THE TROUBLE WITH TASTING NOTES

Lord Copperpot has said on a few occasions that his descriptions of a beer tend to lack the breadth and depth of other reviewers like Doc and myself because he doesn’t possess our keen senses and refined palates.

Anyone who knows Mashtun, or who understands that the males of our generation tend to speak in coded insults, will realize that his words are positively dripping with sarcasm. He doesn’t “actually” believe we possess more refined noses or tastebuds than him. He just thinks we’re bullshit merchants who are talking out of our asses.*

*Like most members of my generation, my sarcasm detecting abilities may be the most well-honed mental faculty I possess. I assume that a fair number of our readers are roughly my age…that odd, undefined subset of humans born somewhere between Generation X and Justin Bieber fans. No group of people uses sarcasm as frequently or casually as we do. If we had a patron saint, it would be Darlene from Roseanne. It’s not an affectation…it’s literally how we speak. I can’t converse with friends without our words sounding as if they were parboiled in bile and acid. If our conversations had subtitles, every word would be in air quotes.

And while I’m discussing generational characteristics, I find it very interesting that the upcoming generation seems to be taking a different tact. In fact, they seem to be the most sincere generation since the gee-whiz kids of the 40s and 50s. Perhaps it’s because reality television and cable news has created a world without nuance, shades of gray, or irony. Or perhaps our failing education systems have created a generation that only has the capacity to say exactly what they mean and no more. Either way, this last paragraph does make something abundantly clear: I am now an old man who enjoys complaining about “those kids these days.” Please excuse me while I put mothballs in my closet and go eat some Werther’s Originals.

Wait…what was I talking about? Sorry…sometimes my tangents just keep going and going and I forget what the point of my original post was. Let me just scroll up a little bit and…oh yeah! Lord Copperpot thinks I make shit up in my tasting notes.

Well I’ve got one thing to say to that, Mashtun (if that is your real name…which it isn’t): You’ve got a point.

Let me back up a second. First, I NEVER write a tasting note on a beer that I haven’t consumed with the intention of describing it later. In other words, if I’m out for a night of boozing with buddies and the conversation is more interesting than the beer (rare these days now that our lives are almost impossibly boring), I won’t bother writing a tasting notes on those brews. There’s no such thing as journalistic integrity in the world of beer-blogging, but I consider it a personal rule to only write tasting notes on beers that I put at least a token effort into analyzing.

Second, I really DO put some thought into my tasting notes. I don’t just drink a stout and say it tastes like “roasted malt” or “toffee” because that’s what it SHOULD taste like. I try to find as many facets of the nose and taste as possible and I honestly make a valiant effort to describe them in depth.

The problem, and here’s where Mashtun’s incredulity has some merit, is that for a lot of beers, there just isn’t much to say. We’ve all had a no-frills red, brown, or pale ale…but there are also plenty of imperial IPAs, Scotch ales, barleywines, and Russian imperial stouts that don’t really do a whole lot more than what you’d expect. There’s nothing wrong with that…honestly, sometimes I WANT a beer that’s true to style and doesn’t challenge my tastebuds too much. But it can make writing a tasting note rather difficult. Read my description of the Left Hand 400 LB Monkey and you can almost hear my writer’s block. Coming up with a unique angle on a thoroughly pedestrian brew is nearly impossible.

In those cases, yeah, sometimes I make things up. Oh, I don’t describe aromas that aren’t there or wax poetic about non-existent flavors. But if I just can’t think of any way to describe a beer other than “it tastes like beer”, I’ll spend a few moments perusing other tasting notes for that brew on-line. I’ll look for better descriptions of what I tasted and I’ll pilfer and poach. It’s a rarity (honestly!), but once in awhile, it’s necessary. Does that limit my credibility? I mean, I’m an amateur beer blogger…I have no credibility.

So yes, on occasion I’ll sample a beer that doesn’t really jump out at me and I’ll have to fudge the tasting note a little. But there’s another category of beer that sometimes forces my hand as well…those beers that are so overwhelming that they basically overstimulate your senses to the point that you can’t distinguish anything. When I find a beer like that, I’ll often jot down some notes and then run to the intertubes to see what others have to say about the brew. It’s not that I don’t trust my nose or tastebuds, but there’s only so much one person can detect. After the third of fourth whiff of a beer’s aroma, your sensitivity to it is greatly decreased. The same is true for the taste. When I run across a beer that wreaks havoc on my nose and tongue, I’ll often read other tasting notes about that brew to see what I missed. Sometimes it seems like I found all the right notes, and other times it’s clear that there’s a facet of the beer I didn’t notice. If that’s the case, I like to revisit the offering (if possible) and see if I can pick out those notes.

