Developing Your Beer Palate With Wine
This week we’re going to delve into one of my favorite topics: how knowledge of wine can affect your approach to beer, and vice versa. More specifically, what we as beer drinkers (or beer geeks, if you will — that’s how I self-identify, anyway) can take away from wine while at the same time not becoming overwrought with the pretense and snobbery too easily observed in wine (some stereotypes exist for a reason, after all).
About a week ago I read an interesting post on the blog Fuggled. The author had just returned from visiting Virginia’s wine country and overheard some chatter about how beer was becoming the “new wine,” but wouldn’t really be there until breweries and tasting rooms became less industrial and “more like wine.” The author is rightly concerned that the increasing prices of many craft beers and dearth of super high-end “cult” bottles out there will drive beer into a direction far from the communal, everyman beverage it has always been. I’ve myself have been mildly worrying for years about the growth of a cottage beer “tastemaker” industry similar to the one that all too often hobbles those looking to learn more about wine.
In defense of wine, though: more than the “wineification” of beer culture, I fear that those looking to make their name as “palates” when it comes to beer don’t have enough of a wine background to properly analyze what they’re trying. As an avid wine drinker and professional but first and foremost a beer geek, I can’t stress enough the importance of wine knowledge (by which I mean tasting as many as possible and understand why they do/don’t work for you) in literally refining the palate. My boss has a super-sharp focus on brettanomyces and as a wine guy, he understands it as a fundamental flaw in wine. While this means he is in no way a fan of the traditional beer styles that use brett to great effect, it also makes him sensitive to it in beers where it shouldn’t be present. Trying hundreds of wines every month, more than anything else in my opinion, trains you to spot flaws and appreciate the difference between something being “off” and something that is simply “bad.”
I say all of that so I can say this: the day after I read that blog post, I had this conversation on Twitter with The Barley Blog, a fine writer and reviewer of craft beers. He’d just had to dump a beer because of a spoilage or infection issue in the bottle. I offered my sympathies and he responded that he “(c)ouldn’t hang with the off flavors,” that he’d “…tried but just couldn’t do it.” Here, I think, is where beer needs to learn from wine: over on the wine side when we spot a flaw, be it TCA (aka cork taint, aka “corked”), volatile acidity, brettanomyces, or anything else we call it and move on. We don’t stick to the beverage — we acknowledge the flaw and go to the next one. No one wants beer to become as gentrified and provincial as wine is, least of all me. But overlooking fatal flaws in beers for the sake of ‘the old college try’ does no one any favors.
This will over time prove to be more difficult for beer, in light of the many styles where what in other beverages would be considered a flaw is accepted, but that only means our palates have to be that much sharper and more aware. It also means we have to be more honest: no brewer or winemaker wants to hear that they’re product is flawed. Saying someone’s stuff is “bad” is easier — that only means you didn’t like it. To look someone in the eye and tell them something about the most basic elements of their production is wrong is tough. The more we turn a blind eye, however, the longer it takes for things to get better. So next time you pick up some brett in a beer it shouldn’t be in, or get an infected or spoiled bottle, call it out — get online and shoot someone an email, post something on the social media outlet of your choice. And please, just pour it out. Life’s too short for bad beer.
Until next time.