You begin to taste beer before it even touches your lips. Your eyes, first, take in the color, the head, the bubbles. Then your nose picks up the aromatics, the bitterness, the bouquet. And then where it all melts together—in the mouth, up the sinus, down the gullet. Taste is like love—a concatenation of factors combining to form an unexplainable totality that we, yet, strive to explain. “So are you to my thoughts as food to life,” Shakespeare wrote.
To taste a beer (or whatever else you might put into your mouth) is to engage in such an extremely complex chemoreceptive/neurological process it might best be explained—in these pages, and by a nonscientist—as an act of magic. Taste, in the evolutionary sense, developed so that humans could distinguish between nutrient rich foods and rancid foods. This was before Nutritional Facts were printed on labels; it was before labels at all.
I’ve spent the last year learning about (aka drinking) beer, writing this Baja Brews series about Baja Arizona breweries. I liked beer before I started writing, but I like pretty much everything I eat and drink. My palate never seemed able to distinguish or explain as much as it simply savored. Even as a writer—afloat in a sea of delicious descriptors—I’ve always had trouble explaining taste. Good food tasted … good. Great food tasted … great. And beer and wine pretty much just went down the hatch. And though often a dish would surprise, or a beer would delight, my satisfaction wouldn’t get articulated with much more nuance than “Mmm-mmm.”
But then, in a sort of muscular meditation, I slowed my guzzling, swirled before swallowing, squeezed my eyes shut, and really tried to taste. And I’ve improved. I’ve learned a lot of new vocabulary. And yet, though I can now smell the difference between East and West Coast IPAs, and I can sometimes pick out notes of cacao, grapefruit pith, or wild esters, I still often forget, tilt my head back, and simply go mmm.
John Adkisson, of Iron John’s Brewing Company, cupped his hand over the top of his glass and sniffed. “There’s a sweetness behind the hops,” he said, as if he were an investigator teasing out a suspect’s motive. I was sitting in the Iron John’s taproom, with Adkisson walking me through a PowerPoint presentation called “What the Hell Am I Drinking?” Sniffing, swirling, and sniffing again, we slow-sipped from a small pitcher of Iron John’s Pedro IPA. I was trying to mimic his sniff-and-sip motions, trying to smell and taste what he was smelling and tasting. Adkisson on his Pedro IPA: “The bitter hops are the primary component, but the malt sweetness is right there with it.” He described the beer’s “pleasant texture” that rolled off the tongue, called it “real drinkable,” and described the finish—the tail—as “nice and hoppy.” Adkisson is a certified beer judge, and, as I have reported before, according to his own count, he has brewed every style of beer that exists. There are about 100 individual styles of beer.
But from where comes all the taste? From where spawns the high hop bite or the lip-smacking maltiness, and how does Adkisson, or any of the other brewers in town, find the desired balance between the two? Iron John’s Pedro IPA has seven kinds of hops, including Warrior hops, which, as Adkisson noted, lingered in the tail. But beer taste isn’t just derived from hops, or even just from the other basic beer ingredients—malt, yeast, and water. Additional ingredients, quality control, temperature, light, lautering, and presentation—even the shape of the glass you’re drinking from—are all factors that influence taste. In the Pedro IPA, on top of the seven types of hops, Adkisson also added almond butter to the hot mash, which, as he described, sequestered some of the “cloying sweetness,” rounded the flavors, and added a touch of nut, roastiness, and oil.
I wrote that flavor perception begins with the eyes, but it actually begins in utero. According to a scientific study published in Current Biology, carrots, garlic, and even alcohol can all be tasted by a fetus. (How they are tasting it—carrot-tinged amniotic fluid?—is unclear to me).
Given the beautiful complexity of a muscle (the tongue) built simultaneously to shove food down your throat, shape expelled air into vowels, and clean your fingers, also to be able to translate chemicals into taste—a process which took millions of years of evolutionary honing, and which has probably saved your life on at least one occasion (the time you spit out the spoiled chicken)—and also given the care with which brewers, bakers, vintners, and chefs of all kind fine-tune their skills to provide you a tasty slurp or morsel, let this be a call, for anybody who eats or drinks (and that would be all of us) to slow down another beat before you swallow, and to taste.
But how do you do that?
