Chapter 1: Beer Sommelier
What is a beer sommelier? In the realm of taste, just as in all other professions there are select individuals that make it a priority to distinguish the good from the bad. I am not a professional beer sommelier, but I have spent lots of time and money educating myself on beer from the surface of my tongue to the depths of my brain. I love the flavor of beer and if I were presented the option of some alcoholic beverage, I would choose beer. This doesn’t make beer better, but it is preferable. Why does one person like beer versus wine, or if they don’t drink, why coffee versus tea? There is an argument to be made that it doesn’t really matter, that each palette is subjective, and ultimately preference comes down to how you spend your hard earned cash in the bar, or LCBO. Even if you don’t realize it companies like Molsons have gone to great lengths to control the flavor of their beers. If you buy a Molson’s in an obscure bar in Cape Breton Island, or taste the same brand on a Cruise Boat in the Caribbean, my guess is that the powers that be are striving for a similar taste.
The Irish Belly Laugh
A major shift in my beer tastes was my discovery of stout. Many, many, many years ago a girlfriend’s family used to have a pool party and invite a special set of Irish friends from the Cambridge area. Although my girlfriend’s father was a strict Molson Canadian man, Sean, (not his true name) wouldn’t drink anything but Guinness. I had gone out of my way to buy a mini keg of Guinness to impress this authentic Irishman. I can still remember very clearly my first taste – loving the smooth texture and then struggling with the lingering hop bitterness. It’s odd to sum up this part of my life in such a snippet: in relating it to beer and such. Maybe now that some of these shaping influences are past, it’s easier to look back.
With no American Pale Ale experience the dry Irish Stout was an acquired taste. However in this case, it was awesome to down an authentic Irish pint with the likes of Sean with his deep belly laugh and fantastic stories. In one such session he rolled up his pant leg and showed me the huge scar where the IRA had shot him in the knee because he refused to part with his car. His daughter didn’t even know the real reason they had moved to Canada. I think Sean missed his country deeply and he always maintained that the canned Guinness over here did not taste the same as what you could pull out of the draft tap in Ireland. What is missing? Had his palette changed? Or did he miss his beer bros?
Guinness or Carib?
However, that being said, I know there is a difference in how Guinness tastes in the Caribbean. First of all, however much I love the darker beers, I think there is a time for it, and Guinness and the hot Caribbean sun do not mix. But being the beer fan that I am, I had to try it in an exotic location. The taste is different. How am I sure of this? Taste is subjective, but if you are careful, and study, then wisdom and discernment becomes relevant. No matter where you are in your taste history, there is always room for growth. If the concept of expanding your palette has not dawned on you yet, then I would encourage you to set aside your brand, your “go to beverage”, and experiment. This will illustrate that not all brands are equal.
A few years ago I was infatuated with wine and would always try to get my wife Calissa to taste wines in an effort to get her off the Pina-coladas and ice blended stuff. In the last few years her palette has evolved. While I have shifted from wine and cider to a strict beer diet, she has moved from Moscato and Rose, up the white food chain from Riesling to Pinot Grigio, and a proliferation of different ciders.
In my mind the majority of ciders retain the acidic quality of white wine that isn’t enjoyable to me anymore. The idea of cider is cool, and if you make cider, I love discussing the process in its relationship to brewing. But at the end of the day, I am a beer drinker. The circle is complete. The fascinating part of this argument and transition is that although the history of beer, mead, and wine are on par with each other, nobody that I know of would pay $100,000 for a bottle of beer. If you see whiskey as the logical extension to beer, than maybe this is true, but paying more than $10 Canadian for a pint is over the top. Why does the price of wine dictate its quality to the amateur? It is the market that dictates price, but the deal of a lifetime can be found with a discerning sommelier.
Does A Sommelier Create Value?
Beer seems to be in its infancy in this department. And my interest has been mainly from the perspective of a sitting down in a curling club and paying this amount for that beverage. I have had the honor of experiencing the flavors of a $100 dollar bottle of wine, or a shot of Johnny Walker Blue. Sometimes the Dutch side of me balks at the prospect of paying for value. Does the flavor dictate price? Isn’t taste just an arbitrary subjective experience? Who determines the value when it comes to flavor, and how would you go about measuring such a thing?
