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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Listen to Your Beer

Karl Ockert wants to change the way we think about beer. Ultimately, he wants to change the way we talk about it, too, but first he wants us to abandon our old mental models. There's a pernicious habit among the beery folk to treat beer like a lab experiment and find the flaws. Beer judging is almost a perverse process of totting up a beer's flaws; as in golf, the least strokes--or black marks--wins. When we do approach beer from the perspective of appreciation, our language is often imprecise and overly broad: "malty," "hoppy" and so on.

Karl, now the technical director for the Master Brewers Association of America, is putting together a program that will teach people to be better appreciators. It's in the vein of the cicerone program, but focused more narrowly on the sensory experience of beer. The idea is to use all one's senses to explore beer, then use a consistent set of terms to describe them. To put a bit of mustard on the process, Karl asked us to think about listening to our beer. (Turned out the point had more to do with the way sounds trigger impressions, memory, and expectations--a nice way of illustrating how the brain, the sixth sense, intrudes on the process.) The sound of beer being poured into a glass and the visual presentation--that's where the process starts, and it goes through the final swallow.

More interesting for our purposes, Karl has completely reimagined the taxonomy of beer. Gone are the classic divisions of ales and lagers, of clusters of styles based on region. Instead, beers are grouped into four groups based on their dominant flavor:
  • Malt-driven beers (Examples: Munich helles, brown ale, bock, barleywine, porter)
  • Hop-driven beers (Examples: pilsner, pale ale, IPA)
  • Fermentation-driven beers (Examples: lambics, Bavarian hefeweizen, abbey ales)
  • Flavored beer (Examples: wit, rauchbier, fruit beers, bourbon barrel-aged)
I'm not actually sure these are the best ways to break down beers by category. Saint Angelo De Ieso brought a Westvleteren 12 to the conference (bless him!), and I was struck at how much it reminded me of a barleywine. There was very little fermentation character in it. Speaking of barleywines, some are malt-driven but some, like Ockert's own Old Knucklehead, are damned hoppy.

But that misses the point. Karl's goal is to make us think differently about beer. If we're focused on the dominant flavor, we're looking for the beer's character, its positive attributes. Conceptually, beginning at the place of the dominant flavor and then exploring from there makes perfect sense. Along the way, we might well find a dreaded off-flavor. But finding it doesn't dominate the process; it's just one of the many qualities we find in the beer. It orients the taster toward appreciation, not judgment. (Once you've located the beer's central character, the specifics follow in a more familiar way; the descriptors Karl suggests are standard adjectives that relate to specific elements in a beer, like "clove" or "citrus" or "toffee.")

Whether the Beer Steward Program's model becomes the standard or not, I very much hope the idea Karl's promoting gains currency. We need a new way of thinking about beer; one based on understanding and appreciation rather than judgment.


  1. Hey Jeff, nice job on this one. I totally left it out since I didn't really take any notes on it, I'm glad you did!

  2. I love the idea of this. I have never liked that people dictate so much of their beer experience on what is wrong with the beer.
    But that's because I'm not sure I have the most refined palette so that I can pick up all those tasting flavors on the flavor wheel.
    I like this as just another way to describe what a beer is, especially helpful for the less educated?

  3. Not 100% sure of my numbers on this, but I think "flavoured" is roughly a squintillion times less useful than "malty" and "hoppy" in terms of beer descriptors. At least malt and hops are actual things that have a taste.

    Rauchbier like Schlenkerla Märzen is malt-driven. The flavour is coming from the malt, not some other additive.

  4. "Listen to you Beer" used to be Fred Eckhardt's tag line. Since Fred's book was on the history and categorizing beers of the world, wouldn't breaking down that entire structure into Neanderthalis grunts like, HOPPY, MALTY AND BROWN, be kind of berating, ridiculous and a giant step backward? Is the beer industry de-evolving?

  5. Ha Saint Angelo De Ieso. That's a contradiction of terms. Glad you got to share with me, brother.