Beer and Wine Sense-ibility

This first ever blog comes from a recommendation from a friend who suggested I share some of my beer, wine, and pairing knowledge with readers from The L Stop. I am complimented yet nervous, but here goes.

Before I go into tastings, pairings, and other wine/beer-related things – let’s start first with the basics, which are our senses. Tasting wines and beers and/or pairing them with food can’t truly be appreciated unless we pay attention to our senses and how they work to heighten our experience.

Sight: A lot can be learned by looking at the color of the substance in a glass – even the glass itself reveals a lot about what’s inside. Thinking about beer, most of us have the same thought about the way it looks and would probably describe it the same: it’s light golden in color with a little white foam on top. Not all beers are like that, however. Some beers are dark, like a Guinness (a stout); some are hazy and cloudy with a deeper golden/wheat color, like a Goose Island 312 (a wheat beer), and so on. The same is true for wines. Other than the basic white versus red, there are several varying hues within each variety that makes them identifiable and distinctive compared to other wines. Our sense of sight prepares our mind and ignites our taste buds for what we are about to consume. The color of what’s in your glass tells a story.

Touch: In this case it’s called mouth feel. Mouth feel is the way something feels on our tongue. Think about milk – two percent/whole milk; one-percent milk; and skim milk. They all leave a different feeling on your tongue. Whole milk feels heavy; skim milk feels light; and one-percent milk is in between. The same is true for beers and wines. Different styles of beer and wine have very different mouth feels. Mouth feel describes the viscosity and density.

Taste: Our tongue is pretty basic and picks up four basic kinds of taste: sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. There’s also a fifth taste called “umami,” which is described as “forest floor,” but I think it’s more commonly recognized and described as the taste of soy sauces.

Smell: The most important sense we use when drinking/tasting wines and beers is our sense of smell. Our sense of smell is so powerful that it is one of the first senses we learn as infants, some say even in the womb. Smell is fiercely connected to our memory. Our sense of smell take us back to places, events, and people – flowers in the spring, a charcoal grill burning, campfires, fresh rain, baked desserts, the scent of perfume someone wears. It’s through our sense of smell that we are able to distinguish what we should eat or drink and what we shouldn’t. Memories of smell help us identify and make distinct wine and beer characteristics.

Side note: Women are known to have a keener sense of smell than men (yay!); however, as we age our sense of smell diminishes. (boo!)

It’s okay if you can’t quite pick out the nuisances and subtleties in a wine or beer. Most can’t or don’t care to be that specific, but everyone knows when something smells favorable and pleasing or not. Still, sense of smell helps distinguish and describe one beer or wine from another. Sometimes it can be hard to distinguish the difference between a cabernet sauvignon and a pinot noir, but with enough “practice,” one will begin to notice a consistency and similarity among and between different wine varietals and beers. If you’re real ambitious, try this: put some household foods – berries, coffee, jam, vanilla, apples, tropical fruits, toast, pepper, and coriander — into different glasses. Blindfold yourself and have a friend or your partner present them to you. You might be surprised how difficult it is to pick out familiar scents. This experiment will help you begin to focus your sense of smell so you can pick out subtleties in wines, beers, and food so you can appreciate what makes them unique and able to describe them to your friends. Cheers!

By Michelle Grimes

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