Let’s set aside actual beer tasting for a moment. I mentioned in a previous post, that my favorite way to learn these days has been through my ears, rather than my eyeballs. Along with Pat Flynn’s podcast I have also developed an addiction to the Tim Ferriss Show. As always Tim knocks it out of the park. The strange thing is that his guests are an odd bunch to me – ranging from writers like Seth Godin to gold medalist snowboarders. I haven’t been disappointed yet. The guest of the day was a sommelier named Richard Betts. The episode was fantastic if you want to learn about wine and whiskey. The downside to this conversation is that they left beer out of the middle.
Chapter 2: The Four Hour Work Week
Tim Ferriss studies why people have become successful and breaks down the process into manageable parts. What piqued Tim’s interest in Richard Betts was that Richard was one of nine people in the world to pass his master sommelier exam the first time. Over the interview he discusses wine, whiskey and Mezcal – which is a Mexican spirit derived from the Agave plant similar to Tequila.
What piqued my curiosity was his confidence that beer had its roots in whiskey. These characteristics that allow a sommelier to trace it back to source, namely the French Wine tradition of Terroir, was absent from beer. Terroir is new to me and it has blown my mind. If you think that the wine tasting art is a bunch of bull crap try faking the master sommelier exam. An understanding of Terroir takes into account Climate, Soil, Terrain, and Tradition. Beer has been taken to this level by the legendary Michael Jackson (not the singer), but for most of us, the tortoise has been winning the race. As with my approach to learning, I’m optimistic that the stage has been set in Canada, especially Ontario for a resurgence of Craft brewing.
Farm To Table Fresh
Never has there been a time in history where ingredients are so easily available in quantity. This has a strange downside. One of the prized qualities of a sommelier that always impresses me is their legendary ability to taste the earth in the glass, to connect with the artist, the ground, the fruit through the senses, and essentially break it down into a story narrative. This promotes an incredible sense of scarcity and thus some bottles of wine skyrocket in price due to supply and demand.
On the other hand, does the availability of quality fresh ingredients diminish the ability of a beer connoisseur to connect with the narrative of a given draft? No. By the same logic as deciding to prepare a regional dish in your kitchen, the ability to match a recipe from across the world as a home brewer is a tremendous strength. How could you ever hope to produce a vintage from a tiny select region in France? However with beer, the only restrictions that seem to be in place are archaic temperance laws from the prohibition period.
Chapter 3: Perfume
There are two wonderful works of art that completely illustrate what I believe to be the route towards understanding. The first is a movie based upon a book called “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer“. The story is incredible. Just a little disclaimer here. Some of the movies I enjoy do not get good ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. I used to be self-conscious about this attribute of mine, but now I’ve come to realize that palettes are unique. Even if a movie doesn’t get the best ratings, if it has the ability to draw me into the story, then I may overlook some of the flaws. It’s like being in love for the first time and questioning yourself, “Am I in love with this person, or am I just infatuated?”.
Do not be fooled. Both positions have powerful chemical reactions backing them up. That’s the beauty of Perfume. It’s the story of a young man born into utter squalor with a unique gift of smell. His sense of smell rivals that of the nose of a blood hound. He goes out of his way to learn the essence of a thing – and in his case, he follows his own path good or bad. Humans with seemingly superhuman senses have always intrigued me, whether it be inventors like Nicola Tesla, or Michael Faraday. I love hearing stories of how people dip into the subconscious and pull out the answer to a question. It gives me the chills. Those that stand out set themselves apart from the rest, and often co-ordinate the senses in unique and creative ways.
