Zen and the Art of Beer Sensory Analysis

Daniel Murphy / Growler Magazine

Daniel Murphy // Growler Magazine

For example, many brown ales evoke for me an image of sticks lying on a bed of dry leaves on the forest floor. I don’t know where this image comes from, but I know that if a beer “tastes like sticks” it is likely a brown ale. Porters remind me of candy cigarettes. The fruity and spicy character of Belgian yeast is “puffy.” The meanings of these association are not important, but the images are essential parts of my in-the-moment experience of these beers.

Our brains evolved to effectively create such associations. Memory doesn’t just recall one sense, it reconstructs a complete image. We hear the babble of the brook. We smell the diesel fumes in the air. The distributed traces are bound together in the hippocampus. The integrity of the whole is preserved, enabling access to it through incomplete cues.

Thus, a random smell or taste can conjure a detailed recollection of past experience. It’s because the construction of flavor is one of our most complex neural functions. It engages nearly every region of the brain in a coordination of all five senses. Color can literally color how the flavor of a food or drink is perceived. In a famous experiment, wine experts were given white wine that had been dyed red. Taking the visual cue, they ascribed to it flavors and aromas most commonly associated with red wine.

Scientists have been able to link the clarity and volume of the sounds made as different foods are chewed with the degree of pleasure those foods provide. We place a high value on the mouthfeel of the foods we eat. The acceptability of french fries for instance is related to their crispness. Soggy breakfast cereal is less satisfying than crunchy.

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Taste and smell are the most important components of flavor. The human tongue has receptors for only five tastes: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. Recent research has determined that humans can distinguish over one trillion odors. The brain combines these sensory inputs to transform those five tastes into the myriad flavors that we enjoy or loath.

And so it is that our entire sensory apparatus is engaged when analyzing beer. Taste and smell are obvious, but sight, sound, and touch also play a role. Although the correlation is not as clear cut as wine, a beer’s color and clarity shape our expectations of the flavors to come. Mouthfeel elements like body and carbonation alter the way those flavors come across. The warmth of alcohol is a tactile, not a taste response. And what of sound? Did you hear a “pffft” when you opened the bottle or a “pop” when you pulled the cork? What predictions did that lead you to make?

Hop Cone // Photo by Joseph Alton

Hop Cone // Photo by Joseph Alton

Our senses are how we interface with the world. They are the means by which we construct and comprehend our day-to-day reality. Mindful attentiveness to the characteristics of beer develops sensual acuity that leads to a fuller experience of our surroundings. As we begin to answer the question, “What do I taste?” our minds seek a vocabulary with which to describe the experience.

Connections are made beyond the glass as we reach for comparisons to help explain what is in it. The mindful beer drinker more carefully considers the many sensory inputs they encounter as they move through the world at large. “This beer smells like Christmas fruitcake.” What does Christmas fruitcake smell like? Spices? Fruit? Brown sugar? Rum? What do those things smell like? And on and on…

Assessing the descriptive vocabulary of others can also broaden your sensory horizons. Don’t know the aroma of black current leaves or the flavor of Meyer lemons? Go get some and find out. You’ve added another point of recollection to inform your contemplation of the present.

I believe that the mindful practice of beer sensory analysis has led me to live more fully in the world. Since becoming serious about tasting beer I more often allow myself to notice the smells in the air—lilacs in the spring, the sewers along the Mississippi River. I consciously smell and taste the food that I eat. I listen to the padded silence of a snowstorm. I am attentive to the texture of fabric or the soft contours of a partner’s hip. In part, because of beer I’m more attuned to “living in the moment and awakening to experience.”

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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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