Thursday, June 21, 2012

Introducing: Dharma of the Draft - Crash Course in Tasting Beer, and a Sample Review of Sneaky Pete Imperial IPA

Just as I promised months ago, I'm about to start expanding the scope of this blog from fly fishing, fly tying, and include another field of interest: beer.

No, I'm not talking about pounding down Coors Light all day, or beer-bonging Natty like a frat boy.  I'm talking about taking an intelligent, thoughtful, adventurous approach to trying new and different beers, and sharing the experience with other beer lovers/beer snobs/beer nerds.  Recently, it seems there's a connection between craft beer and fly fishing emerging.  Maybe it's the younger crowd, maybe it's the independent spirit, maybe its a sort of counter-culture vibe, but there's no denying the overlap of beer snobs and fly fishers.

Before I just dive right into a beer review, though, I thought it might be nice to explain where I'm coming from, why I do this, why you might care, and how to rate/review a beer yourself.  Whether you've always been interested in craft beer, but suck at putting words to a taste beyond "good" and "bad", or maybe you just don't want to look like the odd man out the next time you go with the guys to a 'beer bar', either way, I hope to teach a little something with these reviews; maybe not with each and every one, but often enough to keep it fresh.


Before we progress ANY further, I want to nip in the bud any would-be pedants or ne'er-do-wells that might say something like, "Well who died and made YOU beer god?!"  I'm by no means a beer expert, and I do not wish to pass myself off as such.  Rather, I'm simply someone who enjoys the experience and complexity that the world of craft beer offers, and I like to communicate and share among others that share this interest.  

On that note, just about 100% of the content of my beer reviews, beyond the statistics of the beer (name, brewer, serving type, style, ABV, IBU, etc.) is all subjective opinion.  I have very little formal training in beer tasting (though I DO have a small amount), and I am not a certified Beer Judge.  I'm an enthusiast with SOME knowledge of the styles, history, chemistry, processes, and flavor profiling of beer.

So take my reviews at face value.  To be blunt, it's something I do for me, not anyone else, so if you don't like them, don't read them (they'll be clearly labelled when I post them).  That being said, if you are a beer nerd and you don't like them for ANY reason, by all means, let me know why in the comments!

My Background

As I said, I'm not a certified beer judge, nor am I a full time professional beer taster.  I don't feel that any of that expert-level qualifications should be necessary to share one's thoughts on ANY subject, and beer is no exception.  To that end, I encourage ALL of my readers to chime in whenever they like.

With this being said, it is worth mentioning that, as a part of my full-time job at a brewery, I am a member of our taste panel for quality control, so yes, I do get paid to drink beer at work, and I have had training.  I'm far from certified, but I can taste the difference between isohumulones and dimethyl sulfide, and I know what causes each one, and whether they belong in the flavor profile of whatever style I'm drinking.  While I'm no pro, that should count for something, right?

You may think that without that kind of knowledge, your untrained palate is useless, but you're wrong.  If you want to describe flavors, the single biggest roadblock is your own brain, overthinking the experience.  When I can't pinpoint a specific flavor, I compare it to flavors I do know in my description.  I even do this at work in formal panels, and I've described such odd descriptions as "lemonheads candy", "wet, dirty gym socks", and "old wood shed by the ocean" to describe flavors I've encountered in beers.  Communication is the key, and if a stupid description gets your point understood by others, then it's not stupid.

If you need help, the two biggest aids you can pick up and use from day one are the beer flavor wheel and the BJCP Style Guidelines, linked here.

Finally, you must understand that tasting is, by its very nature, a subjective experience.  Two people can taste a beer from the same pour, in the same glass, and have very different descriptions and flavors.  It happens.  Just be honest with yourself, and you'll be surprised what you might learn from it.


If the only thing you care about with any beer is a simple Love It/Hate It decision, then tasting as an activity isn't necessary.  You don't need a flavor description to know if you like something, you know this from the moment it hits your tongue.  What we're after is something a bit deeper: an accurate description of the experience of drinking the beer.

