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A Beerfly's view. If you see anything here that seems crazy, click here.

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2004 Buzz

Dec. '04: Joys of the Dark 

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Oct. '04: Beer's Image 

Sept. '04: Clearly Insane 

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May '04: Shedding Tiers

April '04: Keg Party

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January '04: Best of 2003

2003 Buzz

Dec. '03: Wine good!

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Oct. '03: Shots at Saveur

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August '03: Subtlety

July '03: RIP, Corner Bar

June '03: Screw 'Em!

May '03: Extreme Beer?

April '03: Liquor Taxes

March '03: St. Patrick's

February '03: Coffee

January '03: Taxes

June, 2007

Blind, 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 quickly. 

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, 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 prejudices. 

Simply put, blind tasting opens your eyes. Try it this month, and see what you learn.


Copyright © 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: June 01, 2007