Tag: taste

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Mr Oliver comes to London

This week I’ve been lucky enough to spend two evenings with Garrett Oliver, Brewmaster of the Brooklyn Brewery and arguably the world’s most compelling voice about beer, especially when he’s talking about beer and food matching.
The first night was – to put it mildly – unexpected.  Last Saturday we had a barbecue at our house for my birthday.  I turned my friends on to my newly discovered masterpiece of beer-brined chicken in fennel rub – a recipe from one of those kitsch, 1950s-style novelty cookbooks that turns out to be the best thing I’ve ever cooked.  Sublime with a Sierra Nevada-style pale ale, perfect with Norrebro’s Bombay India Pale Ale.
The following day we were nursing hangovers, prodding at the tidying up and enjoying the sunshine when Garrett dropped me a line to say he was in London, had no plans and did I fancy a pint?  I explained that I was incapable of leaving the house but that he was welcome to join us for the last of the beer-brined chicken and the World Cup FinalTM if he wanted, and to my surprise and delight he said yes.  After the poor sod roamed Finsbury Park for an hour in search of a cab – bloody football – he finally made it to Stoke Newington.  I managed to find three beers in the cellar he’d not had before, and I think he liked two of them.  After watching the Dutch lose to Spain in the Ultimate Fighting Challenge, we stayed up talking till long after bedtime, drinking Ola Dubh 40.  A memorable and wonderful evening, entirely worth writing off the whole of Monday for.
Two nights later Garrett was at the White Horse giving a beer and cheese pairing.  I do this kind of thing quite a bit myself, but I don’t think I’ve ever uttered one word about how well cheese and beer go together that Garrett hadn’t said to me first.
If you haven’t seen Garrett do his thing before, here’s a brief summary of his spiel, after which I’ll say a note on the beers and the cheeses, and how well they went together.
The first thing he’s at pains to point out is that he loves wine as well as beer.  “Some of my best friends are sommeliers,” he didn’t quite say.  Seriously, he argued that people who are passionate about evangelizing any kind of food or drink are all “flavour people.  It’s natural that it’s intertwined.”
Having established this, he then talks about how beer is a better match with cheese than wine is.  He often participates in tasting duels versus sommeliers. A cheese expert chooses six cheeses, Garrett and the wine guy choose drinks to match with them, and in front of a voting audience Garrett usually wins. 
There’s a technical part to why and, in Garrett’s mind, a more romantic, esoteric explanation which is just as real.  The technical bit is that cheese is mainly fat and salt, which coat the tongue.  Wine simply bounces off this coating, can’t break it down, and therefore you don’t really taste much of what remain two very separate elements in the mouth.  But beer, with its carbonation, breaks through, scraping the fat off your tongue, revitalizing the flavours.  Sometimes beer enhances cheese, sometimes vice versa, and sometimes they combine to create a 3D flavour sensation that’s much bigger than either beer or cheese can achieve separately.
The more romantic part – which is not to say it doesn’t make perfect sense – is that beer and cheese are obvious natural pairings.  They both come from a farm, and historically they were both made by the same person.  “Both are essentially made from grass,” argues Garrett.  “Barley is a type of grass.  Cheese has a cow or a sheep in the middle, but it starts as grass.”
And so on to the tasting.  All the beers were Garrett’s own, some of them rarely if ever seen this side of the pond. 


Sorachi ace is a rare, new hop with a powerful, unique aroma of lemon rind and lemongrass.  The beer of the same name is a Belgian Saison style ale that tastes like a warm summer evening. 
Goat’s cheese seemed like an obvious match, and this particular one was one of the best I’ve ever tasted – a bold initial tartness that melts into a lake of milkiness. 
Together, the lemon character of the beer and the strong citric hit of the cheese somehow cancel each other out and fade away to leave a new flavour, rounder and mellower with no sharp edges, sweet with the tiniest hint of malt.  Wonderful.