To get more specific than a completely subjective thumb up or down, you must have some sort of baseline to measure up against.  This is where your beer styles and flavor profiles come into play.  In the BJCP Style Guidelines I linked above, you'll find descriptions of nearly every style of beer in the world.  This is your roadmap to what makes a good beer good, beyond whether or not you like it.  This alone is a key distinction that many miss: knowing whether you don't like That Beer because it has a localized problem, because you just don't like That Beer's style, or because That Beer is just a poor example of it's style.

The first issue, a localized problem, is identified as a beer fault.  An off-flavor such as skunkiness is a great example.  Most people are familiar with this one and intuitively understand that just because one beer is skunked doesn't mean the entire brand tastes like that.  Unfortunately, they often fail to apply this experience on a wider scale.

The second issue, that of the taster not liking the style, obviously requires some pre-existing knowledge of that style.  A guy who's only ever drank American Light Lagers cannot tell if he despises Stone IPA because he specifically doesn't like Stone IPA or because he doesn't like IPAs in general.  He just doesn't have the background.  Doesn't make him stupid or any less of a taster, he just lacks knowledge, but the great part about that is that you can always gain knowledge (and in this field, it's lots of fun!).

The final issue, of a beer being a poor representative of its style, is a genuine, legitimate, objective issue, when agreed upon by a majority of tasters.  This is the level you want to get to.  When you can taste a beer you don't like, and you can say with a degree of certainty, "This is bad for a Witbier.", or "I don't like this...but then again, it's a Doppelbock, and I generally don't prefer them anyway.", instead of, "Ew, this sucks!"


First and foremost, you must write.  You also must write as it happens.  You need to physically have your pen and paper there, with you, and be writing as you consume the first few sips of beer.  This is because of a few key points.  First, your taste buds will become accustomed to the flavors in the beer within the first 1/4 of the bottle, dulling your perception of its subtleties.  Second, there's no way you can be as accurate in recall of subtle tastes the next day, writing from memory.  Third, smell and taste are closely related.  Much as your taste buds are dulled to taste, smelling a beer for long will numb your sensitivity to those smells  So please, write it as you taste.

For beer evaluation, I follow the ASTMA procedure.  That is: Appearance, Smell, Taste, Mouthfeel, Aftertaste.  These are all fiarly self-explanatory except for, possibly, mouthfeel, which is simply an account of the non-taste sensations in the mouth.  Any harshness or smoothness is to be noted here, as well as a warming sensation from a high alcohol content, excessive carbonation or flatness, and other 'texture' descriptions.  Record your ASTMA descriptions in order.  Appearance first, and the rest as they follow.  This is to avoid cross-sensory impact as much as possible.  For example, a thick, sweet, heavy ale might appear darker than it really is, once you've tasted it.  More likely, a sour beer may not smell sour until after you've tasted it.

Within each heading, be sure to touch on a few key points.  For example, for appearance, be sure to comment on color and haze (or lack thereof) on every beer.  You may comment on the head and lacing if you wish, as well, though this has as much to do with the glassware, and the washing methods as it does the beer.

On that note, it is worth noting the details surrounding the tasting, right in your review.  Though I don't always do this, many include information such as the beer name (duh), the brewer, the date, the bottled-on date, the ABV, IBUs, serving sytle, glassware, location of purchase or consumption, even what they'd eaten or drank prior, if it might affect perception.

Finally, keep in mind the personal bias I've touched upon a few times here already.  If you don't like oatmeal stouts and that's what you're reviewing, you're going to perceive more negatives than if you loved the style.  It's natural. While it's important to keep this in mind while tasting, you shouldn't try to falsely adjust your report to counter the bias.  Rather, you should simply note it for what it is and move on with your honest opinions.

Sample Beer Review

Now let me share an example of a typical review for a beer.  I've got a bottle chilling in the fridge at the moment, and I'll evaluate it and type my review as I go, explaining things as I see an opportunity.

Sneaky Pete Imperial IPA (Laughing Dog) Beer Name (Brewer)
Serving type: Bottle, poured into water glass.  (It's what I had on hand.  In a bar, you may have pint, tulip, or pilsner glass.)