Start by smelling. The orthonasal olfaction (that’s the yogic in-breath) transports released beer bubbles to your olfactory bulb, a super-sensitive glob smack between the bottom of your brain and the top of your nasal cavity. But it’s not just any sniff you should take. To sniff better, you should sniff like a dog—quick, short, and repeated. This keeps your nasal passage from drying out, however slightly, and diminishing perception. And then you should swirl the beer—just like you swirl wine—and sniff again.
Don’t sip yet! You should stare at it first. Try tilting your head, squinting a little, and then nodding. You’re looking for “color, clarity, gas release, and head stability,” according to the Beer Judge Certification Program. Is there a collar—a white rim of foam at the top of your beer? If you have a moustache, will the foam stick? How stable is the head? Does it descend? How big are the bubbles? How quickly are they rising? Is the beer clear or cloudy? Basically, you want to give a weather report on the atmospheric conditions of your glass.
Now smell again. You should be sniffing for three things: the hop nose—the piney, grassy, or citrus scents; the aroma—the malty, wheaty, biscuity, or papery scents; and the bouquet—the fermented sour or funky scents. As much as 80 percent of taste, you may have heard, comes from smell. Ryan Placzek, formerly assistant manager and beer school professor at Tap + Bottle, and currently working at both Pueblo Vida and Dragoon, mentioned to me the advantage beer has over other alcoholic beverages: It’s bubbly, he explained, which means you can smell it more. “A little carbolic acid makes everything sharper on the tongue.”
Now, finally, take a sip. When the beer hits your tongue you activate the gustatory system, though you are limited to variations of sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and umami. (That old taste region map—balkanizing the tongue into taste-specific nation-states—by the way, is all wrong. You taste all tastes all over your tongue.) Now you should exhale through your nose, pulling more flavorful/scentful molecules through the back door and into your nasal cavity. Avery Gilbert, in his book What the Nose Knows, writes, “Humans are a retro-nasal species.” In other words, remember to exhale.
You should do this multiple times, sniff and sip, sniff and sip. (If you like the beer, you should do this until the beer is gone.)
Taste, our most intimate sense, is all about geography. You can make the same beer recipe in downtown Tucson and in South Tucson, and it will inevitably taste different. I attended Adkisson’s Sour Beer lecture, titled “Infection to Perfection,” at the Hop Shop, which is the first of what David Zugerman, Hop Shop’s co-owner, hopes will be a quarterly lecture series. “Traditionally, taste was tied to location,” Adkisson explained. English beers were brewed with English yeast, English grains, and English hops, and they tasted English. Same with Belgian, Bavarian, and American beers. But taste is intimate not only in the origin of the product, but also in the consumption of it. You can see and hear light and sound from a distance. And you can touch with a swipe or smell with a sniff. But to taste you have to get real close. You actually have to place the object—the tastant—in your mouth. You have to tongue it, suck on it, breathe through it.
I sat down with Placzek— I’ve found few people in Tucson who can talk about beer with such insightful vim—at Tap + Bottle to learn to taste better. We shared a flight, and he walked me through what he was tasting in each glass.
The first flavor impression Placzek is looking for, he explained, is a flaw: if there’s something wrong with the beer. These are off flavors, which collectively constitute what is commonly known as skunky beer. After determining that there isn’t something wrong, Placzek steps back and does the weather report.
My favorite beer we tried was Dragoon’s Unihopper on cask—which means it was served at a slightly warmer temperature, and it wasn’t as carbonated. It felt like drinking a barley wine, and the taste, hanging around for a while in the back of the mouth, was peachy, slightly malty—like a sugar-light peach syrup with a twist of hops.
At one point during our flight a man came up to the bar complaining that a beer smelled weird. It was a Modern Times (a San Diego brewery) Passionfruit and Guava Gose. The bartender stuck his nose in the glass and said that it smelled all right. Placzek dipped his nose, and said that it smelled like salt and passionfruit—spot on. I was watching experts at their trade. I asked for a sniff of the Gose. And I agreed: It smelled … good.
Some brewers go for the funky or exotic, showcasing a citric note in the hops, or the sting of a yeast strain. Others, such as Scott Petersen of Green Feet Brewing, strive for balance. Located in the booming craft industrial tastescape close to Dodge and Ajo—where you can enjoy Green Feet, Ten 55, Three Wells Distilling, Yellow Brick Coffee, Iron City Coffee, and (soon) Harbottle Brewing all within skipping distance of each other—Green Feet is one of the handful of breweries to open last year that already seems like a community anchor.