Brillat Savarin is to my mind the best ever writer on food, famous for his aphorisms, my favourite of which is “A meal without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye.”  I don’t much care for the cheese that was named after him though.  It’s like eating solidified cream.  I hate cream.  It’s too cloying and sickly and I don’t understand why everyone thinks it’s a treat. 
The beer though is something I’d be perfectly happy to receive as a birthday present.  And I mean a ‘proper’ present.  It’s recognizable as a Belgian Saison in style but it’s smoother, more elegant.  You want to say ‘dumbed down’ but that would be completely inaccurate.  Yes, it’s more accessible than some of the funkier farmyard Saisons, but the cheesy, musty, sweet and sour, spicy flavour journey of a Saison is all present and correct. 
This is a match where the beer comes out best.  The cheese helps push its tartness to the fore, a brief spike of flavour emerging slowly and elegantly, like the spine of a humpback whale cresting the ocean surface before, submerging again.  
On the other hand,  the cheese just tastes even creamier, which I could really do without. 


The Brooklyn beer you can get fairly easily in the UK was the first they brewed, and is a faithful recreation of what beer used to be like in New York a hundred years ago, prompting Garrett to exclaim that the current craft beer boom is not a fad or a trend, but a return to normality after a the late twentieth century’s obsession with plastic and standardization. 
I realize that we spend too much time thinking about beer in terms of ‘hoppy’ or ‘malty’.  Brooklyn lager is neither, or rather, both.  It’s toffee in a very expensive designer label suit that makes it shine and sparkle.
The cheese is sticky and cloying and glutinous in a good way, sweet and salty and slightly acidic.  Together I don’t find much alchemy – both are nice separately and nice together, but with nothing much added.


This is an interesting one.  Ossau Iraty is made from sheep’s milk and has an aroma of lanolin or ‘wool fat’, the smell you get off a wet woollen jumper and, once it’s been pointed out, the sweet smell you get from roast lamb.
The beer is all about chocolate and caramel, with a slight grassiness towards the end.
Together, they are in total harmony – beer and cheese blend into each other around an axis of sweet caramel.  Just lovely.


This one wasn’t on the menu and I’m starting to lose track.  Dark Matter is an 8% version of the brown ale that’s been aged for four months in bourbon and wine barrels to give it a strong American oak character.  To me it smells initially of nail varnish, but that’s a smell I’ve always liked.  On the second whiff I can isolate the coconut that Garrett’s talking about, and then you can get the strong vanilla essence behind it, a hint of sherry, and then a faint molasses character on the tongue.
I hardly notice the cheese.  I’m all wrapped up in the beer, and the match doesn’t change much about it.


IPA with strong mature cheddar has always been my favourite match of any beer with any food, and this one doesn’t disappoint. The dry saltiness of the cheese ands the fruitiness of the beer just body barge each other, exploding in a carnival of colour and partying on your tongue.  Weirdly, Garrett compares it to a forceful physical dance, like a tango, just after I’ve written in my notebook that they’re slam-dancing.  I  might be on the same wavelength as him, but I just don’t have his class.