Is this a problem? In some ways, I suppose. If you’re looking to our site as your “go-to” source of beer information and you think we “cheat” our tasting notes, then it’s an issue. But we have never claimed to be the holy word of beer. Actually, we pretty clearly and loudly state that we’re just a bunch of amateurs who like to drink. None of us works in the industry and none of us have even risen above the level of basic extract homebrewing. I like to think of Aleheads as a community of beer enthusiasts…a site that exists more for entertainment purposes than actual edification.

Besides, when you tackle something challenging, doesn’t everyone like to seek out expert advice? Even if you know a thing or two about beer, doesn’t it help to see what others have to say? When I go to an art museum, I read the text panels. I could just base my response to a painting on what I see, but I like to know what art critics and historians have said about the piece. I often read critiques of movies, television shows…even restaurants to give me context after I engage in the experience. I trust my instincts, but I don’t like my opinions to exist in a vacuum. We live in a civilization, dammit! And while hell may be other people, that doesn’t mean their opinions aren’t valid.

*******************************

This lengthy rant does (kind of) have a purpose. During the Night of a Thousand Stouts, we sampled a bottle of North Coast’s limited-edition Old Rasputin XII. The bourbon barrel-aged Russian Imperial Stout wasn’t the best beer of the night, but it was certainly noteworthy. After pouring out our respective portions of the brew, we all inhaled deeply. More than one person (including myself) remarked that it may have been the finest smelling stout we’ve ever come across. I remember being utterly taken aback at how rich, complex, and bold the aroma was. The taste and mouthfeel didn’t hold up to some other beers we sampled that night, but the nose was head and shoulders above anything else we tried. That nose completely threw me for a loop. I honestly couldn’t describe it. There was so much going on that it taxed my olfactory bulb to the point that my brain just kind of gave up. I wanted to analyze it for our Aleheads’ readers, but literally all I could smell was “awesomeness”. And to be honest, that’s not really a word.

So I did what I described above and I looked on-line. I checked the usual suspects (BeerAdvocate, Ratebeer) and I started to write a tasting note. Then I stopped…and I put it off…and I put it off…and now I’m here, writing this confusing, rambling post. It’s one thing for me to look at other sites when I’m faced with a dull beer. In that case, I’m just looking for words to describe the things I tasted but was too underwhelmed to put into words. But for something like the Old Rasputin XII, I literally had no idea what I was smelling. The aroma was so good, so complex, and so big, that I had to see what other people had written just to get a sense of what I was experiencing. So rather than write up a tasting note, I’m going to suggest that, at least in this one instance, you look elsewhere (though to be honest, you should ALWAYS seek second opinions about beers we write about). See what BeerAdvocate says. See what RateBeer says. Generally, I like our tasting notes a lot. I think we do a pretty good job with them. But my Old Rasputin XII tasting note would have been fabricated. The aroma was indecipherable to me…I simply wasn’t up to the challenge.

I will say that the brew was black with a long-lasting, pillowy dark brown head and excellent lacing for such a strong brew (my nose may have been confused, but my eyes work fine, thank you). The mouthfeel was lush and full-bodied but the excellent carbonation prevented it from being viscous or syrupy. Drinkability was actually fairly high as the ABV was very well-incorporated and it had a nice, dry finish. It’s a 4-Hop brew and I would HIGHLY recommend grabbing a bottle if you see it in your local package store. Actually, I would give the aroma 5 Hops if I could. But how to describe that aroma? I could take a stab at it, but I’d rather have you read what the experts have to say.

I don’t want Mashtun to call bullshit on me, after all.

4 hops

 

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6 comments

  1. I love this entry. A great insight into the Barleymind.

  2. Or the Barleywhine?

  3. Barley doesn’t whine. He simply provides constructive criticism to explain to everyone else that everything they do is 100% wrong.

  4. […] this week, I wrote a post where I admitted that, on occasion, I look to other sources to aid in the writing of my Tasting […]

  5. CZAR VLADIBEER S. BOOTIN' · · Reply

    YOU SAY HONESTY IS BEST POLICY, BUT THAT STUPID POLICY

  6. […] recent post about tasting notes from Brother Barley has really got me thinking.  I’ve always felt humbled by the descriptive […]

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