I love judging the Brussels Beer Challenge. It's one of my favourite competitions, because it's global in scope, but it happens in Belgium, which means the beers you're tasting during judging sessions have to measure up to the beers you drink in a typical bar round the corner. Last year I had to judge 24 Belgian-style Tripels in the morning, and then we visited the Trappist brewery at Westmalle in the afternoon, and drank Westmalle Tripel and... well, it would be rude to the breweries entering the competition to complete that thought. Some of them tried really hard.
Last November, I was judging again in Brussels. You never know what category you're going to get. You accept you're going to get some that you're not best friends with, but hope that it'll balance out and that you'll get some good ones. Sometimes - as I found with the Tripels the year before - getting a style you love can be a mixed blessing. But can it work the other way round? Can you find something wonderful in a category you think you hate?
At 9.15 that Saturday morning, I found out: 47 fruit beers were waiting to be sipped, savoured and scored.
These were not Berlinerweiss with added fruit, nor fruit IPAs nor krieks. These were beers where fruit (or fruit syrup, or concentrate) was the main flavour. I rarely, if ever, drink these beers. The whole table was trepidatious about the promised assault on our precious palates. How to judge them?
There were style guidelines, and in many competitions, judging to style is the most important point: you can find the best beer you've ever tasted in your life, but if it has more colour units or hop character or a lower or higher ABV than the guidelines say, you have to mark it down, so I always prefer the competitions that give some leeway as to whether it's a good beer or not. But with a style I reject as a drinker, how should I judge its appeal beyond whether it was 'to style' or not?
In thinking this through, I started to think about how we taste and enjoy beer. The vast majority of people who drink beer don't spend too much time thinking about what's going on in the mouth, and that's fine - beer is a social lubricant, and while you're drinking it, most of your attention is focused elsewhere. Just like when you read half a page of a book and realise you haven't taken it in because you've been thinking about something else, or there's music playing and you can't recall what the last few songs were because you were listening to your friend talking, there's a big difference between sensory stimulus being picked up by your mouth, nose, eyes etc., and your brain actually paying any attention to it. When we taste beer, as opposed to drinking it, the biggest difference is not in the size or shape of the glass, the sniffing and swirling; it's in the simple act of directing your attention to the beer itself rather than anything else.
I've seen many craft beer fans necking beers they've paid a lot of money for and which they profess a deep understanding of. There's nothing wrong with that - even if you get stuck into the sensory impressions on the first couple of sips, you'd look a bit of a dick if you continued to focus on it throughout the entire glass, to the exclusion of everything else happening around you.
But sometimes, those of us who do love beer really do want to interrogate what's going on with it, and not just when you're judging. A huge chunk of beer writing consists of tasting notes of different beers. But here's my problem, informed by reading Beer Advocate and Rate Beer, and by sitting with beer experts judging competitions: too often, tasting beer can descend into a pissing contest about who can pick up and identify what different elements are in the beer. Whether that's correctly identifying the hops or malts used, or being able to 'get' notes of hibiscus, salted caramel, cuban cigars or whatever, I always worry that tasting notes along these lines are more about the taster than the beer. Here's an example I picked at random, years ago, from Beer Advocate, to make the point:
“After swirling a bit I am getting some creosote, faint hop background, malt wort. Taste is bitter and dry, strong roasty presence, a bit like old coffee grounds. Finishes out with some astringency.”
If you're into your beer these days, and you frequent sites like this, that probably makes a lot of sense to you. But what's it doing, really? I honestly can't tell from this description whether the taster actually likes the beer or not, and from this, I can't be sure whether I would or not, either. Is identifying a series of disparate parts and impressions the same thing as describing a beer, or appreciating it?
I don't think so.
Think about literature, about reading the introduction of a new character. When did you last read a description along the lines of "She was about five feet four, with mid-brown hair. She was caucasian, approximately thirty years of age, wearing a navy blue skirt and jacket over white blouse, finished with a Laura Ashley scarf and black shoes."
This is what you get in a police report, not a piece of creative writing. It describes a person, but gives me no idea of who that person is, whether I would be interested in talking to her, or why I should be interested in meeting her. A good novelist can give you a brilliant picture of a real person without mentioning any of these details.
