A quick side note: This post is a contribution to The Session a monthly series of communal blogging. This month’s session, Session #33 is being hosted by Andrew Couch at I’ll Have a Beer. This is my first contribution to The Session, and I feel like I jumped in on a rather difficult topic. Please be sure to head over to I’ll Have a Beer and read what others have posted, it’s sure to be nothing but interesting.
I picked up a beer specifically for this Session. The announcement post said: “… drink a beer. Ideally drink something that you donâ€™t think you will like.” So I went out and picked up something that I thought I wouldn’t like based on the packaging – how it was framed – and I came up with Werewolf.
Something about the label and the one-word name “Werewolf” has always turned me off about this beer. The level of detail in the art on the label combined with the catchphrase below the logo – You must be sure you wanna taste it – has always struck me as a little kitschy and maybe little too much like a warning. “Are you sure you want to taste it?” The art looks like someone was trying to make a cover for a teen fantasy novel rather than a beer. Maybe something is lost in translation from the Lithuanian, but I’ve always felt like the brewery takes themselves a little too seriously.
I’m sometimes amazed by the choices I see breweries make in terms of packaging and presentation. I know I’m not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I often do. When buying wine, I almost always chose based on the aesthetics of the packaging. Simply put, it takes far more education about wine than I have in my head to make an informed decision on what I’m buying, so I buy what looks cool. In beer, I want more. Of course, I’m much more of a beer geek, so I tend to know what terms mean when they’re posted on bottles. I’ve said here before that I feel that beer labels should be as informative as possible, and I stick by it. Without information to educate the consumer – to frame their expectations – people will fall back on drinking what looks cool on the shelf. Breweries: Don’t let your graphic design be the (only) selling point of your beer.
As it turns out, if I knew something about how Werewolf tasted up front I might have picked it for this purpose anyway. It’s sweet and I am partial to dry beers. As part of this exercise I didn’t read any of the tasting notes on BeerAdvocate before trying the beer, so as to not have it framed for me.
It’s beautiful in the glass – a second frame that far surpasses the bottle. It pours a deep copper color and brilliantly clear; high effervescence rises through it gracefully to form a light ring of foam around the sides of the glass. The head dissipated rather quickly after the pour, but this ring of foam has been contributing to a gorgeous lacy veil down the sides of the glass as I drink it. Flavor-wise it is, as I said before, sweet and also a little spicy, with hints of biscuit and toast and a light fruitiness to it. It takes on a slight vinous character as it warms. There’s a warmness from the alcohol as it passes over your tongue, and it leaves you with a lingering sweetness long after you’ve taken a sip. Not really a beer I would drink more than one of. In fact, drinking the one has taken me quite a while.
But here’s the thing about framing – would I describe this beer differently to somebody else if I thought they would like it? I don’t think I would. That description is my honest experience with the beer. There are parts of it (the visual, the biscuit and toast) that I would find quite pleasant in a review, but I know that given this description I would not try the beer. Others might see, “sweet, fruity, vinous” and jump for it. Am I really framing the beer for somebody or am I merely supplying colors for the mental image that someone is drawing on their own?
I’m getting ahead of myself.
Taste – in your mouth, not the fact that you didn’t wear plaid pants to work today – is highly subjective. So much of taste is based on smell, and so much of what you smell is tied to strong memories, that I am deeply convinced that two people can taste the same beer and have two completely different flavor experiences with it.
I have a good friend who does not like hoppy beers. He tends toward dark and sweet (and I bet he read the description up there and thought, “ooOOOoo. That sounds good.”). Since I’ve known him, I’ve tried to expand his palate – I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with knowing what you like and sticking to it, but I think that it’s also a good idea to occasionally reach outside of your comfort zone.
I think back to the first time I had him try a Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA:
Me: What do you think? A little citrusy? Piney? Maybe a little grapefruity? Isn’t it wonderful?
Him (making a face): It tastes like my backyard!
Him: When I was a little kid, my brothers used to shove my face down into the lawn in the backyard, and that grassy, vegetal flavor? It tastes like that!
Nothing I could have said or done would have changed his perception of that beer. No amount of framing or setup will overcome the associations that you have built into your memory.
What I’ve attempted to do when discussing beer with friends – especially those who are new at craft beer – is attempt to supply them with a vocabulary. A friend told me once, “There’s all this stuff going on in this beer, but I have no idea how to describe it.” It’s really stuck with me, and I’ve heard the sentiment repeated over and over again, even in experiences where people don’t like things.
“I don’t like this.”
“It tastes like beer.”
“Well… it is beer. What about the beer flavor don’t you like? Because it doesn’t all taste like that.”
Each person’s experience is their own. I can attempt to frame things for them, but in the end I will most frame them with three or four words:
“I like it.”
“I don’t like it.”
Any other description is subjective to my experience, my palate, and, to some extent, my imagination as I attempt to form my vocabulary around what I have in my glass. The best I can do for others is to lend them a dictionary of terms so that they can shape theirs.