The Man Who Tasted Shapes
The second work I wanted to draw attention to points to the answers, and how interesting humans really are. In the book called, “The Man Who Tasted Shapes“, Dr. Richard E. Cytowic describes a case of a man that literally tasted shapes. For instance a chicken cooked a certain way would get experienced as having points. Apparently 1 in 20 people experience a mild form of synesthesia. Famous people who have been known to have it include: Walt Disney and Nicola Tesla. It was said that during his earlier days Tesla would literally build a turbine in his head, test it for vibration, work out the problems, all before getting it built in the real world. Perfect Pitch and Color Hearing in music also reference the blending of the senses. These stories have inspired me to cultivate higher sensitivities, a mindfulness of my surroundings, of people, and especially of taste.
Chapter 4: Cultivating The Senses
Another art form that I have seen cultivate the senses to incredible levels is Tai Chi. Cheng Man Ching, a beloved tai chi teacher, once said that his one regret: People would enter into the storehouse and leave without anything of value. Learning to be fully relaxed – a state in Chinese described as “song“, was like a beautiful Chinese woman releasing her pinned hair. The hair falls and hangs naturally straight. The worry for Man Ching was that it took patience and daily practice to achieve mastery. This concept is at odds with our modern age. Patience? How long will that take? Those are the famous words of Ed Gruberman from the hilarious skit by Dr. Demento entitled, “Boot To The Head.”
Tai Chi is a martial art that has an oral and written history that disappears back into the murky depths of ancient China. With the popularity of MMA fighting and the UFC some of the older more traditional gong fu has gone by the wayside. There are a lot of fluffy nonsensical esoteric teachings out there and that’s not what I’m trying to promote. What I look for in martial arts today is sensitivity training and co-ordination, and the role of fascia and tendons, rather than simply focusing on muscular strength. I feel I may be grasping on elusive spaghetti strands here, and trying to tie too many lines of thought together, but bear with me. In a nutshell, people who practise their skill to the point of it looking like magic, and transcend the norm fascinate me. That’s where someone like Timothy Ferriss comes into play.
The Confidence to Learn
Tim’s latest blog and podcast based off of his website www.fourhourworkweek.com examines people who have performed their art at a high level. Tim manages to gain access to these people in Q&A sessions that are absolutely fascinating to listen to. On the flip side Tim never says these skills cannot be learned. He wants his audience to learn – but at the same time Tim Ferriss legitimately wants to improve in his own life.
Having a true experience of craft beer has dramatically underscored how much being good in one area leaves you wanting and afraid to try in another. The curling world loves beer, and I’m hoping that they can also grow their palette to include a wider range of beer categories and taste. At the Golf and Country Club where I work, I see members bringing in expensive wine, but developing the same standards of taste in beer seems to be still in its infancy.
Chapter 5: Practical Education
In St. Maarten there is a very special destination called The Orient Beach. As a tourist you take a long drive along the scenic coast until you get dropped off at a central location and the beach extends for miles in both directions. Now that I’ve been there a couple times I know that the left turn does not equal the right turn. Travelling right will lead you to a line of rocks built across the beach that act as a barrier reef to protect the faint of heart from the path ahead. Once you cross the stones there is no turning back – and I’m confident your life will change. Crossing the rocks grants you permission to strip down and get some wind on your willy – I couldn’t come up with a female counterpart so I’ll just leave that to your imagination.
Calissa and I crossed the rocks for “educational purposes” – and no, we did not bare it all. The first experience was a simple tourist trip. Calissa had a nice trot down the beach and came back accompanied by two well tanned naked dudes. If you consider casual conversation between naked guys in a locker room strange, this upped the ante a few points. Although I didn’t have the courage to show my man bits to the world that day – I knew from the second I got there I would regret not giving this a shot. I have no desire to be an exhibitionist, I just had a gut instinct it would be liberating. We did immediately ask how it works when you order a beer at a bar. Do the chairs get cleaned more often? This was a practical question. It’s part of the process, similar to a gym. Everything gets sanitized and wiped down after someone sweats all over a workout bench.
