Friday 10 April 2020

Travel stories — the senses

So there I was thinking about how we use all our senses in evaluating beer and thinking about the taste, the aromatics and the finish when I suddenly thought that perhaps to get the full sensory nature of beer I would have to deconstruct it, take it to bits and put those bits on an imaginary worktop and evaluate everything. 

So what did I mean by this? Let me take SIGHT — for a start there are the various tones and hues of the beers we drink, the palette of colours with which each beer style represents itself, such as the TV show host gleam of golden ale, the brooding, bad-tempered poetics of an imperial stout, the hazy-sunset-end-of-a-day-with-the-weather-about-to-turn of a juicy DDH and all the shades and circumstances and turns of phrase and collaborations of colour in between. So that’s sight sorted, or is it? I then thought about what we see when we drink our beers in various bars and pubs, the various colour moods of these homes from homes, including the sombre browns that sit unbidden in the memory of an ancient aunt’s parlour from a visit during childhood, or the verdant greens and blue skies of a beer garden on a perfect day, which we always remember and wish to recreate (oh if only we could). The ground and the earth and the green and the gold of the fields of barley and hops; the shimmer and shiver of water before it takes hold of the mash and transfigures the boil and turns our dreams into a presence in the glass (and let us not forget the pale jaundiced yellow of the transformative yeast). 

So then I thought about SMELL — starting with the aromatics of the raw materials at the base of beer production, the perfume of hop-picking, the dusty throat catch of the harvest in a field of barley, the silence of barley as it sits in a bag (some suggestion of dust), then the chiming fruitiness of crushed hop pellets, dust to dust, beer to beer, the echo of a vibrancy and floral energy from whole flower hops. Then I thought about the aromatics of the production process — the smell of Weetabix or any other grainy breakfast cereal during the mash, decoction or otherwise, and the warm infusion of cereal and spice during the boil. The aromatics of the beer, whatever the style, in the glass and the aromatics of the aftermath (split beer, the pub in the morning, the leftovers in the glass, the breath of the newly awoken); but on a more positive note let us finish with the aromatics of a freshly poured glass of beer, whatever the style — this is the hook that draws us into the glass.  

So then I thought about TASTE — the sweetness of pale malt when chewed prior to its great dive into the mash, the remnants hiding away like partisans in the forest that has become your teeth, the no-you-don’t-put hops-in-your-mouth taboo learnt from the first brewery visit, the acrid nature and the coffee bean just ground world of black and chocolate malt and the ghostly nothingness of soft water (I tried Budvar’s once straight from the source and thought it so) verses the liver salts nature of hard water, and once brewed the spice and the floral petting of the hops, the fruitiness, whatever part of the world it originates from, the effect of fermentation, soft fruits, raspberry, apricot, strawberry perhaps. And, of course, we cannot forget when thinking about taste that we should forget the effect of the beer and its base metals on the palate — the fullness, the thinness, the intermediate space, the dryness, the bitterness like a suitor abandoned at the altar or an memory of a hurt once done. All of this we must think of. Oh, and all the various faults that we can find in a beer, from the popcorn Saturday-night-at-the-cinema butterscotch of diacetyl to the I’ve-got-a-little-bit-of-sick-in-my-mouth effect of a taste of butyric-infected beer.

Then there is SOUND — the machinery that drives the collection of barley and hops, the tractor all on its ownsome in a field of barley where sea frets visit when the temperature is much cooler than this afternoon in the late summer or the early autumn; the hiss and the clang and the drive belts of progress that mark out the brewing process, the silence, reminiscent of a church in between services, of fermentation, whether short or long; the clang and tinkle of the racking and bottling rooms, before the lorry or van takes the beer away to the pub or bar from where it is dispensed amid the sounds of voices, the bark of TVs and — then, reverently — the soft, pliant groan of appreciation. 

And finally, let us consider TOUCH — the rub of hops between hands, whether it’s the crumpled green powder of pellets or the leafy crackle of whole flowers; then there is the bullet-hardness of barley grains, both between fingers and crunched (or attempted to be crunched) in the mouth, the inherent danger of the hot water during the boil, the stickiness of spilt beer, the dimpled surface of a handled glass, the upright smoothness of a sleeve the bulbous shoulder of a nonic a crime against aesthetics, the simplicity and delicacy of a stemmed glass, the smooth surface of a polished table top or brass railing, the shake of hands or the hug of welcome when friends meet each other. 

Remember when we used to do that? We will again. 


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