What a psycholinguist can tell us about how we describe beer flavors

Want to improve your tasting notes? Practice, practice, practice.

Ilja Croijmans is a psychologist by training and a homebrewer in his off time. He’s a researcher in the field of psycholinguistics, which combines psychology and linguistics, obtaining his PhD at the Centre for Language Studies in Nijmegen, the Netherlands.

His work is currently focused on the ways people describe the flavor and aroma of food and beverages. In this vein, Croijmans coauthored a 2015 study titled “Odor Naming Is Difficult, Even For Wine And Coffee Experts,” which found that “both wine and coffee experts were no more accurate or consistent than novices when naming odors. ”

When I read of this study via Sprudge, a coffee publication, I naturally thought, “OK, but what about beer?”

Croijmans was kind enough to answer my questions about how his research into the language of flavor and aroma could impact beer judging as well as everyday beer enjoyment. Some of his responses have been edited for clarity and length:

Why has your research until now mostly focused on wine and coffee?
It has focused primarily on wine, actually. Wine is, like coffee, an incredibly rich source of aromas, and can be experienced by smelling it, and by tasting it. In both cases, the nose is involved. Wines differ along a few dimensions–grape type, country of origin or terroir, and yet, there is so much variety. There are many wine experts available in the Netherlands, in shops (vinologists), in restaurants (sommeliers), and we even have a few wine producers now (oenologists). Additionally, wine expertise is well defined. To become a sommelier or vinologist, you have to go through intensive training and get a degree. Wine experts are interesting, because they talk and write about the smell and flavor of wines frequently–in shops, in restaurants and in reviews on the internet.

Have you considered applying your research to beer rather than wine or coffee?
Beer is also incredibly interesting. Back when I started this project on flavor language, this whole “craft beer revolution” was just kicking off in the Netherlands, which is only four years ago. Back then, there were 200 breweries, already 40 more than in 2012. Right now, there are around 422 breweries in the Netherlands. While beer is an interesting and obvious choice right now, it wasn’t yet back then. There are beer expert communities in the Netherlands with incredible expertise, and at least 422 commercial brewers which I think are expert enough to participate in my studies, too. And I think beer is talked about a lot too. What you see for wines (wine menus, wine reviews online) you see for beers more often too. There now even is a Michelin-star restaurant in the Netherlands (de Librije in Zwolle) that has a beer menu to pair with their seven-course menu.

It is too bad we don’t teach our kids to talk about smells and flavors, but focus on what cows say (sound) and what color a sheep is (vision) instead. It’s speculative, but it might be possible people would be better at naming smells if they learned to pay attention to them when they were young.

What implications could your research have in terms of how we understand and value beer judging?
What we found in wine experts is that it matters how much you talk about smells and flavors in order to become better at describing it. If these beer judges talk a lot about beer, in addition to tasting and judging it, the findings for wine experts might apply to beer judges too. I think judges (for wine and beer alike) are very useful. It is hard to judge from a bottle of beer how it will taste, and some beers are quite expensive, so these pose a risk. If a beer expert has described the flavor in a way I can understand, this helps me in my decision process. I see sometimes online that people really don’t like a well rated beer, for example a Berliner weisse or a lambic or a black IPA. And it turns out they just didn’t expect the flavors in those beers, for example, in case of the Berliner weisse, they expected more of a traditional German weisse or Belgian wit. If they would have had access to a short description of the flavor, they might have given it a second thought, or not spent money on it in the first place. Expert descriptions are very useful, especially when novices struggle with finding the right words for the flavors

How can casual beer drinkers become more adept at describing aroma and flavor?
With practice, people can become better at describing aromas and flavors. A guided tasting can help: Let an expert explain what flavors they taste in a beer, and see if the casual beer-drinker can spot these too. Or a beer flavor wheel might help, seeing particular flavors occur in a beer. This is speculative, but in the beginning, it seems it is important to just get acquainted with the words that are used in beer contexts, and these wheels can help. After a while, it is more about practicing using them and applying them to new beers.
There are apps in which you can choose a few flavor descriptors for each beer you drink. This is already easier than just coming up with your own, or type in your own description. Becoming an expert in any domain, like in music or in chess, takes time, on average around 10,000 hours, so it really just needs deliberate practice and time. But even practicing it a few hours can help. It is too bad we don’t teach our kids to talk about smells and flavors, but focus on what cows say (sound) and what color a sheep is (vision) instead. It’s speculative, but it might be possible people would be better at naming smells if they learned to pay attention to them when they were young.

Do you have a favorite beer style?
I don’t have a specific favorite. It depends too much on the context. But there are types of beers I like more than others. I am quite into the sour beers: gose, Berliner weisse, lambic, gueuze. Somehow the sourness keeps being interesting, while for example for with IPAs or stouts, these seem to become more similar to each other the more I try (although I also really like IPAs). I also like the crossover-type beers, in which multiple styles are combined, e.g., a sour stout, or experimental beers in which interesting ingredients are used.

Has your research changed the way you personally experience the act of drinking beer?
I don’t think my research has changed the way I am experiencing beer. Whether it changed what types of beers I drink, I think homebrewing is more to blame for that–if you know how something is made, you may find flaws and possible ways to improve it. But I am trying to be aware of the flavors and tastes in what beers I drink, and I try to at least write a few words on each beer I drink and rate it, even if I’ve had it more than once.

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