Sunday, July 24, 2011

Tasting Notes

After one sip of my first ever Duchesse Borgogne last night my face spasmed — fluctuating between an involuntary sour grimace and a beam of sheer delight. I try to resist the temptation to read descriptions (and worse: reviews) of new beers before I try them. As any movie-goer will attest, expectations and predispositions can be the arch-enemies of enjoyment. I hadn't even realized the Duchesse was a sour Flemish Red until it curdled my consciousness and tattooed a smile across my cheeks that lasted all evening. The shock of the sour with the luscious mead-like body really pleased me.

Our physical reactions to tasting beer are an oddly personal thing. Mood, fatigue and above all company can be more significant than mere flavour in determining whether we roll our eyes, adopt a stony snarl, or launch into a full-on "o" face. As animals our reactions to flavour are essentially carnal, yet as social creatures we have learned to become aware of and control how those reactions bubble up to the surface.

Personally, my tasting reactions mirror my reactions to good comedy. If I am watching The Daily Show or listening to The Bugle alone, even the most uproarious gags might solicit an appreciative nod — a monosyllabic chuckle at most. But put me in a crowded cinema and I will bellow through a full ninety minutes of a mediocre Will Ferrell flick. Similarly, a great beer enjoyed in solitude might fire up my synapses, but put me in a beer-tasting and the same beer could reduce me to giggling jelly.

On some occasions company has the opposite effect. We've all been in situations where someone has split a rare or celebrity beer and the gathered tasters proceed to play flavour-poker, stifling their visceral reactions – whether delight, disgust or indifference — for fear of betraying unsophisticated tastes or a misunderstanding of the intended style. It takes a bold or blasé comrade to break the seal: "It's OK, but I have no idea why BeerAdvocate drinkers have it as the best of its style" before others will wear their frowns of disappointment with confidence.

My favourite tasters of all (my taste in tasters, if you like) are those awesome individuals with a winning combination of hyperactive tastebuds and a total lack of inhibitions. There is one such guy called John who comes to our semi-regular Epic Beer Dinner pairing events. I always search the RSVP list to see if John is attending, and if he is, I know we will be offered a veritable showcase of joie-de-vivre.

John reacts to a beer the way ordinary people might react to being publicly slapped, tickled by a platoon of Oompa-Loompas, or being told they have less than three minutes to live. Reactions explode out of him. I once saw him react to an imperial Hefeweizen as though it had just suggested that John and his wife join it in a three-way.

I've never seen someone perceive such audacity, outrageousness and utter seduction in the beers that John drinks. I salute him. Most of us cannot be like John, but all beer lovers have their own version of this reaction. We might simply sit, aware, in the serene moment, feel an immediate compulsion to write about what we just drank, or snap a pencil lead scribbling tasting notes.

And now, because my words do not have the power to replicate intense visceral reactions, for John and the Duchesse, a video of some small children eating lemons.


  1. "Playing flavour poker." I like that, and its so true. Well written as always.

  2. Thank you Basement Brewer. Dave told me he ran into you recently. It'd be good to get a pint one of these days, preferably one of yours!