Step #1 Take The Swim
My favorite activity during a beach excursion is to hang out up to my neck in the water with a hat, sunglasses to minimize sun exposure, and a cold beverage in hand. In the Caribbean a typical beer would be Carib with a rusty cap. Swimming in the ocean is great, but swimming naked is better! Well if you ever venture to Orient beach I encourage you to bare it all – become vulnerable to the world – it will make you stronger and incredibly more sensitive to your surroundings. When you are naked that simple jump in the water becomes elevated and that memory will stay with you, imprinted deep in your brain. If you are going to do this the swim will settle you down for the next part.
The Courage To Cross The Rocks
The follow up walk down the beach was a true test of courage. A part of my mind screamed for me to put my shorts back on, but I resisted and plodded on. Each step was easier, and it definitely was one of those times where I received instant results. Some changes take place over time. Some are immediate: strolling around with your private parts exposed is a test of vulnerability. You cannot hide. I was forced to be comfortable with myself and not care what anyone else thought. It changed me.
Chapter 6: Keeping Track
It wasn’t until last summer that a good friend and co-worker introduced me to the Untappd app for my iPhone. It’s a great app to help you remember which beers you’ve tried. Since I started keeping records, I’ve tasted 160 unique beers from countries all around the world. Most people stay within a comfort zone and always drink the same beer, but in order to learn you have to taste, taste, and then taste more. The only way you will develop your palate for beer is to go out of your way to try new beers. So at the moment I try a beer on the menu I haven’t had before and then drink my favorite. Education before pleasure.
Since we bought our house in Westhill, we have staged an annual Frans Family Barbeque. Each year it gets more extravagant. In the past there is never a shortage of commercial beer, however, this year I lugged out my draft fridge and set it up outside. For the event I modified the fridge and installed a second tap to have both dark beer and a lighter ale. A couple of guys even brought mead which turned into a disaster for me as I haven’t developed any mead legs as of yet and had a total high school experience with it. The unique thing about our party has always been the diversity of the people that get invited. Many of them have never met each other, but seem to find common interests. Sitting down to a delicious meal and pairing it with the right beer is entertaining. It’s also a lot of fun having people enjoy a beer you have created with your own hands. Beer and food pairings are a complete mystery to me so I won’t try to fudge that I understand it. The bottom line is that beer always makes a barbecue taste better.
The Palette Progression
What is your palette? Can it be formed? Can you learn to like foods and tastes that you may have not liked before? Learning is a transferable skill. I am learning to write by doing. Getting over the fear of making a mistake, or trying a new thing is an ongoing battle, yet it is this battleground in your head that makes the difference. If you expect your palette to expand and grow, you cannot always feed it the same beers. It’s the same with food.
If you take a look at Tim Ferriss’s website he will learn something new and bring it to a high level. The catch is that he often puts a ridiculously short time frame on it like five days! How can you learn to swim in five days? Watch a set of twins grow! There are things like learning to walk that happen over five days. If you blink your eye you’d think they always knew how to do it. How can I learn so quickly and transfer the skill to something new? The first thing Tim does is film himself doing it.
Why Tell The World?
This has many benefits. Not only is Tim scooping the material for later online content to support a lifestyle business, he is getting over a fear of making mistakes by learning publicly in front of thousands of eyeballs. You could argue he’s got the confidence to do this, but on closer examination this isn’t true. The argument is better stated that he has confidence to try new things. If you watch and listen closely all the things he learns are new to him, not coming from prior knowledge. Usually he will fail many times in this process, but the wonderful part is that he persists and tries until he achieves the level of proficiency he has set his sights on.
How Do You Taste Like A Sommelier?
Watching my twins learn to walk and talk has been quite entertaining. Kids get frustrated at times, but they are relentless in their pursuit of mastering new activities. They will never discuss the details over dinner or a beer. I think beer education should be approached in the same way. If I want to become better at distinguishing beer, and truly understand beer culture and the craftsmanship involved, I need to taste a lot of unique beers. And the only way to learn is to set aside the ego and approach the subject with humility stripped of all articles that get in the way of mastery. Not all beers are equal, but those that have been made with care should be treated like they are a handmade product. As more and more manufacturing get sent away over seas so the average person can have average things, I keep my eyes and ears open for the artisans, the rare craftsman of our age.