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Edge Brewing and the Challenges of Describing Flavor

Craft beer appeals to the human appetite for the unrepeatable experience. I think we're hard-coded from birth to seek an adventure that belongs only to us. I yearn for the certainty that no one else knows anything about my hole-in-the-wall pub. I want the one where I recognize the whole staff, and they're surprised when I order something new. And I never order something new. I like being the lone adventurer who finds the cool spot, and then only I have the power to bring outsiders there. And then I get to be the cool person who found the unique experience. I get to live in the confidence that even if other people find it, I found it first, and that experience bears no repeating.

The Great Irony in Human Nature Is the Perverse Joy of Having the Story.

I want these unrepeatable experiences. I hold them in me like secrets. But the main reason I want them is because I want to tell a story about them later.

That's the main thing we want from experiences, isn't it? We want something to tell our friends about later. We want to fill ourselves with experiences so that we can paint poor verbal pictures of them later. We want to tell a story about them that's just descriptive enough to whet the appetites of people listening. Because we always finish our stories with the same phrase, don't we? We always say, "It was great--you should go."

We're all pitching what we like. In doing that, we're admitting to the inadequacy of the pitch if it's considered next to the experience. The best possible result of any story is if the people listening to it make a decision about it.

For example...

Language, an Audible Medium, Is Fundamentally Deficient in Its Capacity to Describe Flavor.

A menu of any kind only serves its function if it creates a sense of opportunity. A menu should work like a psychic window. I pick it up, and it gives me a branching view of all the possible futures of my upcoming gustatory delight.

Because what is a menu fundamentally? A menu is a stack of stories as deep as a restaurant. They're all supposed to be about how much pleasure you'll have in the next hour.

But they don't work. Most menus are forgettable soap operas of impenetrable ingredients lists. They have too many restrictions. They need to list ingredients, and they need to say what everything's called. But that doesn't tell you anything about the experience of eating any of it. Pomme Dauphinoise sounds classy, but it doesn't tell you anything about the flavor until you learn it's cheesy potatoes. Then all of a sudden it sounds nice to eat, but you've undermined your attempt to create a sense of high-culture and Frenchiness. It might sound pleasant to eat, but the tone has been completely sabotaged.

A writer of menus struggles with THAT. The accurate words may not be evocative. The evocative words are off-tone. And the tonally correct words might mean the wrong things or literally nothing at all.

It's a struggle that suddenly matters an awful lot for the flavor mongers of the world. I've heard there's a global event on.

Edge Brewing and the Art of the Unrepeatable Experience

Edge Brewing is hidden in a nondescript building in the Poble Nou district of the city of Barcelona. A wandering adventure who's looking for it might find a vendor of the unrepeatable experience. Edge Brewing is helping to bring Spain by inches onto the map of relevant places for the beer tourist to visit. Established by two people from the homeland of hipstery beers (the U.S.A.). They employ a captive brew master from the other homeland of turning a pint of lager into a food group (the U.K.). Edge Brewing arrived in Spain almost a decade ago. Since then, they've been attempting the sort of obvious, really. They've been making good beer for the Spanish.

It's Not Such a Hard Sell, Really.

Beer isn't the oldest alcohol in the world. Wine probably deserves that notoriety. But beer's a close second. There's a lot of reasons why it's been around that long even after the invention of brandy.

Edge Brewing has been around for nearly a decade. The formative figures there have been encouraging beer culture ever since. They cooperate to help run beer festivals like MASH, and they supply restaurants all over Europe.

Edge Brewing is carrying on the oldest tradition of beer making in Europe, in fact. I learned this from their captive brew master, Robin. There's an archeological dig in the Catalonian area with the right sort of clay pots and things.

The Museum Eggheads Think It's the Earliest Evidence in Europe of Beer Making.

It's true.

It's such an interesting idea to me. I live in Colorado, practically down the hill from the Coors facility in Golden. I've watched a craft beer revolution happening in the shadow of a generic giant. Living within smelling distance of a global behemoth's root system gives beer culture around here a rebellious terroir. Thirty years ago, there were next to no craft breweries in Colorado. Now there are over a hundred fifty. Now, we take it for granted, you see. We take it for granted that there are as many options for unique beers as a man could ask for in a lifetime.

At the same time, every pint pulled has that aftertaste of partaking in a cultural revolution. We live in Coors country, and every time we drink something other than Coors we're voting for individual freedoms.

Or for an unrepeatable experience, anyway. Because that's the experience of a craft beer. The beer I'm drinking today is impossible to find almost anywhere else. That's a powerful experience.

It really makes it hard to create menus though. The whole point of a craft beer is it's not like anything else you can experience. If that's the case, then how are you supposed to describe it to anyone? I mean, Molson Coors produces at least 62.96 million hectoliters of beer globally. I don't even know how to visualize that much liquid. It's smaller than an ocean, but it's bigger than The Great Salt Lake in Utah.