But I'm meant to be talking about tasting, not writing. The thing is, if we accept that this identity parade of flavour notes is what tasting beer is meant to be like, we feel pressured to simply spot as many and unusual constituent parts as we can rather than thinking about the whole.
Faced with my fruit beers, I realised this would be no good. Here's a strawberry beer. "I'm getting strawberries." OK, thanks. That would be it. But the thing is, in that tasting session, I tasted good strawberry beers (well, one) and bad. What was the difference between them?
The good one tasted like a beer that had strawberry flavour in it, rather than like strawberry soda. You could still tell it was beer. And the strawberry tasted of strawberry, rather than strawberry syrup. And the strawberry part and the beer part harmonised and felt like they belonged together.
By the end of the morning I'd enjoyed several of the beers, and I'd scribbled out some thoughts on how, if I'm in an analytical mood, I might get more from tasting beer than I do from the prevailing spot-the-flavour-note model.
In an age of cloudy craft beers, this is problematic, and we allocate it too many marks in beer competitions. Some truly revolting beers look clean, bright and sparkling, and score better than they should because of it. It's also dependent on the context of the beer you've ordered. Does it look like you expected it to? Does it look like you want it to? Does it make you want to drink it?
This is where we create the competition to see who can spot what, and wine is no different from beer. It's also where any taster opens themselves up to accusations of pretentiousness.
It's flawed to give aroma too much attention all the time, because humans actually get most of our aroma sensations from 'retronasal olfaction,' meaning you really get it when it's in your mouth/when you're swallowing, and it passes up to your nasal cavity from the back of your throat, and past your olfactory bulb as you breathe out through your nose.
Instead of thinking of this stage as an identity parade of flavour notes, what if you think of it as a courtship? Is there any aroma at all? If not, why not?
Despite the retronasal thing, this is a big indicator (though not a foolproof one) of the main event. Aroma should entice you. Does it put you off instead? Or does it make you want to plunge in? With some great and powerful beers, the aroma makes me want to carry on sniffing, almost forgetting to drink. On a few rare occasions, as with fresh coffee or freshly baked bread, the delivery may not even live up to the aroma's promise. But overall, I'm looking for aroma to increase the anticipation and desire of drinking. However it might do that, if it isn't doing it, it's not working.
Obviously, this is the main event. In the first second in which the beer enters your mouth, there's an initial flash of flavour sensation, before your rational, analytical brain kicks in. Can you capture that and appreciate it? How does it make you feel? I'm increasingly of the opinion that to really get this, you should start by taking a generous swig rather than a dainty sip.
Once it develops, is there a journey across the palate? Does it develop as it moves around your mouth, or as it sits there, or is it just a quick flash of something that quickly disappears? Is it complex or one-dimensional?
Here, I then start to think about whether I'm actually enjoying the beer, and depending on your level of comfort with this kind of reflection, this is where we get either pretentious or we separate good from bad: Is there a point to this beer? What's it trying to be, and does it succeed?
If it's trying to be simple and direct and refreshing, does it do that job well or are there odd bits sticking out? (I've nothing against a clean, crisp lager, but if there are incongruent flavours due to poor technique or short lagering, they spoil what it's trying to do.)
If it's trying to be complex and rewarding, are all those constituent parts that beer-spotters love identifying so much working together or do they jar with each other? (I sometimes find complex craft beers to be a flabby collection of elements in search of an idea).
Aftertaste is a sensory experience - partly due to that retronasal thing, partly because some beers linger. How do you feel once you've swallowed that first sip? Are you satisfied? Do you want to drink more? This is revealing - how many times do you not feel this to be the case, but you force it down anyway, because you've paid for it? How many flabby beers do you finish with grim determination? And how many times does the finishing buzz compel you to raise the glass again, to try to complete a circle, to nag away at the desire the beer has created?
By the time I got to the end of my flight of fruit beers, I'd enjoyed a few of them, and found the experience of tasting them - even the ones I didn't like - to be thoughtful and revealing. And I had some thoughts that help me appreciate beer rather than just tasting it.
What do you think? How do you appreciate beer? Do you intellectualise it at all or just judge it by how quickly you finish a pint and how much you want to order another? Because after all that, when I look at a tasting flight in competitions, usually the easiest way of spotting my favourite is to look at which glass is nearly empty.