In pursuit of balance, even in his IPAs, Petersen wants there to be a malt backbone. And he didn’t want his barrel-aged brown ale to taste too boozy, despite being 7.4 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). The Moonshot IPA, however, is what impressed me most at Green Feet. It feels more like an American ale in the mouth, but then the hops seem to blossom from the back of your throat—both refreshing and slightly biting.
At Dillinger Brewing Company, Eric Sipe and Eric Rosas (both Tucson natives) along with John Ritter, have been brewing out of their north side location since New Year’s Eve. Their best seller has been their Serrano Seduction, a wheat ale brewed with serrano peppers and Hatch green chiles, which is less spicy than you might think, and tastes, as Sipe described, like “a green corn tamale” in a glass. I sipped on a Serrano Seduction as I sat next to two first time Dillinger patrons, Morgan Zerbe and Amanda Marchioni. I asked them to try to describe the taste of Serrano Seduction for me without using the word pepper. We all put our heads together, and struggled: “At first you know you’re drinking beer,” Marchioni said. “And then,” Zerbe added, “that pop of flavor.” It was something “vegetal,” we decided together, sharp on the tongue.
The tastiest of Dillinger’s beers is their Public Enemy Imperial Stout. “I’m a stout drinker,” Sipe admitted. “I like the super viscous ones.” Ritter, who won a gold medal for a similar recipe at the Great American Beer Festival in the ’90s, uses black malt to give the stout a smoky, almost charred flavor, which pairs nicely, according to Sipe, with a cigar. The flavors in this beer are complex, round, deeply and darkly fruity—imagine figs and plums under the blanket of night.
If you think fancy descriptions of wine and beer are all highbrow hogwash, you are not alone, but you are wrong. The human world is constructed around vision, not olfaction and gustation, but that doesn’t mean our capacity to taste is meager—it’s just not exercised enough. Mary Roach, in her book Gulp, wonders why it’s so hard for a lot of people to find words for flavors and smells. “For one thing,” she answers, “smell, unlike our other senses, isn’t consciously processed. The input goes straight to the emotion and memory centers” of the brain. Roach goes on to explain how smells and tastes are neglected in our visual-centric lives: “No one … would say, ‘Go left at the smell of simmering hotdogs.’” Instead, we say, “Go left at the tall brick building.”
Here’s a challenge: try to give someone directions from Borderlands to Thunder Canyon—both downtown Tucson breweries—with only gustatory or olfactory cues.
I pour myself a glass of Iron John’s The Golden Spruce, a Belgian Dubbel brewed with fresh Colorado spruce tips, and try my best to taste. I sniff, stare, do my weather report, sniff again, and finally take a slurp. It tastes a little bit like Christmas. Besides the spruce tips, as I read on the bottle, there is also cinnamon and orange peel. Can I taste that? Or am I only imagining it because I know? Taste perception, I know, yields to visualization. Flavorless green food coloring brings out mint flavors. A sommelier’s suggestion plants notes of clove in your head. A cicerone’s whisper convinces you your beer tastes like orange peel. Can you identify the gooseberry solo? Maybe you can. But, even after all the flavor thinking, after writing about beer for a year, I will still nod along to your elderflower, your toffee, your apple peel or vanilla.
Humans are hedonic creatures, at least as far as taste is concerned. We eat what tastes good. This is true of animals generally, though, judging by my cats’ diet—salmon kibble and lizards—preferences are species-specific. Innately, most humans like sweet things. Beer, however, isn’t usually sweet. Beer, coffee, and other bitter drinks usually take time for people to learn to enjoy. The education in bitterness is known as “mere exposure effect,” which is when, due to repeated experiences, typically in favorable social settings (at a coffee shop or a brewpub), we acquire appreciation.
So, if you tried a beer and you didn’t like it, try again. If you read an article and you didn’t like it, read again. Taste takes time. Slow down, breathe, take a sniff, go left at the whiff of rosemary, right at the draft of pizza, right again at the fume of creosote, and stop at the hint of hops and malt—you’ve found your local brewery.
This is the last in a series of six articles exploring local beer and brewing. Visit EdibleBajaArizona.com to read previous articles. ✜