Wednesday, August 11, 2010


The Book of Five Rings, written by Miyamoto Musashi in the 17th century, is considered the cornerstone of bushido. Musashi, a renowned swordsman, artist, architect and master samurai, details military tactics and one-on-one combat strategies. There is one quote from that book that really resonated with me:

“It is said the warrior’s is the twofold way of pen and sword, and he should have a taste for both ways.”

As a Beer Samurai and follower of brewshido, this had instant meaning to me. In order to follow the Way one must not only taste, but you must also write reviews. It is not enough to just use one’s tongue (sword) to discern the different flavors in your beer, but one must also organize those sensations into a cohesive format with your pen…or keyboard. By writing a review of what you experienced, you are giving your experience form and substance. These can be read by others to help guide them or even be returned to by the writer to aid in remembrance.

As you might know, I review beers on, as do so many other beer geeks…including The Senpai. The top of this page provides a link to my profile there and from that you can access any of the reviews I have written. But there are other sites on the internet where you can review beer, being another popular site. Which site should you use? It doesn’t matter. In fact, you can go “old school” and keep a handwritten journal for your purposes only. Whatever you are most comfortable with, as long as you write down your impressions of what you just drank. It is a great record and even better practice.

In The Book of Five Rings, Musashi describes five different “attitudes” necessary to handle the long sword effectively. I have adapted this for beer tasting as a device for describing the different tasting categories you will see on any beer tasting web site. I feel it translates well because the attitude that you take when exploring each element of the beer can seriously affect the way you perceive that beer. But I will not describe the Five Attitudes of Beer Tasting just yet. This is because before you write your first review you must understand the Way of the Sword…in this case, your tongue.

Before you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, even before you take that first sip, you must understand the physical make-up of your tongue. Please don’t go to the mirror and stick out your tongue for examination. The physical make-up I am referring to is the tiny world of the taste buds. You must learn how they communicate taste to your brain. It was once believed that certain tastes always came across from four sectors on the tongue designed to perceive a certain taste. This was due to the concentration of different types of taste buds in those sectors and illustrated on the taste map of the tongue.
“Sweet” tastes are perceived at the tip of the tongue. This is our ability to discern the presence of sugars and the complex carbohydrates associated with them.

“Salty” come across on the sides, just behind the tip. This is our ability to discern ions of sodium and similar metals.

“Sour” is also perceived on the sides of the tongue, just behind the salty area. This is ability to discern acidity.

“Bitter” will always be tasted at the back of the tongue. The chemical reactions in this group are far too complex for me to understand or relate.

But two things would overturn this neat little set-up and throw the taste map into the realm of myth-information.

The first was a fifth basic taste: “savoriness” or in Japanese, “umami”. This is our ability to discern glutamates. Meaty flavors fall under this heading and there has also been talk of “fatty” being a separate and sixth taste. This has been shouted down more than once. Sorry bacon, we love you dearly, but you’re still not a taste unto yourself. However, many do feel you are a food group unto yourself and I for one will not argue that point. There are few beers that exhibit flavors in the realm of umami, but they’re out there.

The most important discovery was that each type of taste bud existed all over your tongue and even on your soft palate. They were not segregated to the sectors as shown in the taste map even though they had higher concentrations in those areas. What made this so important was that it showed that it was possible to discern flavors on portions of the tongue that were not classically associated with that particular taste. If you stick the tip of your tongue in tonic water, will it have no flavor? Tonic water is not sweet and that is the sector of the tongue that is tied to sweetness, so you shouldn’t taste anything at all, right? This is not the case. You will taste bitterness, even though the taste receptors for bitter foods are supposedly at the back of the tongue.

Many scientists feel that taste is more like color. White light is the combination of all colors of the spectrum. You can discern different colors by changes in wavelength of the light. They say that it’s the combination of all the taste buds working together that give you the overall taste. But I feel that we can sense the individual “colors” by concentrating on different portions of the tongue. Through practice and training you can learn to isolate different portions of your tongue so that you can zero in on a particular taste. So take that first sip and describe your first sensation in general terms (sweet, sour, bitter, citrus, medicinal, vegetal, malty, bready, vinous, spicy). Then start to feel the sensations on different parts of your tongue. Try to isolate what you sense and use more specific terms (in the same order as the general list…honey, cider vinegar, chicory, grapefruit, eucalyptus, asparagus, toast, pumpernickel, bourbon, black pepper).

It is important to understand that the placement, sensitivity and concentration of taste buds can vary from one person to the next. Thus, one person’s experience might be different than another individual's. Many times two people will agree on what they taste, but other times they won’t. Remember, this is subjective; respect others’ opinions. If you read others’ reviews before writing your own, try not to be swayed by what they wrote. It’s not just the tongue that causes differences in experiences. There are other factors that can alter the flavor sensations. First and foremost, it is important to have a clean palate when tasting a beer. Food pairings can have dramatic changes on the flavor of the beer. Anything that you drank before the beer in front of you can effect what you sense. If you drink three IPAs and then switch over to a brown ale, then you’re probably not going to taste much in the brown ale. The bitterness in the IPAs can burn out your taste buds for anything else, making them seem bland. It would be the equivalent of eating a hot Indian curry and then trying to enjoy a cup of green tea. The tea has too subtle a flavor to stand up to the assault of spices which blasted your tongue. Smokers will also not taste what a non-smoker does. Ever wonder why someone who quits smoking almost automatically gains weight? It’s because they can really taste their food again.

There’s also the possibility that any given reviewer is not experienced in tasting or has a limited vocabulary in which to express themselves. They may also have a different batch or vintage of the beer you tasted. Few breweries can produce the same exact flavor from batch to batch. You don’t know what other factors may have played a part in another person’s review. They’re not wrong and neither are you. Write down what you experienced and do not worry that someone will contact you to tell you that you’re an idiot and you could not have possibly tasted soy sauce. If someone does that then they are not followers of brewshido and are to be tolerated, but ignored. The only time that it is acceptable to be told by someone that you could not have tasted something is when you specifically state that you taste a certain variety of hop or type of malt or strain of yeast when they were not used to brew the beer. This did happen to me and I was corrected by the brewery’s owner. In a case like this, practice humility: apologize, admit your mistake and edit your review.

Please do not review a beer highly because you have heard that it is a great beer or “one of the best offerings of the year” or because it won an award in some beer event. The word of mouth accolades could have been started by the brewery for all you know and there are some awards that can be bought. Even if the contest is on the up-and-up, it’s possible that there may not have been a lot of entries in that style. A mud pie will almost always win a taste contest against a steaming pile of shit. Try to ignore beer magazine hype, use previous reviews only as a reference and take any awards with a grain of salt.

There is another factor that can affect taste that I’ve been purposely avoiding. It is something few people think about, but good beer bars know…the glass from which you drink your beer.

Next Time: The Five Attitudes of Beer Tasting: Glassware First

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