Appearance: Dark amber/Light brown, translucent, with heavy haze to the point of opacity.  Thin, off-white head.

Smell: Sweet citrus, toasted carmel malt.  Tip: your sense of smell will de-sensetize faster than your taste buds.  Learn as much as you can from the first two sniffs.  If you need another crack at it, smell something else for a while then go back.  Some smell the back of their hand, coffee beans, etc.

Taste: Front end is sweet, almost cloying, and very malty.  Caramel, cookie, and dark fruit, with a dry, crisping hop in the background.  Eventually, the strong hop profile dominates, with powerful citrus, and herbal bitterness mixing with, though never completely displacing the malt flavors and sweetness.

Admittedly, this is a big, bold, complex beer, and maybe a bad first example.  Still, it shows just how complex one beer can be, and this isn't even a terrible good example of complexity.  Try a Belgian Quad, or a smoked Rauchbier for a flavor conflict!  We'll do a simple one soon, I promise.

Mouthfeel: Aggressive carbonation carries the malt flavors and sweetness over the other flavors, but as the carbonation dissipates, both the intense hop profile and alcohol warmth and slickness from a high 10% ABV make their presence known.  Still, with all these big flavors, the alcohol serves as a flavor blender as well, mixing the sweet and the bitter, without any sort of layering beyond what the carbonation offers.  A heavy beer that doesn't mask it's ABV well, if at all, though as an Imperial, that may not be an objective.  Very slightly astringent, but also very slightly cloying with the aftertaste.

This is an aspect you'll develop a knack for describing as you do it.  Many first time reviewers tend to label a big alcohol presence as 'harsh', and sometimes that's exactly what it is, but more often, it's the warmth and slickness of mouthfeel that they're experiencing.

Aftertaste: Lingering sweetness and a slight hop bitter, with the slight astringency and cloying sensation.

Overall: In the interests of full disclosure I've tried (and reviewed) this beer before.  I decided to revisit it for two reasons, first to provide a good test subject for this post, and secondly, to see how an extra month of aging affected the taste.  As I guessed, it's sweeter, with a diminished hop profile, but I never imagined just how much sweeter.  At this point, it almost doesn't fit the bill of an imperial ipa.

The sweetness is nearly overpowering and it affects all aspects of the beer, making it a bit of a chore to finish 12 oz.   That being said, the flavors are still bright and identifiable, it's just a different animal than it was before Memorial Day.


The Overall par tis just my catch-all for my thoughts and any peculiarities that may not hav ebeen noted/stressed in the ASTMA headings.  Finally, I give it a wholly subjective rating on a scale of 1 to 10.

And that's your review!

Look for more beer reviews in the future here, and feel free to refer back to this post if you like.

Questions, reactions, comments, denouncing chastisement?  Leave it in the comments here!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Six Species of Fly Angler

Full disclosure, this post is a spin-off (and a poor one at that) of a recent post over on Troutrageous. In this post, the author has read out a laundry list of gripes with fly fishing culture, which has led to some lively discussion in the comments section below the post.  Like a fly fishing Martin Luther, Mike has nailed his complaints to the door of fly fishing's gilded halls, and the feedback has, unsurprisingly, been lively and varied.

Going off on a tangent, I'm doing something that I'm sure has been done before, but if you've ever fished an established pattern, I don't want to hear you complain. ;)

That being said, I've boiled down the core essence of most every fly angler I've ever met, and come up with six distinct archetypes, that nearly every fly angler I've ever met will fall into one or more of them.  Many of them are one type to a tee, but more often, they're a mix of two, sometimes with a a bit of a third type thrown in.  Sometimes it may seem contradictory, but we fluff-chuckers are a contrary bunch.

So without further ado...

1. The Purist

Identification: While the presence of tweed is a dead giveaway, the purist can often be far more subtle.  While no other single feature is necessarily exclusive to the purist, look for Hardy reels, Wheatley boxes, bamboo, and brown leather.  May reek of ego.

Habits: Upstream and dry!  Poo-poohing lesser tactics and anglers.

Care & Feeding: Feed that ego.  Feign ignorance so the Purist can 'enlighten' you.  For special occasions, surprise them with some single malt or pipe tobacco.

