The Power of Memorable Beer

2010 December 27
by admin

I had a great beer drinking experience that I feel compelled to share. Last evening, hanging out with an old friend, I brought out a large-format bottle of a new beer by a new Maine brewery. It was the Weizen Stout by Rising Tide Brewing Company. I had my suspicions, because I usually don’t like the banana/clove esters that characterize hefeweizens, but hell, it’s new beer, and new local beer at that, so, down the hatch. The beer pours dark, a shade darker than mahogany, with a healthy tan color to the dense head. The aroma is very scant, maybe a little dry roast wisp, a little sweetness. The first flavors are roasty, toasty, and for perhaps 2 milliseconds, completely unspectacular. “Great, another dry Irish stout with a creative label!” my plate groaned, and then….something happened. The flavors switched gears, and there was a brief, burnt, sugary-thing going on, and then a plunge into some deeper caramel, and a dry malty backbone. That brief, burnt sugar thing was captivating though, and strangely familiar. Now, I can be certain that I have never tasted this beer before, but the flavor dropped a rock into the well of my mind, and the ripples began to spread. Another sip, and….there it was again. This time, the feeling of deja vu was nearly overwhelming. I had certainly experienced this flavor before, and it was meaningful to me. Now – what the hell was it! This is perhaps my favorite part of beer-drinking, the attempt to use language and metaphor to describe a flavor that, in beer, is so out of context as to present a legitimate puzzle. Solving these puzzles is at once sensory (perceiving the flavor) linguistic (translating the flavor) and artistic (expressing the experience of the flavor).

Almost without trying, an image rose in my mind and the words flew out of my lips: “freshly burnt marshmallow!” The taste, so unfamiliar and beguiling, was precisely that of the first tentative bite into the freshly carbonized skin floating on the surface of a charred marshmallow. Exactly. Amazing. With each sip, I could see a campfire roar, and saw a hundred starry skies. This evocative power is one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of drinking good beer. I can remember the first time I experienced it, long ago. A few friends and I were enjoying a black rice beer called Yinpu. Several of us northerners noticed a familiar flavor that the southerners didn’t detect at all. Half an hour later, it hit me – it tasted exactly like licking a icicle just broken off the roof. The same metallic, brisk, dirty-snow flavor.

Using the metaphor of different life experiences to describe flavors in this idiosyncratic beverage is a fundamental skill, but an odd one. We seek out patterns, familiarities, touchstones, in every aspect of our lives. After a while, something always reminds you of something else. Why should beer be any different?

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