Friday, September 30, 2011

Senses working overtime

Funny tasting beer is no laughing matter, and when presented with it, we turn up our noses, spit it out and/or shove it away.

Sometimes off flavors are obvious; other times they can be a "what's wrong with this picture?" moment and take a little bit of deduction to zero in on what just killed the pleasure of a pint.

Occasionally, the need to know exactly why is less important than the sensory conclusion that the beer had noticeable flaws, for whatever reason. Other times – like aspiring to become a bona fide beer judge or just to have a well-sharpened palate – you want to be able to draw the more formal conclusions, rather than just settle on the broad summation that the brew went bad.

That's where flavor orienteers come in. (The phrase is our coinage.)

New Yorker Mary Izett is one of those folks who helps you straighten out your taste buds' compass and parse those things that went awry in a brew (she's presenting a workshop on the subject at Amanti Vino in Montclair on Saturday). It's an endeavor she got into five years ago, when she started the NYC Beer & Food Pairing group, and the New York City Degustation Advisory Team a year later with Chris Cuzme, leading people, as she says, "through beer and food pairings and consulting with bars and restaurants."

The New York City/Long Island columnist for for Ale Street News also teaches beer judge certification classes, among other topics on brews, and you'll find her leading educational seminars at Get Real NY fests.

Her tips for putting the finer points of good tasting into your memory banks and not leaving them on the tip of your tongue are a combination of practice and study.

"The best approach is to slow down and focus. When I studied for the BJCP exam back in early 2006, I carried the guidelines and a notebook with me everywhere I went," Mary says via email. "I took notes on every beer I drank, comparing these to the guidelines and really focusing on what I was seeing, smelling and tasting. I learned so much by doing that! And now the BJCP guidelines are available as a smart phone app, and there are some really nice apps for taking beer notes.

"I also highly recommend reading Randy Mosher's Tasting Beer – so much excellent information is contained within this tome. It's a must for anyone looking to improve their beer palate."

Let's not forget, there's plenty of great beer everywhere these days, from great brewers of all stripes. But let's not kid ourselves either. There's some beer out there that's not up to code. And the sources of and reasons for brews tripping the funk alarm in a bad way are many.

"There are plenty of commercial beers that I come across that have off flavors," Mary says. "I just tasted a commercially brewed blond (from a craft brewery) a few days ago that was a (diacetyl) butter bomb. And it was at a very reputable bar that keeps their lines immaculate. I've had flawed brewpub beers, too, and as a BJCP judge, plenty of flawed beers in competitions.

"Dirty lines can also be a problem at some bars. And of course, kegs can be mishandled before they get to a bar, and casks can be poured for too long. There are plenty of opportunities for flaws ... I think you'll come across the most in whatever realm you drink the most, be it homebrew, brewpub or commercial beers."

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