Yesterday, while editing new episodes for season three of Beer Geeks, I was struck by something a brewery owner told Michael Ferguson when they were tasting beers together. The brewer is Augie Carton of the aptly named Carton Brewing Company in New Jersey. He and Michael were discussing the fact that Augie’s beers are often constructed to mimic or evoke the taste of a particular dish or meal. Augie’s explanation was, “I’m a geek for flavor.” Which, after all, is what beer is supposed to be about. And subtlety of flavor at that. It isn’t just about piling on the most hops. Or adding the deepest chocolate or strongest coffee. It should be about layering flavors, subtlety of flavors, progression of flavors revealing themselves over time.
Augie makes beers with flavors ranging from white truffle to pumpkin ravioli to coffee with cream and two sugars. Really. And none of them slap you in the face with the unexpected tastes. They make their point without overshadowing the beer. One of his beers, Panzanella, evokes the taste of that Tuscan bread salad with tomatoes and cucumbers. And yet, when you are done drinking it, you don't have the taste of tomato or cucumber in your mouth. What you do have is the feeling that you have enjoyed a salad and a beer.
Now, I’m not suggesting that the average brewery can or should go down this road. But the broader truth is important – flavors are fragile things. It can be tough to get them just right. There is a reason you prefer one stout over another, or one pale ale over another. And it isn’t just – or even usually – themain flavor that makes the difference. It’s about combinations – of grains and of hops (and additional flavors in specific beers) – working together to spark different flavor notes in combination. And it’s about the unveiling of new flavors over time as a beer warms, predominant hops, for example, shifting from grapefruit to mango as you drink.
We often talk about beer pairing with food. How about thinking of the beer itself the same way you think about a carefully created dish. Savor it. Then, of course, go ahead and pair it with one.
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