Good Beer Bad Beer: The Art of Describing Flavors

Vinous, isovaleric, tarry, geraniol, and mercaptan are just some of the flavors of beer that can either make or break a home brewer’s spirit. Sitting amongst my fellow peers, judging beer, we were surrounded by small glasses of eager brews waiting to be swooshed, swirled, chewed, and spit into a saliva laden coffin. I was young in the beer judging scene. The idea of sitting and evaluating beer with my limited flavor vernacular had me nervous. Like a conveyor belt, I was given several samples of different beers numbered like a beauty pageant. I squint my eye to shake a shimmer of light through the ruby liquid. My nose dips into the glass. Teetering with hesitation, I whirl, sniff, pause, sip, swirl, chew, and spit. As I ponder and attempt to define what I just tasted, I epiphanize we are all part of a ballet choreographed to transcribe our sensory experience into phrases. I scribble my simple terms on the judging sheet knowing that these descriptions are supposed to provide insight into the quality and discipline that a brewer demonstrates in producing beer. The tips of my fingers rock and flick the pencil for a bit and I feel a little relief that there is nothing more to transcribe, but only because I have run out creativity. As I glance up at the table of judges I jolt back into being nervous – the judgement is not over. The next step is for all the judges to finalize their scores by reading them out loud. Crossing my fingers, I listen and pray that my scores were close to the others because if they weren’t, I would then have to defend my score by using my written notes. I soon realized that judging beer requires a level of creativity and penmanship, translating sensory experiences to a meaning beyond a score while also providing value to the brewer.

Oh, how I wish I had more formal training to boost my confidence. Surrounding me are judges who have spent years perfecting the art of describing a beer. The faith of a beer, categorized as a historical style, is put on trial. The trolley of impressions volley amongst the senior judges. An example being, no oyster, fishy, or briny flavors being present is a counter-point to an earlier voiced expression and assumption of earthy qualities being brought to life with oyster shells as part of the recipe. How could I compete with that? Throughout this jabbing festival, there was no choice for me but to recuse myself to listen and learn. To my dismay I quickly realize that I do not stand a chance. As another characteristic of a beer is being colored, my eagerness to participate starts to regress more. A judge commands a phrase and I realize, scanning my list of “No hop flavor” and “malty”, my descriptions are a caricature at best. The thick conversation continues and a moment of silence pierces through as my head rises away from my notes. I realize it was my turn to pontificate. I begin to recite in a merciful tone what feels like the worst haiku. In a flash, the judges are encouraging me to explain what I had experienced, asking to expound on my real experience, and engaging in a game of mad-libs, all in an effort for me to explore how I could express my experiences in sampling a beer with more confidence. Despite my nervousness, listening to others debate poetically about their experiences left me feeling enriched and emphasized the need to seek new methods of interpreting what I see, smell, and taste in a beer.

I decided the best way for me to learn is by being hands on. I would correlate a judge’s written opinion in describing a beer along with actually drinking that beer. The best source of opinions would come from a magazine called ‘Zymurgy’. In this magazine, there is a section called ‘Commercial Calibration,’ where three world renowned judges would evaluate a commercial beer and put it through the same judging stages as in a competition. I would go to the beverage store and buy a bottle of the beer being judged. Cracking the bottle cap off, I would sip the beer while reading everything the judges had to say about the mouthfeel, aroma, appearance, flavor, and overall impression. Over the course of several weeks, I begin to prepare myself for the next judging opportunity. Day after day, empty bottles begin to stack on my bookshelf, reminders of how far I have come in remembering the thesaurus of flavors a beer can muster up.
Judgement day has arrived. Not only will I be judging beer, but I will be judged by others. As the carousel of beers make their rounds to everyone, I am primed with confidence. I sit with some of the same judges that guided me last time. A whirl, sniff, pause, sip, swirl, chew, and a spit later, I am off to the races, vaulting my impressions on paper. No longer is my list filled with simpleton phrases. I write with a renewed spirit. My pencil is gargling with flavors on my judging sheet and soon enough I am asked to talk about my score. Having listened to a few judges speak prior to my turn, I am emboldened as I recalcitrate to my notes. A few smiles emerge amongst my fellow peers as a noble acknowledgement that I have greatly improved my ability to spar. As the parade of evaluating beers draws to an end, I feel a great sense of fortune. I am fortunate to have exposed my limitations to others, and through professionalism was enticed to master the fine art of crafting soliloquies to share with others.

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