Before I worked in beer, I worked in wine and cheese. People think the former has more relevance, but that isn't always the case. Wine's proximity to beer is obvious, but beer has a core problem that is similar to one found in the cheese world: it lacks a generally recognized vernacular. One could argue that the wine lexicon is vastly overheated and pretentious. It's not hard to conjure up images of wine lovers swirling their beverage in glasses and effusing over the delightful aromas of tar in their glass. I'm not sure about you, but to me tar doesn't augur a pleasant culinary experience. But just because wine goes too far in its imagery, doesn't excuse beer (and cheese) for not going far enough. For instance, in the world of cheese, it's commonplace to look at the fromage as either sharp or smelly, strong or mild. These big descriptives don't offer much precision for the wide variety of flavors found in cheese. Instead they all but obliterate nuance.
The same problem holds true in the beer world. There are few terms that laypeople (in other words, people not obsessed with the wonderful product of water, malted barley, yeast and hops) know and the ones that they do, “hoppy” for instance, are big paint rollers where detail brushes are needed. Hoppy in the minds of most mean bitter but in a well brewed beer, take the TNT Bon Bon, a Double IPA from Singlecut, the hoppiness yields elements of grapefruit zest and resin. In my experience sampling it to the public, even people who don't like hoppy beer (but can't resist a free sample) like it even though, it's a Double IPA.
But how do we develop a precise lexicon of descriptive terms without slipping into wine-geek-like overdrive. This is a worthwhile concern, as during my days as a cheesemonger I once heard a colleague describe a delicious northern Italian cheese as smelling like old band-aids; the customer decided not to taste it and instead buy a cheddar. Instead of stumbling down that road, I propose we begin with the overall shape of the beer's flavor. Is it crisp, as is often the case with the best lagers and pilsners, or creamy like a milk stout or cream ale? Is the texture light and perhaps zesty like many a saison? Are the flavors tangy and grassy as is the case with many wild ales? India Pale Ales should be defined by the overtones of their hops; some are citrusy, others have overtones of stone fruit or smoke. Many stouts have elements of dark chocolate, toffee, or coffee in their flavors.
These are all familiar terms for most beer shoppers and it will create an image of what they might look for beyond simple refreshment in their brew. Ideally it will bring them closer to understanding what they like and why they like it, and this knowledge will enable them to navigate the ever growing world of craft beer with confidence and maybe even savvy. And if they ever hear someone compare a beer to tar, they'll just laugh.
Martin Johnson is a beer buyer and merchandising manager for Westside Market East Village in New York City.When not selling or drinking beer he writes about jazz and beer for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate, beer for Eater and about a variety of cultural and culinary topics for The Root.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ora Media, LLC, its affiliates, or its employees.