If encountered in the wild: Purists have a large blind spot downstream.  Stay downriver, and you're safe.  

Compatible With:  The Purist generally tends to be a loner, though at times finds common ground with the Professor.

Not Compatible With: People in general, though the Extreme Angler is particularly loathsome.

Role in group: If you have a purist in your fishing group, it's likely you hang out with him for other reasons.  Maybe he brings the good booze/cigars/etc on your trips, maybe he's the only one that ties flies...but the Purist's attitude is certianly not his main selling point.

2. The Professor

Identification: The Professor can be tricky to pick out by sight, though a seine, bug net, and other 'analytic' gear may be a sign.  Starting a conversation will confirm, in which you'll hear plenty of latin, as well as terms like modulus, imago, biomass, displacement, and meniscus.

Habits: Fly fishing is a pursuit that rewards careful observation, so naturally, any good angler has a bit of professor in them.  What defines a real Professor is that this observation causes the actual fishing to take a backseat to more observation.  Often, he'll miss the woods for the trees, so to speak, worrying about why the baetis hatch "that you should be able to set your watch by" isn't happening, even as the rest of the group has long since switched to streamers and catching fish.

Care & Feeding: The Professor is fairly low maintenance.  Just be sure that he has access to plenty of bugs and water.  Also, don't mess with his stuff.

If encountered in the wild: Professors are fairly approachable, and so long as you don't doubt or disagree with their theories, you should be fine.

Compatible with: The Professor can get along with anyone that gives them space, though they often coexist best with a Gear Whore.  Often makes a good buffer between a surly Purist and the rest of a group.

Not Compatible With: The Bum, who stymies the careful deliberate nature of the Professor and yet still manages to outfish him usually.

Role in group: The Professor is a valuable addition to any group, familiar with hatches, hot flies, flow rates, appropriate gear, and special tactics of any locale, long before the group would have thought to learn these things.  That being said, as 'the nerd' of any group, they often get more than their fair share of jokes and pranks.  Groups should strive to avoid having more than one professor in their group, however, as that situation can rapidly go south.

3. Extreme Angler

Identification: Spey rod, 6" streamers with 3 hooks and ridiculous names, usually well-bearded, Drake magazine on hand.  Usually has a video camera nearby.

Habits: Exactly like regular fly fishing, except overwrought and brightly colored.  

Care & Feeding: Does not require food.  Keep well supplied with PBR, stinger hooks, SD cards, and heavy metal.

If encountered in the wild: Keep your distance.  Extreme anglers may not be openly hostile, but nonetheless can pose a hazard both to your body (with an errant cast) or your mind.

Compatible With: The Gear Whore, who is drawn in by the sight of new toys, as well as the Weekend Warrior, who doesn't know any better, and the Bum, who wants a beer.

Not Compatible With: The Purist, who lies at the opposite end of the gear, tactics, and philosophy spectrums.

Role in group: The Extreme Angler is the energy and comic relief of any group.  After a long night at the local watering hole, the Extreme Angler is either the enthusiastic impetus, up with the Professor, waking you up by dumping you out of your bed, explaining that he "doesn't get hangovers"....or, he's the one that is suffering so severely from the mother of all hangovers that he is limited to bestial grunting as his only communication for the day, and thus comic relief.

4. Gear Whore

Identification: Looks like a walking fly shop.  Nippers, hemos, zingers, spring-loaded, hydraulic assist net, reel approved for use in the zero-gee vacuum of space...all of this and more.  Away from the water, he is still usually wearing three or more pieces of brand name gear from a fly shop.

Habits: Accumulates gear like your truck floor accumulates empty coffee cups.  Usually one of two subtypes: the capitalist, who sells gear as they buy it, and thus 90% of his gear he's had less than 2 years, or the hoarder, who never sells, and has a higher number of fly rods than his age.

Care & Feeding: Asking about that rod he's fishing.  Then turn on your iPod.

If encountered in the wild: Avoid talking about gear at all costs, or defeat with overwhelming simplicity.  Fish a $40 Sci Angler starter kit with the flies that came with it.

