Epiphanies with Beer Tasting Terms

In "Scents and Sensibility" from the March 10th issue of The New Yorker John Lanchester reviews "Perumes: The Guide" by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez. How does a review of a book of perfume reviews relate to beer? While the review never mentions beer, it does mention sensory evaluation of wine, which was enough to get me thinking about beer.

People who review beers (and wines) tend to use a common array of terms in their descriptions. Malty characters have their own set of descriptors: caramel, bready, chocolate, roasted and so on. Hops can be described as: resiny, citric, grassy, piney, et cetera. The meanings of some of the terms are clear, but what the hell does "resiny" mean? Some of the characteristics that these descriptors refer to can be unclear until we try a beer or wine in which their presence is so singular that we have a sensory epiphany. In the first few paragraphs of his review Lanchester discusses this phenomenon:
For years, ever since I started taking an interest in wine, I’ve been annoyed by the word “grainy.” It’s a word that mavens use in relation to red wines, and refers to certain types of tannin—the chemical that cures leather, is present in tea, and makes the mouth pucker. Tannin is a preservative and an important factor in the way wines age. Still, how could a liquid be “grainy”?

Then, a few nights ago, I opened a bottle of wine I’d been given, a Languedoc red called Le Pigeonnier, from the European heat-wave year of 2003, and, without concentrating very hard, took a sip, noticed something odd about the mouthfeel of the wine, and suddenly realized—bam!—that it was grainy. I’d found the famous grainy tannins, and the term actually made sense, because the wine definitely had a particulate, almost sandlike texture, not unpleasant, but distinctive. What’s more, in tasting it I realized that I’d encountered versions of it—milder, more restrained versions—before. Now I knew what grainy tannins were.

I was reminded of my "Aha!" moment with Brettanomyces. Brettanomyces is a genus of yeast sometimes used in fermentation. They were once prevalent in giving stouts, and are of primary importance in the production of "wild beers" such as lambic, Flanders Red Ale and Flanders Brown Ales. Brettanomyces is also used to bottle condition Orval.

I first became aware of Brett after reading The Brewmaster's Table by Garrett Oliver. In his description of Orval, Oliver uses the term Goût d'Orval which describes the characteristic aromas and flavors contributed by Brettanomyces. The more common and perhaps more descriptive term was coined by Michael Jackson: "hop sack". What exactly does a hop sack smell like? I'd had Orval and other beers fermented with Brett before, but I didn't really appreciate what hop sack meant until I tried a bottle of Orval that was several months old. I wish that I'd stressed this more in the original blog entry. There were aromas that were similar to hops, but distinctly different: slightly more mellowed, and different in a way whose description still eludes me. I like the term aged hop aroma although, this still isn't completely accurate.

Has anyone else had moments like this with beer?

Labels: , ,