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Seeing the World through Beer Flavoured Glasses

In some ways the experience of a beer (or mead or wine) is very much like standing in front of a framed photograph on a gallery wall. About 90 per cent of what the person experiencing that beer (or photograph) takes away from their encounter involves what they brought to the table as baggage. Think about that for a minute, because I didn’t just pull the idea out of thin air. Why do you think we all have different preferences, likes and dislikes, when it comes to food and drink? Why do two people looking at the same photograph see divergent pictures?

With food and drink, taste plus aroma equals flavour. Added to that, biological differences at the individual level make some people more able to taste specific off flavours; even certified beer judges can be unable to detect obvious flavour flaws in their glass. And one would expect this extends beyond off-flavours into the realm of experiencing complex flavour interactions in a given beverage. Supertasters are an obvious example. After all, why should this sensitivity difference only relate to off-flavours or errors? It doesn’t.

Flavour and preference have a cultural context – the foods and flavours you were exposed to from the womb until this time of your life impact your personal preferences. The World around us shapes our perceptions of good and bad flavours based on exposure and cultural reinforcement. For example, I gag eating herring that another person might savour and crave. Some of us appreciate wine, others don’t.

Beyond biological and cultural influences you have the psychological influences of things from your past associated with good and bad experiences. Things that made you ill, or that special food or drink that makes you think of your uncle’s madhouse wedding, or the birth of your first child. This becomes a complicated interplay of physiology, psychology and culture between individuals experiencing the same flavours, textures and social context.

And we have expectation. Jennifer Talley, in her book “Session Beers“, noted that a bar mixed up their tap lines and the people who thought they were receiving a glass of ale instead received a Flanders Red. The beer must be off, they thought. In fact, not that long ago sour beers were considered off or tainted and obviously contaminated. And here we are savouring them and trying our best to master the art of brewing with bacteria alongside our yeast. That was a good Flanders Red they found revolting.

I see this expectation come into play with mead. When I offer mead to somebody they’re expecting a glass of back-sweetened honey wine, because that’s what mead seems to be in Tasmania. When that person gets the bitterness of East Kent Golding hops and hibiscus it’s a shock. Somehow wrong. Or, another one that I’ve made and love, the Damson, Sloe & Lime wine that at first seems inappropriate and then grows on your palate with education. I’ve learned to make the things I want to drink, rather than trying to meet the perceived expectations of others. I follow my own tongue.

It has been a long track to reach my current perspective. Going back to my first experiences of beer in the late 1970s; it was disgusting. Boags Draught in a long neck bottle made me ill, while I tried to appreciate it. Eventually my beer flavoured glasses fogged over and the love of the many flavours in all sorts of beer (and mead and wine) took it’s own path. In fact, I’ve come to love the odder things in a glass that only five or ten years ago I would have poured down the sink. Last year I made something I tongue-in-cheek called Arse & Balls Saison… a little too dark, dank and funky. But was it bad? No. I drank every bottle. It was a sometimes beer. Different.

Over the last few years I’ve come to appreciate the difference between a badly made beer or mead or wine and one that has an unusual flavour. One that doesn’t have obvious errors, but is not exactly conventional. So I’ve been more experimental with ingredients and particularly with yeast. And I’m wary of giving such things away anymore, but only because I’d hate that hard work to go down the drain and be wasted. A robust porter with brettanomyces claussenii in secondary is fruity. Not a bad beer at all. Just different.

Some people will be happy drinking macro lager over the bar for the rest of their lives. Like some people eat fish fingers in front of the television with chips and boiled peas. I’m not one of those people. My beer flavoured glasses are wide with awe at the possibilities of creative experience. And, after all, who the hell am I to tell other people what anything should taste like. A good beer is one you and your friends enjoy and you want to experience again.

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark (aka nortypig) and I live in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a photographer making pictures with film. A web developer for money. A business consultant for fun. A journalist on paper. Dreams of owning the World. Idea champion. Paradox. Life partner to Megan.

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