On Palate and Limitations 6

Regular readers will have noticed by now that I tend not to review individual beers for my blog. There are a number of reasons for this, some of which are down to mechanics and some of which are down to personal taste.

In mechanical terms, I find that I don’t necessarily trust myself to make notes accurately. I’m hampered by a certain amount of red-green and blue-purple colourblindness. While this is the kind of thing that can be a huge genetic advantage in aerial cartography, it can be sort of a nuisance when faced with traffic lights, modern art or action movie bomb defusing. God help us all if I’m ever called upon to cut the dark green wire.

Typically the response that people have when they find out about this minor condition is to hold things up or point at various objects scattered around the room and ask “what colour is that?” as though they are encountering someone with this issue for the very first time. Usually they’ll point at a tree, or the grass first in order to attempt to establish a baseline. It’s fun to blow their minds by pointing out that the grass is, in fact, green. All that they have really established is that I once read a first grade primer. In fact, no one knew I was colourblind until I was six. I developed the very simple coping mechanism of knowing what colours things were supposed to be and then finding a crayon with the name of the colour written on the wrapper.

One of the problems with evaluating beer, though, is that colour is determined through SRM which is a relatively dull abbreviation for Standard Reference Method. It refers to the colour of the beer, ranging from water (0) to complete and total darkness (40+). I have no problem with crystal clear or black as midnight on a moonless night. I have a significant amount of trouble reliably determining colours between about 7 SRM and 25 SRM. I might be able to guess within about three or four points, but I’m not absolutely sure that such an estimation is of use to anyone. And I tend to be thrown off by opacity! An unfiltered beer will look darker to me even if it isn’t actually any darker in colour.

Fortunately, there’s a relatively simple workaround: recruiting people who don’t have this problem. “Hey, uh, Tim? Yeah, man. What colour is this? Right. Riiiight…”

On Saturday, though, I came to an additional realization: I was drinking a sample of Charlevoix’s excellent Dominus Vobiscum Hibernus and I was unable to describe exactly what I was tasting. It’s not a matter of cognitive dissonance. I simply didn’t have the vocabulary. Here’s what I wrote:

This is a Belgian Strong Ale, and when I was attempting to determine which beers to try this afternoon, I was warned that this was very spicy. It is extremely spicy, but it also contained a number of fruit notes. I sat for a couple of minutes attempting to come up with a list of things that I was tasting (many of the things on the list had question marks beside them), but ended up completely sidetracked when I realized what food I would pair it with. The best explanation that I can give you about this beer is that it needs to go with Tortiere. It absolutely has to. In a perfect world everyone would come back from Christmas Eve mass, and have a large, warming glass of this with a slice of homemade Tortiere. Looking at the trade description I realized I wasn’t far off even without the adequate tasting vocabulary:  “A salutary elixir that will comfort you from the wintry season’s frigid grasp. It will indeed warm and enliven your soul even when our glacial winter doesn’t want to let up.”

Clearly, I understand what’s going on and I can associate the flavours with places where I have tried them before, but I can’t list the individual contributing flavours. Look at this review of the same beer from Ratebeer.com:

“Pours a beautiful walnut colored pour with a nice off-white, frothy head. Aroma holds some really nice nectarine and peach notes, along with rosemary, tarragon (props). These two two concepts meld beautifully into a mulled cider profile, that has clove and pear in the background– very spicy on the nose overall. Flavor takes a while to develop, then explodes with heavy heavy spice. Definitely a winter beer- reminds me of those gimmicky Christmas ales, but to be fair, it has a little more going on. Some molasses and caramel malt, but that beautiful nectarine profile from the aroma has been overpowered by the mulled spice. Bittersweet chocolate creeps in as well.”

While no one tastes the same things in any particular beer, I have to concede that I wish I could pick out all of these things. I have realized that I’m working with a shockingly limited vocabulary in terms of flavour.

Just looking at this note, I can tell you with complete certainty that I haven’t had a nectarine in an extraordinarily long time, if ever. I think I may have had a glass of mulled cider a few years ago at a Christmas function, but I couldn’t tell you exactly what’s being mulled. I’m not even really sure what Tarragon is. This is probably a function of living as a single twenty something male person in a one bedroom apartment: The kind of lifestyle where food preparation involves periodically grilling some chicken and tweaking your recipe for chili con carne; washing dishes only when absolutely necessary. It’s probably also the result of being the whiny kid who wanted everything plain. According to mom, I didn’t like gingerbread and would run from the room when the Christmas cake was laid out.

While there’s nothing that I can do about colourblindness short of recruiting a seeing eye drinker, I know with some degree of certainty that I’ll be able to improve my vocabulary in terms of palate. As I see it, this is the kind of information that can be acquired. I have decided to attempt this over the course of the next month or so, and it seems to me that the best thing to do is to split the project into three sections: Spices (Everything from Aniseed to Za’atar), Fruit (Everything short of Durian) and Other (which will include chocolate and caramel and things of that nature).

I’m not entirely sure whether this is going to prove to be beneficial. I don’t know for certain that it will make me a better observer. I don’t even know exactly how I’m going to go about it. However, if you’re at the St. Lawrence Market over the next couple of weeks and you see a large, confused looking man wandering around the spice vendor’s stall with a copy of the Complete Idiot’s Field Guide to Marjoram, it will probably be me.

If It’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.

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6 thoughts on “On Palate and Limitations

  • ayearofbeer

    Can I take partial credit for this idea?

    I’m curious to see how this turns out. Can you be trained to recognize different flavours or are some palates just more capable than others?

  • Jordan St.John Post author

    You can indeed!

    I suspect that some palates are definitely more capable than others, but that you can probably also train yourself to recognize certain flavours. I don’t know exactly how much of the information I’ll be able to retain, but it’s probably worth doing. It’s probably like the ability to write a sonnet. Shakespeare’s sonnets will always be better than mine, but I can at the very least figure out iambic pentameter and rhyme scheme and flow. I’m talking about this very much on the nuts and bolts level.

  • WOB

    One may be able to train one’s palate to recognize certain flavours, and there are a wide variety of chemicals involved in both smell and taste. I have also thought that a lot of descriptions of beer, wine, and food are pretentious and often silly

  • Chris Schryer

    Jordan, if you want some help with the spices I’ve got an entire cupboard that is my “spice rack”. All the usual suspects, but also some harder to find things from a variety of Asian traditions, and also some harder to find chillis from Mexico. Let me know, I could make you a grab-bag.

    Incidentally (regarding colour-blindness), I have a friend who’s pretty substantial colour-blindness wasn’t caught until he tried to enlist in the airforce as a mechanical technician. He had passed a pretty intensive education, where discerning between the red and blue wires was a must. With pretty well no idea what he was looking at. When he found out, he was like “Oh, that makes a lot of sense, I guess…..”.

  • Rae

    To further complicate things, you might want to taste the dried and fresh versions of things like leaf herbs and fruit. Also, freshly ground spices have a slightly different scent note and taste than ones that are pre-ground and sit in a container in the Loblaws (Loblaw’s? We don’t have that here in BC, I have no idea) for two years, waiting to be bought.

    Sorry. I know that doesn’t make it easier. But it does make it more thorough! Yay for accuracy!