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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Wonder and Humility

Last week, Patrick and I sat down to record a podcast on tasting beer. (Give it a listen!) The simple idea was that, in blind-tasting our way through a few beers, we could illustrate how much your eyes, noses, and tongue will tell you about the beer you're drinking. Beer's many flavor and aroma compounds can easily bewilder, and it takes years of sampling to find your way through their thicket. I've led tastings where we sample a beer and break it down, and for people new(ish) to beer, it can be revelatory. Being able to connect flavors to ingredient and process creates a map that drinkers can use with any beer--a rosetta stone that demystifies all that complexity.

Is Fred about to listen to his beer?

But in deciding to do the tasting blind, we revealed another truth to beer: so much of our "knowledge" comes from things that we don't learn through our eyes, noses, and tongues. I'd asked Sally to buy some beers for the experiment and prepare them for us. We didn't coordinate about anything--style, brewery, country. Stripping away all those cues left us with only our senses, and that's a surprisingly naked experience. You want to reach for the bottle to see what the brewery says about the beer. Our second bottle was a saison by Bend's Crux Fermentation Project. It had a lot of clovey phenolics and a touch of banana-y isoamyl acetate. I looked at the cloudy liquid in the glass and wondered whether it was a saison or a slightly offbeat Bavarian weizen. I had no crutch to lean on, though, so I just settled further into the experience. Not knowing let me get to know that beer on fresh terms.

Even more remarkable was the experience of bottle three, a beer we had already reviewed on the podcast. It was my favorite beer of the flight, and such a curious experience! The aromas were richly malty, with layers of cocoa, nuts, toffee, and chicory. The flavors were if anything more varied. There was a fragile layer of roastiness floating on top of the palate, and it gave way to a buffet of malty goodness underneath. There was a vanilla/butterscotch note so pronounced we were pretty sure it had been bourbon-aged. Amazingly, the beer was light and delicate, and as you swallowed, it disappeared with a satisfyingly crisp snap.

It turned out to be Black Boss, which we sampled for the porters and stouts podcast (one of my favorites). In that case, I condemned it because I found it wanting as a porter. And indeed, when we blind-tasted it, we agreed it wasn't a porter. The roast is far too subtle. It was a ruby color, very bright, with an ecru head and, poured into a Rodenbach glass, did a decent enough visual impersonation of Roselare's finest. But my impression of the beer as a bad Baltic porter clouded my judgment about the beer itself. What I "knew" about Black Boss prevented me from experiencing something much more obvious and accessible. Absolutely every time I do a blind tasting, I find myself re-learning the lessons of humility, and this was a prime example.

Recently, Bryan Roth wrote a great post about bringing ears into the equation and listening to your beer. Fred Eckhardt used to exhort drinkers to listen to their beers, too. Like Bryan, he meant it partly literally--you can hear a head collapse, he pointed out--but Eckhardt was a bit of a mystic. He meant it poetically, as well. We "know" so much about beer because of what the label tells us, what its reputation is, what our previous experience has been, and what style it was brewed to. But this isn't knowledge, not really. When Fred told us to listen to our beers, he was saying, "put everything else aside." Every beer will tell you about itself, if only you stop to listen to the story.

Real knowledge is naked experience, untroubled by extraneous details. We so often foreclose the possibility of discovery because we already have the answers, the knowledge. If we know a beer is a well-regarded dubbel from a famous brewery in Belgium, we mold our experience (subtly, unintentionally) to fit that knowledge. We lose the opportunity for wonder. We can't meet someone we already know.

Periodically I have an experience that reminds me of these truths. Afterward, in the few days when I can remember to recapture my wonder and humility, I marvel at the experience and pure pleasure of a pint of beer. This is one of those moments. I better have another beer soon.

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