The recent Gazette articles regarding flavor recognition and recipe formulation were without doubt the most provocative, talked about, and asked about ever published. We're still getting questions regarding them and email requests for reprints (re-sends) of both parts of that series. Modern brewing classics, they are!
Joking aside, their effect was exactly what was intended, that being to provoke thought, observation, and discussion. Sometimes in the attempt to understand a complex issue, we tend to think in complex patterns and ignore the simplicity of many small (often obvious) factors that when viewed in total, explain the complex issue quite nicely. That tendancy is what prompts this more in-depth treatment on the brewer's task in the recognition process. Of all the discussion that resulted from those articles, the most common question or comment was a general frustration or confusion about where to even begin in regard to identifying and recognizing components of beer flavor. As stated in both articles, it is impossible to completely address flavor recognition and ingredient control in a modest publication as this. What we hope to do is help you, the brewer, develop the discipline to observe... the dicipline to detect... and just be more aware of your beer.
It is difficult if not impossible to succinctly and successfully tell you how you will recognize a particular beer component, partly because of the subjective way that each of us perceives flavors and aromas. There simply is no universality in the way humans sense detail or depth. There is easy agreement that something is hot, or sweet, or sour, but due to differences in individual sensitivity to a stimulus, there will be a range in sensation actually experienced from barely perceptible, all the way to overpowering. And since "flavors" are usually going to be a group of stimuli, each making up one part of the total picture, it is likely that individual sensitivities would make it impossible that two people could even sense "a" thing identically. Add to that challenge the formidable task of trying to describe a flavor and you start to get the picture of why someone can't give you an easy method for "beer component flavor recognition". It may be worthwhile to reiterate a point made in one of the first articles: "We use things we are familiar with to describe things we are unfamilar with". If we state that another way, we could say...it is impossible for one human to describe something they have sensed to another without referring to a commonly experienced sensation, or without comparison to another commonly understood sensation. To illustrate this more practically we'll use an example regarding another sense, one often used in the shop to demonstrate that difficulty in describing unique flavor and aromatic qualities: Imagine you are conversing with a friend who has been sightless since birth. (We don't mean the majority of your friends who act as if clueless, we mean one who actually has never experienced the sensation of sight.) Now, imagine your sightless friend has just asked you to, "Describe the color 'blue'.". ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Think about that for a second. How do you possibly describe "blue"? Maybe you think about how "blue" is less "red" than the color "violet"; or how one shade of "blue" looks like the sky; or even about "cool" versus "warm" colors. But the problem is, your friend does not enjoy any of these experiential references. These comparisons and differentiations are meaningless to him. That is what it is like to tangibly describe beer component flavor sensations. There is unfortunately no common universal perceptions or agreed upon reference flavors to describe most beer components.
Fortunately most people can sense the impact of beer components even if they do not understand them, and do have the ability to create their own reference points for comparison and differentiation. The initial part of the process of learning beer component identification is simply that...basic differentiation. As a child you are told, that is "blue", and you accept that as fact. Now, when you see "red", you recognize it is different than blue. You don't know at that point why light reflects and looks differently coming from a red thing, but you can use that initial differentiation as the first step in discovering why. The same occurs with beer. As you drink a beer you experience many stimuli. Then you are told (usually by a label), that is "Pale Ale". Now when you have something called "Brown Ale" you recognize it is different from Pale Ale. Initially, more detailed differentiation such as separating "hops" from "malt" and "malt" from "yeast" may be difficult, but with additional thought and more detailed differentiation each brewer can develop the reference skills to break the overall flavor into individual components.
For some, detecting differences and identifying their impact may come quite easily, almost unconciously. For others it may be as obtuse as trying to apply some logic to the understanding of Economics (which we are learning seem to be mutually exclusive, or possibly oxymoronic concepts). In any event, it can be and usually is quite enjoyable for most beer enthusiasts to try and develop those identification skills. It only requires everyday average observational skills and an initial set of "reference" flavors and aromas. Any beer can be used for this initial reference purpose. It simply needs to be consumed! Then, a different beer should be consumed. (Tough work so far, right?) Your task is to notice and make subjective observations of differences between the two. Was one stronger, sweeter, more bitter, more aromatic? The point is, a step must be taken to begin assembling your databank of beer flavor identification factors. You must start somewhere, and compare and contrast one beer to another!
