Zen and the Art of Beer Sensory Analysis

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“Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.”

-Psychology Today

“What do you smell?” I pose this question to countless clients, pushing them to parse out the olfactory bits and pieces that comprise the aromatic profile of a beer. “Now what do you taste?” “Beer” is often the first response, followed by tentative offerings sometimes posed as questions, as though the taster is seeking approval to verify their own experience. “Citrus?” “Caramel?” “Coffee?”

Most people second guess their palates. They question whether the things they taste and smell are what they are supposed to taste or smell. But sensory experience isn’t a thing of “shoulds.” That word implies the future—an ideal yet to be obtained. Our senses are based in the past and the present. They are an interpretation of the here and now mediated by the collected intelligence of a lifetime; perception and memory working in tandem.

The Buddhist term Sati is translated in the West as “mindfulness.” It comes from the ancient Pali language. Its root is a verb meaning “to remember,” but the term signifies an attentiveness to the present. It encompasses both calling to mind and vigilantly retaining in mind.

The concept of Sati is applicable to tasting beer because few people are born with great palates. Most of us must learn how to taste. It’s a process that takes a lot of tasting and a lot of focused attention—“thinking and drinking” as my sommelier friend Leslee Miller is fond of saying. Developing a discerning palate requires non-judgmental attentiveness to the present moment. It’s about asking yourself objectively, “What do I actually taste?” without assigning value judgments to those sensations.

It also requires recollection of past experience. What does the taste or smell remind you of? What associations does it elicit? Have you encountered it before? Does it remind you of people, places, or things? Does it stimulate images in your mind’s eye? It doesn’t matter if the associations make sense. Attempting to assign them meaning is to impose a judgment upon them. It’s just about noting them; being aware of them in the moment.

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Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint About Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint

Michael has a passion for beer. He is Minnesota's first Certified Cicerone (think sommelier for beer) with the Cicerone Certification Program, and a National Beer Judge with the Beer Judge Certification Program. In addition, Michael is himself an award-winning brewer. He writes a monthly column on beer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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