Karl, now the technical director for the Master Brewers Association of America, is putting together a program that will teach people to be better appreciators. It's in the vein of the cicerone program, but focused more narrowly on the sensory experience of beer. The idea is to use all one's senses to explore beer, then use a consistent set of terms to describe them. To put a bit of mustard on the process, Karl asked us to think about listening to our beer. (Turned out the point had more to do with the way sounds trigger impressions, memory, and expectations--a nice way of illustrating how the brain, the sixth sense, intrudes on the process.) The sound of beer being poured into a glass and the visual presentation--that's where the process starts, and it goes through the final swallow.
More interesting for our purposes, Karl has completely reimagined the taxonomy of beer. Gone are the classic divisions of ales and lagers, of clusters of styles based on region. Instead, beers are grouped into four groups based on their dominant flavor:
- Malt-driven beers (Examples: Munich helles, brown ale, bock, barleywine, porter)
- Hop-driven beers (Examples: pilsner, pale ale, IPA)
- Fermentation-driven beers (Examples: lambics, Bavarian hefeweizen, abbey ales)
- Flavored beer (Examples: wit, rauchbier, fruit beers, bourbon barrel-aged)
But that misses the point. Karl's goal is to make us think differently about beer. If we're focused on the dominant flavor, we're looking for the beer's character, its positive attributes. Conceptually, beginning at the place of the dominant flavor and then exploring from there makes perfect sense. Along the way, we might well find a dreaded off-flavor. But finding it doesn't dominate the process; it's just one of the many qualities we find in the beer. It orients the taster toward appreciation, not judgment. (Once you've located the beer's central character, the specifics follow in a more familiar way; the descriptors Karl suggests are standard adjectives that relate to specific elements in a beer, like "clove" or "citrus" or "toffee.")
Whether the Beer Steward Program's model becomes the standard or not, I very much hope the idea Karl's promoting gains currency. We need a new way of thinking about beer; one based on understanding and appreciation rather than judgment.