COM-PARE (verb): represent as similar; check for likenesses or differences
CON-TRAST (noun): unlikeness shown by comparing, (verb): show differences
You see, whether or not you know the ingredients in a beer, you are not precluded from sensing similarities or differences. Knowing the ingredients in one or both has nothing to do with your ability to sense the differences. Eventually, the ingredient knowledge will allow you to know what is causing the sensory differences, and ultimately will help you create your personal database of sensory references that may allow you to identify the source of even rather subtle ingredient influences. The initial goal though, is to simply allow yourself to detect there is a difference. Then, you can you begin developing the skills of qualifying and quantifying those differences.
"If it somehow reminds you of fried chicken, then say that it reminds you of fried chicken!!" (....another of the things we say to people in the shop when speaking about flavor recognition.) You see, you don't have to speak in the vernacular of "beer" right away. Put your sensory observations in whatever tangible description you can. What counts initially is that you understand it. When you experience that sensation again, you will recognize it because you gave it a label the first time... "hey, it's that fried chicken kind of flavor". Now, we doubt you will actually think anything in your beer tastes or smells like fried chicken, but you may decide something strikes you as kind of "piney", or "apple-y", or "vanilla-y", and maybe even "creamy, spicey, sweet, tart, peppery, clean, herbal, grainy, flowery, citrus-y, perfumy, smokey, or, or, or, or,". And if you do detect fried chicken it may be because something in the aroma or flavor of your beer reminds you of a particular herb or spice used in your favorite chicken coating.
So O.K.Curly, now that you and Larry and Moe have decided you have fried chicken in your beer, how do you use this revelation? First, look at the recipe, shrug your shoulders, and say "I haven't got a clue what would make it taste that way!". Then look again and recognize there are not too many things that could be responsible. Now then, have another beer and don't even think about it... just enjoy your beer. (...again, tough job so far). Next, make another batch of beer, and when you taste it see if you taste the chicken. No? Yes? Well either way, look at your recipe and see if there are any common ingredients with the first beer. You will be able to either find common ingredients that could be responsible for "the chicken", or identify exclusive ingredients that simply can't be causing "the chicken". By comparing, and identifying similarities and differences, you will have begun to amass the body of evidence that with more batch comparisons will allow you to identify specific ingredient input, either by process of elimination or by the common appearance of an ingredient in multiple recipes. The more you compare and contrast, and the more detailed your contrasts become as your skills improve, the more highly refined your ability to detect and identify beer component flavors will become.
Hops are probably the easiest ingredient group to practice your detection skills on. You will find hops the easiest group to: first, identify the general impact of as an ingredient group; and second, by comparison from batch to batch identify the more specific influence of a particular variety. One reason this is likely is that hop aromas are very obvious as they are added into the kettle. It is likely you will be able to recognize that aroma in the finished beer. Since flavor is so intrinsically tied with aromatics, the flavor of hops as a general component group is usually the first to be readily recognized and identified. More specific identification of individual hop families will then naturally follow, as further comparison and differentiation teach you to detect varietal differences, and then eventually to possibly identify the specific variety. This relative obvious nature of hops as a group helps most brewers train their minds and senses,opening them up and becoming more receptive to the subtle attribute differences within the malt group and within the yeast group.
The important thing to remember is it takes quite a bit of comparison ...observing recipe similarities and differences and associating them with flavor and aromatic similarities and differences. Your arduous efforts of brewing and drinking, and brewing and drinking, and drinking and drinking (hey now, we didn't ask you to work overtime!) will teach you about your subjective perception of a specific ingredient's flavor and aroma. Your thinking and observing at every step of the beer making process, along with comparing and contrasting beer after beer, will have sub-consciously given you a databank of reference points. That vast reference pool will act like a beer detective by which every beer must pass, releasing recipe secrets as it crosses your palate, slides down your throat, and makes you say... "ahhhh".
While palates vary and some brewers will be more successful at detection, every brewer can learn well enough to help them tweak their beers to be more personally enjoyable. It is not difficult, doesn't cost anything, and isn't painful...unless of course it makes your head hurt when you try to think. So, if thinking is not a natural activity and experience for you... please put down the glass and step away from the bar! We'll send some Duff Lite over to you right away so that neither your brain nor your palate will be taxed by the whole "thinking thing". O.K.?