for
self-delusion is infinite.
But look: I have to be honest. The tasting
notes you'll find here and on the new blog
are mostly not blind either. Blind tasting is more work, and I often
don't have two other beers of the same style. But I do it when I can, or
when I feel it's important, or when it presents an opportunity to learn
more about a type of drink, or about tasting, or about my own
Simply put, blind tasting opens your eyes. Try
it this month, and see what you learn.