Compatible With: The Extreme Angler, as well as the Professor.

Not Compatible With: The Purist, who insists (rightly) that 90% of that stuff is useless.

Role in group: Quartermaster.  Especially if he will sell his stuff cheap.  He's the guy that lets you try the handful of gear you may consider buying yourself, before you buy it.  And if you're patient, in a few months, you can buy it from him for half price.

5. Bum

Identification: Usually wet-wading, the Bum isn't limited to trout by any means, and unlike the stereotypical "Trout Bum", rather than heaping poetic significance on his venture, he just fishes "cause it's fun".  Check for horribly dirty vehicle, flies in ziplock bags, and warm beer.

Habits: The Bum can be found "slummin' it" wherever fish can be found.  Likewise, he can usually scrounge up everything he needs to fish within a moment's notice.  Woefully underprepared in all aspects except fishing, the Bum doesn't seem to be bothered by 10 hours of fishing without a break to eat, getting caught in a downpour with no rain jacket, or running out of 4X and being forced to use 15 pound test to toss dries to brookies.

Care & Feeding: None.  No really.  The Bum is kind of like a stray or feral pet.

If encountered in the wild: If they don't reek, approach slowly, and wave.  Bums are typically friendly, but may try to guilt you out of your granola bar.

Compatible With: As one of the few species that values simplicity and isn't bothered by solitude, the Bum can often get along with the Purist (who in return despises the Bum's heathen ways).  Likewise, the Weekend Warrior often is drawn to the Bum's simplicity.

Not Compatible With: The Professor, who obsesses over the details that the Bum doesn't even realize exist (and if he did know, he'd ignore them).

Role in a group: The Bum is usually the anchor of a group, keeping folks sane in bad times, and grounded in the good times.  Plan a trip to the coast only to have a storm blow in that week?  The Bum did some pre-trip scouting and knows a great little dive bar just down the street, with a pond out back.  Hit it just right for that trip out west and now you're getting spoiled catching cookie cutter 22" trout?  The Bum points out that any one of these fish would be a top 3 fish of the year back home...but bait for the fish you should have been catching on the coast the year before, if not for that storm...

6. Weekend Warrior

Identification: Starter kit rod, pre-assortment of flies from Wal-mart, brand new vest with fold lines visible, white felt.

Habits: The Weekend Warrior defines himself by the questions he asks (So...what are we fishing for again?) and his eternal optimism ("You said the spinners come off late, right?  Well maybe they're just waiting for sunrise..."), he doesn't have a clue, but he's happy to be out in the woods, out with the guys...just out.

Care & Feeding: The Weekend Warrior does require some babysitting, mostly because of ignorance.  Get him set up and fishing before you start.  Have flies and spare leaders ready for him, lest you become his 24 hour tech support every time he breaks off.

If encountered in the wild: If he's with a group, keep your distance and pass by.  If alone, call animal control and get him back to his family, the poor boy is clearly lost.

Compatible With: The Weekend Warrior's upbeat cheery personality will serve him well with everyone save the Purist (who will avoid him like the plague) first.  After some time, the questions and inanity will start to grate on more and more people.  Generally ends up with the laid back Bum.

Not Compatible With: The Purist, and occasionally the Professor.

Role in a Group: Here's the guy that dodged the kids and wife for the first time since the Clinton administration to get out and wet a line with his buddy or buddies.  He picked up his gear at Wal-Mart last week, and still has the plastic on his cork to prove it.he provides a bit of smug comic relief as well as a morale boost in tough times.  He's more of a liability on the water, but becomes a positive presence back at camp, the bar, or the room.
EDIT: After a bit of interaction with another blogger, I've removed a link to his blog from this post. While I don't have any ill will toward the individual, they use their blog/blogs as a platform for rhetoric which I find counter-productive to open communication, as well as manipulating content contributed by commenters in a way that I feel is disingenuous. As such, I wish to avoid any association with or implicit approval of such a publication. As my readers have seen in previous posts here, I am happy to publish and respond maturely to all non-spam comments, and I expect the same from any site I recommend. Thanks for reading, understanding, and commenting!

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