How can we have a conversation with someone about beer when all taste is subjective?
Tastes vary wildly.
Some people love fish and some can't even stand the smell. Some people can drink scorching hot sauce by the bucket while others wince at medium salsa.
Although taste is subjective, there is still plenty we can agree upon. Maybe more than you think, and when you hone your beer tasting skills and develop a good beer vocabulary, it helps you better communicate about beer.
I often have this conversation when I talk about my beer judging experiences to someone who's never heard of beer judging before."How do you judge beers when everyone likes different things?" they ask.
This first concept is pretty easy to explain. Many people don't realize that judging is not about personal preference. What I personally like and dislike plays no part in the scoring. I liken it to the Westminster Dog Show, which most people have seen on TV at some point.
The judge doing the inspection may despise poodles. Maybe a poodle once peed on her champion rose bush. But that doesn't (or, shouldn't) factor into her assessment. What's important is that the poodle looks and behaves how a poodle should look and behave.
So that's easy enough to understand - it's not about how much I like the beer, it's about how that beer fits the style.
The trickier concept to explain is how the other judge and I (or you and your beer buddy) can describe what we're tasting and "be on the same page."
Let's do an example. To make a point I'll start at the level of the ridiculous. Let's first identify that what you and I are drinking is in fact - a beer.
We could use an exhausting "20 questions" style process of elimination. "Is it liquid? Is it carbonated? Is there a head of foam?" And so on until we arrive at beer.
Hey, we agree it's beer! Maybe our tastes are more similar than we thought...
Now let's get more specific. The key is to take a reductionist approach. Imagine you and I both just poured the same IPA and are taking a whiff. The first thing we're looking at is the hops.
First question - "Are there hops in this beer?" Yep, definitely.
"Ok, so what's the level of hops? That is, the intensity?" This is a little more difficult and introduces an important concept - frame of reference. Somebody smelling a beer for the very first time has no clue if it contains a low, average, or high amount of hops. It's all relative. There is no such thing as a highly hopped beer without the existence of a minimally hopped beer.
The experience of the beer drinker is important here. The guy with a mental database of 10,000 beers to pull from is going to have a better frame of reference than the person who tried their first beer yesterday. The first guy will be more accurate with his placement of the beer on hoppiness spectrum compared to all other beers.
So, we quantify the hops based on our experience. And we decide that there is a medium-high level of hops in this IPA.
Next we identify the aroma of the hops. Are they grassy, piney, earthy, citrusy, tropical, spicy, dank? Again, the experience of the taster matters here. Identifying the aroma of the hops is the most difficult part so far. But it can be learned. You and decide they are citrusy hops.
Finally, let's put the hops in the context of the rest of the beer. What's the balance of the beer? We decide that while we can taste other ingredients, hops are indeed the dominant flavor. It's a hop-centric beer.
Bam! Do you see what we just did?
We just took a very objective approach to describing a beer. Without injecting personal preference, we figured out that it's a hop-dominant beer with a medium-high level of citrusy hops in the aroma. Now we can do that same exercise for the malt, yeast, and other ingredients that may be in the beer.
That wasn't much of a stretch, was it?
There is always going to be that gray area where we can't agree because we simply taste different things. But when trying to describe a beer objectively, the idea is to make those gray areas as few as possible.
Think of a pitch black bedroom. For each flavor we describe, we're lighting a small candle and illuminating the room. The brighter the room the more we understand about the beer. There will always be dark shadows (i.e. subjectivity), but we can attempt to minimize those.
And then of course there are the intangibles - where we take a step back and ask ourselves, "Is this a good beer?" Because a beer, after all, is more than just the sum of its parts.
So how does this approach help you? Here are some examples:
- You'll be more accurate when you're describing a beer to someone. Maybe they are new to craft beer. "Oh you like malty beers? This Scotch ale is very malty, you'll love it."
- You can give better feedback to another brewer. "This is a good American pale ale but the bitterness is a bit low and the earthy flavors are not really to style. Try switching to Cascade and bump up the IBU's by 10."
- Most importantly, you can brew better beer. You'll better diagnose your own beer. You'll have a better frame of reference when comparing this batch of pale ale to the prior batch.
Billy Broas heads up The Homebrew Academy, where you can find tips, videos, and online courses for brewing world-class beer at home. He's co-author of the book Craft Beer for the Homebrewer, a certified BJCP beer judge, and his beer philosophy is that "we should all be beer geeks, not beer snobs."