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How to Taste Your Beer

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As craft beer as an industry and, more importantly, a culture, has grown in popularity over the last decade, craft connoisseurs have been tasked with legitimizing the manner in which people speak about beer.

This re-energized effort has wrought significant progress in elevating beer as a nuanced beverage deserving of its own vocabulary. Craft beer as a culture has been slowly morphing from outlier style to popular world view. While beer-vs.-wine debates still crop up, craft beer is flourishing, and rightly so, in its pedigree on par with wine.

Craft beer may only make up a minority segment of the overall world beer market, but its undeniable rise in popularity has proven both a challenge and a success. Indeed, with more people clamoring for craft, the industry has benefitted from a bevy of interested and motivated consumers.

However, some argue that the taxonomy and vocabulary used in modern beer tasting and evaluation is deeply flawed and in need of reform. If we see craft beer as the handcrafted wonder it is, we should have a meaningful manner by which we measure its quality.

One such proponent for reform is Karl Ockert, technical director at the Master Brewers Association of the Americas and former BridgePort Brewing Company brewmaster and founder.

Current beer tastings focus on, as Ockert says, process and yeast. That is to say, the taxonomy of beer stems from the major distinction between ales and lagers. Ockert takes issue with this, saying:

This makes perfect sense to brewers who choose ingredients, brewing processes and styles to make. However many consumers have a hard time understanding the differences and/or don't care. How many thousands of times over the last 28 years have I been asked the question 'what's the difference between a lager and an ale?'

Ockert has pioneered a new program called the MBAA Beer Steward Certificate, which strives to change this.

The MBAA Beer Steward Certificate, which Ockert debuted in January 2011, focuses more on the sensory experience of beer -- the dominant flavors found in each specific brew. Rather than the simpler ale or lager distinction, Ockert's program divides beer into the following categories: malt-driven, hop-driven, fermentation driven and flavored.

"We can use a common vocabulary for each group to help the taster accurately describe the complete flavor profile of the beers, going way beyond 'malty' and 'hoppy'," says Ockert, "This is much the way wine tasters describe the positive flavors for wine."

This positivity is an important distinction, separating the program from those which primarily focus on being able to identify the negative or off-tastes in beer including oxidation, acetaldehyde, diacetyl or dimethyl sulfides.

The Beer Steward Certificate delves deeper as well. Not content to just stop at the simple "hoppy" or "malty," Ockert hopes the program will open a panoply of adjectives for consumers. He says:

This does not mean that we describe a beer as 'a walk in the spring rain,' but it does mean that when we talk about a 'hoppy IPA,' we use terms like citrus, rose, pine, lemon, et cetera, depending on the beer, that paint an accurate picture of how the beer will taste.

While the Cicerone Certification Program may be better known than the Beer Steward Program, they both share the same mission in Ockert's mind -- "educating beer professionals to look at beer in a new and special way." The key here is "special." Craft brewing is a thoughtful process deserving of thoughtful consumption.

Some may dismiss this positivity as flippant feel-good flim-flam, but it can teach us to be better beer tasters, more appreciative consumers, sharper analyzers and, without stepping into hyperbole, better human beings. By focusing on the special, positive, unique attributes of beer, we can appreciate it as a craft rather than using our experience to pinpoint the negative.

What if we used this philosophy to describe other things? Could Ockert's vision for beer tasting guide us in other pursuits, encouraging us to find the positive aspects in all we experience with our senses? In essence, could beer be our new philosophy? I will cheers to that.

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