Here’s a beer description; what’s the style? "Dark chocolate, coffee, berry fruit, vanilla and coconut; smooth and full bodied, strong, lots more chocolate, roast bitterness, boozy bourbon, vanilla..."
Now this one: "Grapefruit, orange pith, tropical fruit, caramel sweetness; a mouthful and it’s sweet first, then fruity followed by a bang of bitterness which clings to the tongue..."
Both are fairly simple, generic examples of tasting notes. The first is a barrel-aged imperial stout and the second is an IPA, right? But, in real terms, do these beers actually taste like the flavours described in them? In other words, does the flavour in IPA actually taste like a segment of orange or grapefruit? And can you recreate the flavour of beer using real ingredients?
There’s only one way to find out...
Here is some beer on toast. Also known as beer canapés. Or deconstructed beer.
There’s an American IPA, a dubbel and a barrel-aged imperial stout. The IPA is golden toast topped with caramel, piled above are oranges, satsumas, grapefruit, mango and some pith from each for bitterness. The dubbel is lightly toasted bread, tea-soaked raisins, a little ground pepper, mixed spices and some milk and dark chocolate. The imperial stout is made from burnt toast, dark and milk chocolate, cocoa, vanilla extract, toasted nuts, a few drops of bourbon, a flake of salt and some coffee.
They of course tasted nothing like the beers they represented. The IPA was too juicy and the caramel was too sweet; the dubbel was delicious on its own but not remotely like beer; the chocolate overpowered everything in the stout. I could potentially have tried them over and over again to tweak the toppings and try to get it as close as possible to a ‘beer flavour’, maybe I could have added some alcohol to replicate that missing component, I could even have tried blending them with water and alcohol, but I don’t think any of those would’ve got it just right. But then, getting it perfect wasn’t the aim...
What I’m interested in is how representative of real flavours the things we write in our notepads (or the things we register in our mind’s palate) when we drink something actually are. Tasting notes are reductive. An IPA isn’t just oranges, grapefruit, mango and some indiscernible floral; it’s a lot more than that, made up by the unique coming together of its ingredients, and these flavours are easy to scribble down and give an idea of what the beer is like when we drink it. It’s not about tasting notes; this is a sideways glance at flavour, perception and how we describe (or think about) the two. Beyond this it’s about understanding flavours and what they actually taste like: is it coffee or dark chocolate; chicory or botanic bitterness; mango or papaya; crackers or brioche; lemon juice or vinegar (see: Gary Vaynerchuk). It’s also a fun experiment I wanted to try out.
From this test, deconstructing beers to their discernible flavours does not create the same effect on the plate as it does in the glass. However, especially in the case of the stout and the dubbel, it does make for delicious beer canapés!