I sometimes feel like science — or the broad spirit of inquiry — is considered childish these days. Of course, scientists are allowed to practice science. But that requires grants and laboratories and gleaming stainless steel bits and precision instruments. Is home experimentation childish?
Not that I want to keep it from the kids. Far from it. A recent bit of writing I ran across on discovering the mechanisms that cause water to freeze warmed my heart, as did the deft touch with which the author both worked to assist and, at the same time, stay out of the way. I love the Socratic method; it's even better when the mentor doesn't need to ask the questions.
The Beer Trials is a book operating in the same spirit of inquiry, and there's a lot you can do to take that same spirit into your life as a sensory-aware food consumer. The starting point here is to calibrate your instruments: your senses of taste, smell, and touch. Once you've done that, it becomes drastically easier to understand what you're consuming and why you like it. This is most useful in assisting you to find novel and exciting foods, but I think it also almost necessarily increases your connection to the food you eat, by transforming it from a homogenous agglomeration of flavors into a story. When you can recognize the component flavors in a dish (or a beer, etc) you can start to ask why those flavors came together in that way, and where the ingredients came from, and so on.
This kind of inquiry is remarkably central to some cultures' experience of food; particularly in France, where the notion of goût de terroir ("the taste of the earth") is so central that government-ministry-run programs teach children about tasting and sensory evaluation.
But you don't have to be trained from childhood to learn to taste accurately and identify component flavors and ingredients. Here are some approaches you can take to start to learn to identify the flavors and nuances of beer; you can tackle any food in essentially the same manner.
First off, use your nose. A major component of our sense of taste is tied up in our sense of smell, which has dramatically more kinds of receptors — and therefore, finer discrimination — than the tastebuds located in the mouth (though there are a growing number of identified tastes). Note that temperature plays a major role in the smell of beer, as cold beer doesn't release the volatile aromatic compounds as readily as cool beer does.
Taste similar beers side by side. Ideally, you should do this without knowing which is which, by having someone else pour your samples.
Reflect on the differences between the two (even if you can't pin down or name exactly what they are). Figure out what you can name about the differences. Is one sweeter than the other? More bitter? More citrusy? As you become better versed in answering some of these questions, you'll start to do it automatically, leaving your concious mind with more attention to spend on the bits that you don't understand as well.
A highly informative test is to taste, blind, your favorite beer alongside another beer or two that are of the same style. Can you identify your favorite? Is it still your favorite? Is it actually different? You don't have to tell anybody if you don't like the answers. But be honest with yourself.
The classic test for discrimination is the triangle test: with two beers, pour three samples. Now try to identify which two are the same. Most people won't have a problem doing this with, say, a Budweiser and a Deschutes Black Butte Porter, but consistently identifying the difference between Pabst and Pacifico is a trickier proposition. Somewhere in the middle, probably, is your ability. You can move that line towards the latter end.
Smell things. The more familiar you are with, and the more of an internal language you have for the way that everyday foods and plants smell (and taste), the easier it is to map the similar aromas and tastes in beer to those words.
Remember that everyone's palate is different. We have variations in the genes that distribute taste buds through our mouths and create aroma receptors. The overlap we have in shared langugage isn't precise; it's approximate. That means that you don't owe anyone an explanation for why you don't like bitterness, or why your friends can't find the grassy notes in a beer that seem obvious to you. Or that you can't find. It's okay.
I can't recommend it for everyone, but I make a point of regularly revisiting beers I don't like to see if there's something I missed about what the brewer was trying to accomplish, or if my palate has changed since the last time I tried it. I've found over the years that many flavors I didn't like when I was younger have grown on me.
In the end, be playful. Have fun. Try a different blend of coffee beans next week. Pick up a handful of dirt from your garden and smell it. Heck, taste it. Smell the dust that the spring rains kick up off the street, the spices in your kitchen, and, of course, the roses.
Engage with the world. What else is there to do?
This is the end of my week blogging at Powells.com. I hope you've enjoyed reading these as much as I've enjoyed writing them. I will continue blogging at my regular home, The Daily Wort. Also, if you're in Portland in May, join us May 12th for the Beer Trials release party at the Green Dragon pub. Prost!