Drinking on the Last Frontier: Don’t begrudge the beer judge — Taste is subjective, style stays true to brewing form

Graphic courtesy of Elaine Howell.

Graphic courtesy of Elaine Howell.

By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter

One of the benefits of being a semiprofessional beer writer is that people frequently offer you beer to drink. Such offers are usually prefaced with something along the lines of, “Tell me what you think of this one.”

The underlying assumption is that because I write about beer, I must by necessity have a superior palate or sensory perception when it comes to evaluating how a beer tastes. While I will confess to having a great deal of experience when it comes to drinking different beers (some might even say a little too much, but that’s a discussion for another day), I don’t believe there’s anything special about my capacity to taste and evaluate beers.

Much of what we think of as taste is actually smell — anyone who has eaten with clogged sinuses knows firsthand just how important a component smell is to perceiving the flavor of any food, including beer.

Smell is also the sense we have the least handle on, when it comes to analytical ability. We understand vision well enough to make artificial eyes (called cameras) that almost everyone has in their cellphones. We understand sound quite well also, and can capture and reproduce it with great fidelity. Our sense of touch and the functions of the taste buds on the tongue are no great mysteries, either.

But the human sense of smell is still over a thousand times more sensitive than our best artificial analogue, and our olfactory cortex also receives inputs from the limbic region, amygdala and hypothalamus, which are all areas of the brain that deal with emotion. How we perceive a particular odor or flavor is tied not only to the chemical perception of the molecule being sensed, but also how we feel about it and how we feel in general. All of which means our perception of both smell and flavor is ridiculously individualistic and subjective.

Recognizing that the perception of flavor is so subjective begs the question, how can we have beer competitions, with the winners being determined by “certified” judges? Aren’t their perceptions of the beers on offer also subjective and therefore no better than anyone else’s?

There are two answers to this criticism. First, in order to be recognized by the Beer Judge Certification Program, an individual must have a great deal of experience tasting many different beers. One reason behind this requirement is that the judges must learn the limits of their own individual senses, as people vary in their ability to perceive different flavor components. Additionally, the judges learn to identify what specific flavor components taste like to them, enabling them to identify those elements when they are present.

The second reason that certified judges are able to render meaningful decisions is that they are comparing an individual beer to a theoretical ideal example of that style, similar to how a dog judge compares an individual dog in a competition to an idealized standard for the breed.

Essentially, both are looking for flaws. They attempt to identify ways in which the concrete example before them deviates from the Platonic ideal of its type, be it a poodle or a porter. The fewer deviations they can identify, the “better” the beer or dog is, at least according to the criteria by which it is being evaluated.

The problem with this method becomes immediately apparent. For the average person, the question they want answered is, “Will I like the beer?” Or, “Will this be a good dog for me?” How closely either hews to some ideal doesn’t do much to answer that. Now, if you already know that you, personally, love porters, being told that a particular brew is a great example of that style might be helpful, but only because you have already formed your own subjective impression of what a fine porter tastes like to you.

So to close the loop, when you hand me a beer and ask me to give you my evaluation of it, always recognize that this is, indeed, what you’ll be getting — my evaluation, colored by my subjective perceptions. Your mileage or that of anyone else out there may vary.

However, if you would like to broaden your experience and decide what styles of beer are right for you, there is still time to sign up for my class, the Art and History of Brewing, during the spring semester at the Kenai River Campus of Kenai Peninsula College. The class will be held from 5:30 to 6:45 p.m. Tuesdays from Jan. 13 to April 28.

We taste beers in class, tour all the local breweries and generally have a fine time learning to increase our appreciation of good beer. It is a one-credit course, with the cost of the beers to be tasted included. Call 262-0330 for more information.

Until next month, cheers!

Bill Howell is a homebrewer, teaches a beer appreciation class at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus and was named the 2010 Beerdrinker of the Year by Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver. He and his wife, Elaine, have authored “Beer on the Last Frontier: The Craft Breweries of Alaska,” available via Amazon.

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