This pairing was born by accident.  Garrett was at an event where he’d asked for either a barley wine to match with Stilton (which is another awesome match) or chocolate stout with truffles.  He turned up to find chocolate stout and Stilton, panicked, tried it, and found it worked wonderfully.
The dark chocolate character in the stout comes from chocolate malt only – no actual chocolate – and develops with a hint of sherry, followed by an inky Shiraz character on the palate with some bitter coffee grounds mixed in.
The Stilton is lovely.  “People who don’t like Stilton… well… they’re just bad people,” says Garrett.  “I’m serious.  If you don’t like Stilton you can’t come to my house.  You can’t pet my dog.”
The match is an elegant marriage which makes me think of high tea with a maiden aunt in a stately home.  Don’t ask me why.
So what did I learn?  The main thing is that in craft brewing there are craftsmen, artisans, entrepreneurs, chefs, mavericks, scientists, technicians, innovators and mad professors.  But Garrett is one of the few true artists.  The beers reflect the man: daring, elegant, refined, cultured, Europhile, principled and courteous. At my house on Sunday he was telling us about a beer he’s designed in honour of a legendary Italian filmmaker, and to hear him talk through his thinking, the influences he wanted to incorporate, and how he chose to weave them together, was enchanting.  All my guests – including the ones who never drink beer – were absolutely rapt.  And the brews we had on Tuesday demonstrated that he can deliver in the glass what he weaves in words.
I also learned that the best way to talk about beer versus wine is not to dismiss wine, or fight against it, but to complement it.  This is too long a post, so I’m just going to finish by quoting Garrett in summary:
“The frustration in the States, and now here, is people trying to force wine into places where it doesn’t want to go.  What we eat now, with Japanese and Indian and Thai food, is not what we were eating twenty years ago.  Let wine go where it wants, or it’s a recipe for misery. 
“Beer has a wider range of flavours than wine.  That’s not opinion, that is incontrovertible, verified fact.  When chefs and restaurants complement a great menu with a great wine list and just two or three industrial beers, it’s like an artist saying ‘I’m only going to use half the colours’, or a composer saying ‘I’m only going to use half the notes.’  It just doesn’t make sense.”
I’ll be in my salon if you need me.

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Eat Your Words on Saturday

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!

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The perfect pint – does it exist in an objective reality?

I read two completely different things yesterday that together prompted the above question.

I’ve just started reading Beer and Philosophy, edited by Steven D Hales. It’s a collection of essays, sometimes serious, sometimes tongue-in-cheek. In one essay, “Good Beer, or How to Preoperly Dispute Taste”, Peter Machamer argues that the notion of ‘ideal beer-tasting conditions’ is nonsense, because beer appreciation is so closely linked to its context. He gives the example (it’s an American book) of Samuel Adams Honey Porter – “lousy when sitting in the hot sun on a summer picnic, but fabulous in front of the fire on a snowy winter’s evening”.

It’s the same thing as the eternal holiday beer conundrum – you fall in love with the local brand, but when you stick a couple of bottles in your case and bring them home, a miraculous transformation to urine occurs inside the bottle.

This all reminded me of a favourite game I play with drinking buddies. Ask someone what their favourite beer is, and they may insist that it changes over time, but they’ll give you the name of a beer, or maybe a list. But ask them what is the best beer they’ve ever had, and they’ll tell you that it was on their honeymoon, at this fabulous hotel, and they’d just had a wonderful day on the beach/on safari/walking in the hills, and the sun was shining and they were sitting by a pool and they were so damn thirsty, and the beer was brought over and condensation was running down the glass, and… you interrupt them and say, “Yes, but what was the beer?” They often reply, “Oh. I can’t remember the actual beer. But it was definitely the best one I’ve had.”

While thinking about this yesterday, I saw a story in the news: researchers at Herriott Watt University have discovered that the type of music listened to by people drinking wine has a significant affect on how the wine tastes.
They used four different styles of music:

  • Carmina Burana by Orff – “powerful and heavy”
  • Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky – “subtle and refined”
  • Just Can’t Get Enough by Nouvelle Vague – “zingy and refreshing”
  • Slow Breakdown by Michael Brook – “mellow and soft”

The white wine was rated 40% more ‘zingy and refreshing’ when that music was played, but only 26% more ‘mellow and soft’ when music in that category was heard.

The red rating changed by 25% with ‘mellow and soft’ music, and a whopping 60% with ‘powerful and heavy’. This is apparently due to something called “cognitive priming theory”. I just googled this term and got scared and ran away, but apparently it’s to do with the music sets up the brain to respond to other stimulus in a certain way. Does all this mean that there is no such thing objectively as a good beer or a bad beer? Is Rate Beer a complete waste of time? Was that last question rhetorical?

It’s unarguable that beer can taste completely different from one occasion to the next due to factors that have nothing to do with temperature, condition, food matching etc. Combine cognitive priming theory with the huge variations in taste buds from person to person, and it’s no wonder that the beer community’s favourite occupation seems to be arguing.