The first of my two events at Stokey Lit Fest sees me face my biggest insecurity as a beer writer: tasting notes.
Writing tasting notes – describing the flavour of a beer – requires two separate skills: identifying flavours on your palate, and translating those flavours into text that conveys a sensory experience reasonably accurately in a way that will be meaningful to your reader.
Let’s take the first part first. We’re all born with a certain number of flavour receptors in our mouths, and that number varies widely from person to person. And like most people who prefer a hop bomb or Imperial stout over a perfectly balanced session beer, the simple truth is I’m a poor taster – I have fewer taste buds than average. That’s why I also prefer hot curries and strong cheeses. At the other end of the scale, ‘super tasters’ have loads of taste buds, and can find the hop bomb I love almost physically painful. As I tell people in all my tastings, it doesn’t mean they’re a wuss – it means they have a far more delicate and effective palate than I do.
I’ve compensated for this by doing a lot of flavour training, and if I work hard I can usually nail subtleties of flavour. But in every session I do, there’s always someone who just gets it, with what seems to me to be an almost supernatural gift.
Then there’s the second part – conveying meaningfully what’s going on in your mouth. At a tasting session, this is where a good dose of auto-suggestion helps. The novice will often sit there struggling, saying “I like it, but it just tastes like beer.” It’s only when you say, “Anyone getting a hint of citrus sweetness there, a taste of grapefruit perhaps?” that the lights start to go on.
I’m better at the language part of the tasting equation than the flavour identification part. Once I have my building blocks laid out I can relax, because I know I can put them together in a readable and original way. But my facility with language makes me think often about how we do this.
Many readers of this blog will already know this, but while we use the words ‘flavour’ and ‘taste’ interchangeably – I still do in everyday speech – they’re quite different. Taste is a subset of flavour. Taste is detected by the tongue, which can identify four or five basic tastes: sweet, bitter, sour/acidic, salty and, if you believe in it, umame (savoury – think soy sauce). But our noses and nasal cavities are full of flavour receptors. Aroma is a huge part of the total flavour equation.
So how do we describe flavour? Bitter, sweet, salty, sour and savoury are pretty much the only words that truly describe taste. Period. But we write such florid flavour descriptions – so how do we do it?
Brewers or beer judges have a technical language that’s useful for scientifically pinpointing flavours that should or shouldn’t be there, but is useless to the average reader – estery, phenolic, diacetyl.
The unimaginative or lazy writer will default to describing the ingredients: it’s malty, it’s hoppy, it’s got a hint of Bret (Brettanomyces, or wild yeast).
How do we make it more interesting and evocative? We enter the field of comparison, and board the raft of tasting knowledge.
Let’s say you want to expand on ‘hoppy’ for someone who has no idea what that means. (I was working around beer for about three years before I knew what ‘hoppy’ meant. “This beer is really hoppy.” “Is it? How? Why? What is it in this glass that you’re referring to when you say that?”)
You might start with, “Hops give beer it’s aroma. What you’re smelling when you smell beer is mainly hops.”
“Oh yeah?” comes the reply, “Well it JUST. SMELLS. LIKE. BEER. Help me out here!”
So we’ll start using words like citrusy, or grassy, or spicy. That’s fine if someone knows what those things are, and tasting notes work because the vast majority of us do, and have a reasonable level of agreement on what those things taste or smell like. But what if we didn’t?
“What do you mean, citrusy?”
“Well, can you detect that hint of grapefruit?”
“Dunno, what’s grapefruit taste/smell like?”
“Well, a bit like a lemon, only less sour, kind of like a cross between a lemon and an orange.”
“What’s an orange taste like?”
Can you answer that last question? What does an orange taste like? Orangey? Sweet? Citrussy? In language terms, you’re back where we started.
My belief is that the actual words don’t exist, and you have to rely on constructions of language, a level of artistry rather than simple description, to accurately convey a ‘mood’ of the flavour. But then you run the risk of becoming pretentious and alienating the very novice you’re seeking to attract.
It’s not easy.
These are questions that face anyone who writes about any food or drink. And at my Eat Your Words session, I’m joined by three other writers for a unique event to discuss the issue.
Niki Segnit is a great friend of mine and regular reader of this blog (Hello Niki!) This month she releases a book she’s been working on, in one form or another (it wasn’t always going to be this book) for the best part of a decade.
The Flavour Thesaurus is a stunning work – both to look at and to read. Heston Blumenthal has already declared it “original and inspiring”. Niki has taken 99 ingredients, and has for each one analysed what the flavour is, and worked out which other ingredients it best pairs with. The result is a book that can help anyone who follows recipes and knows what they’re doing in the kitchen start to think in terms of flavour combinations, and ultimately cook without recipes. Chocolate and tomato? Pork and rhubarb? Beef and lemon? This shows you why, and how. Niki’s going to be kicking things off with what she learned about the whole taste and flavour thing.
Then we’ve got Ian Kelly, who among many other things (including being Hermione’s dad in the Harry Potter films) is an historical biographer. He’s written about Careme, the first ‘celebrity chef’, who cooked for people like Napoleon and George III, and also about Casanova – who, it turns out, had a day job as a food writer, and – being him – was very into the whole sensuousness of food and drink.
Ian will look at how people used to write about taste and flavour, and we’ll be discussing how first Victorian prudishness and then years of war and austerity stopped us from appreciating flavour, and how we’re now just starting to learn how to write about it with gusto again.
Our final speaker is a perfect example of this – Elisa Beynon was an unpublished writer when she entered a Waitrose Food Illustrated competition in 2007, and won it with “enthusiasm, warmth and gentle humour” and “a truly original voice” according to judge Nigel Slater.
She’s now published The Vicar’s Wife’s Cookbook, and after giving a cookery demo in Stoke Newington Farmers’ Market with organic ingredients from the market, she’ll be joining our panel to talk about how she has tackled writing about flavour in a way that’s seen her cut in to a very overcrowded market and establish a niche for herself amid endless celebrity chefs.
Our session is at the White Hart, Stoke Newington High Street, this Saturday 5th June, at 2pm. Tickets are £4, £3 concessions. We’ll have samples of beer and chocolate to help the discussion along. Hope to see you there!