Reflections on becoming a thoughtful taster: attitude

When folks find out that my vocation is beer quality and that I lead a sensory analysis program, they sometimes ask questions along the lines of “how do you become a good taster?” and “do you have some special knack for tasting and describing beer?,” usually with a hint of “oh I could never be able to do something like that.” My response is usually along the lines of explaining that learning to perceive and communicate sensory experiences is something that is almost entirely a learned skill. In most cases, there is no gene or intrinsic ability that highly qualified sensory analysts have. The “God tongue” is a myth. People are surprised to learn that the biggest thing that separates them from those Master Sommeliers is [mostly] time and attention coupled with high-quality focused training. For wine tasting especially, the tried-and-true method of deductive tasting is a highly trainable skill.

Despite the mostly-acquired nature of beer tasting and description, I’ve been reflecting lately on qualities that make someone attitudinally disposed to training their palate. In myself, I count pure intellectual interest, sensitivity, curiosity, a love of aesthetics, and openness to experience among qualities that lead me to spend time at training my sensory apparatus and learning how to describe flavor. These aspects of my personality also happen to be the things I like most about me, and have all had a big influence on the way I live my life more broadly.

Here I’d like to discuss the concrete ways my “openness to experience” in particular has led me to follow a lifetime quest to become a better sensory analyst. By openness to experience, I mean the positive orientation I have toward the novel and unfamiliar. When presented with opportunities to try something new, I’m usually down. I enjoy soaking up new experiences and being able to integrate those experiences into my life and worldview, even if I expect there to be an unpleasant aspect to the experience or if I’m a bit afraid of it. This happened recently when I was invited to be taken up 40(?!) feet in the fermentation cellar on a shaky scissor lift to dump dry hops into a fermentor with a cellar technician, the thought of which scared the shit out of me. It was a blast even though my heart nearly stopped every time the carriage swayed.

One practice I’ve picked up is smelling everything, and smelling things with mindfulness. Pleasant, unpleasant, neutral, novel, common, I can’t afford not to miss out on an opportunity to experience a new aroma. Double goes for not wanting to miss out on aromas I haven’t experienced in years but which are nevertheless associated with deep emotional connections or autobiographical memories which come flooding back with just a whiff.

I have been caught [at separate times] smelling the garbage bag before I tie it up, licking hemp rope, and bending over trying to sniff a brass doorknob. In my view, there is just no reason not to do these things, and the potential benefits for building a sensory vocabulary and making richer sense-associations are obvious.

We all have food preferences, and I definitely like certain beer styles better than others, but trying new things is important enough to warrant a tendency of not ordering the same beer more than once, or trying out fresh Blue Point oysters even though I’m a vegetarian and the thought of visceral but animate muscle tissue freaks me out. Now that I’m in Chicago, I’m looking forward to trying out that notorious local liqour, Malört, despite a reputable account describing it as tasting like “a mix of corked Bordeaux, Saler’s apéritif on crack, dead dog, and the Gowanus canal during summer.”

Having a positive attitude toward new things is hugely beneficial  toward training up your sensory skill, but its also an excellent way to enrich your inner life, so I’ll conclude with a call to openness. Next time you take your sock off after a long day in your brewery boots, have a good sniff (just maybe from a few feet away). Take some time to run your hand through strange and unfamiliar fabrics when you come across them in the world. Seek out the smell of a loamy field’s dirt on your next summer picnic. Get the weird savory ice cream next time. It’s all good. Just dig it.