I'm a Poor Scientist.

I do know that means that everyone alive in the world has had an opportunity to try some Coors. Lots of people have had Coors.

So lots of people know what beer tastes like, right?

But you can't just write a whole menu full of the word "beer."

Imagine it.

"Our Extra Special Bitter is made of water, grain, and yeast, and it tastes like beer, but you can see through it."
"Our Pilsner is made of water, grain, and yeast, and it tastes like beer, but you can REALLY see through it."
"Our Stout is made of water, grain, and yeast, and it tastes like beer, but you can't really see through it at all."

It just doesn't work. It gets back to what I had to say at the beginning there: language is fundamentally deficient when it tries to describe flavor.

There Are a Few Ready-Made Terms.

You might say it's bitter. That's a good one.

But what kind of bitter? Like orange peel? Or like fish oil? Or like broccoli (but only for some people)? It gets difficult.

Or you can borrow from other experiences. You might use words like "floral" or "tropical," which don't technically describe flavor, but they evoke attitude. A floral bitterness. That's approaching something compelling that I might make a decision about. Sort of sounds artistic, but in a manly way. I can get behind that.

The real trouble is with the audience. The real trouble is with all of you picky people, clamoring to be satisfied. Because those of us on this side of the keyboard trying to describe things for you don't know the obscure sensory memory you've developed. You know which one. The one that turns the word "floral" into a trigger of half-remembered emotional trauma. We can't know that. We just do the best we can. We didn't realize we're poisoning the extra special bitter for you because you just don't like the word floral.

All This Is to Say, We Need to Practice a Little Empathy

If we're trying to choose things we can neither smell, see, nor taste. We've entered an epoch in our lives when, for the present at least, it's imperative we're open-minded about ordering food and drink remotely. Universal satisfaction depends on it.

Like, try this one:

Delicate spiciness (clove), a light floral character, and the aromatics of soft fruit, are the markers of one of our best-selling beers, which is on tap at some of the city’s best eateries.

The hell does that mean? Delicate spiciness? I always associate spiciness with a burning sensation. How does something burn delicately? Like incense or something? And the aromatics of soft fruit. What, like kiwis and mangoes? So it tastes like incense and mangoes? The hell is that?

Here's another one:

Strong, reliable and always looking out for you. Brewed with a variety of malts to create a special blend of roasted flavors. Hop flavors are subtle, but present enough to provide proper porter refreshment.

Okay, I'm not sure I like the idea of a beer that's looking out for me. That's like all those killjoy whiskey commercials that end with the phrase, "Drink responsibly." If I wanted to be mothered, I wouldn't be asking my beer to do it for me.

Or this one:

This righteous brew pours mahogany brown with ruby red hints. A persistent off-white head projects a complex aroma of dark fruits with hints of caramel. Flavors of dried prunes, raisins, cherries, nuts and caramel that finish soft. Harmoniously balanced.

That's an awful lot of different colors. Last I checked, I was buying beer, not getting ready to recreate my favorite Jackson Pollock painting. And there's a bunch of fruit again. Dark fruit and caramel? The darkest fruit I can think of, off the top of my head, is prunes. Okay, that's in the next sentence of the description. It doesn't comfort me. I think prunes would be pretty awful in the same mouthful with caramel. My teeth would curl in on themselves.

And I'd probably order all of these beers. That's the truth. Because I know the struggle it is. It's a struggle to describe anything to make it sound exciting and sensible and flavorful. It's especially hard if you need to describe it so that it DOESN'T sound exactly like every other beer.

Because No Beer Tastes the Same As Any Other, but It All Tastes Like Beer.

That's kind of the point.

Like every other craft brewery in the world, they're unlike any other craft brewery in the world. Every one of their beers tastes wonderfully unlike any other beer in the world. Which I can say with confidence even though I've never had any of them. I can say it because that is the nature of craft beers. They are the pinnacle of the unrepeatable experience. Like live music, like all the best stories, like anything that ends with, "you had to be there." Craft beer is a lived-out love letter to individuality.

That Means That, to Be Honest, Every Single Description of Their Beers Should Be, "Just Like Beer, but a Little Different."

Which would sell nothing. Which means they need to fight with language to create mind pictures of that most tangible of intangibles: taste. And language, she's an unforgiving mistress.

If you live within sniffing distance of Edge Brewing, you have a unique opportunity. You have the chance to get in on the early years of a cultural revolution. Edge Brewing is one of the older and more solid craft breweries in Barcelona. They're setting a tone, and believe me when I tell you they're starting a trend. In a few years, you won't be able to turn the corner without tripping over some new mustachioed hipster. Some bearded wonder who's come up with some brilliant variation on the IPA that's never been seen before. (It's been seen before.) And that is not a bad thing.

It does mean you'll start to be experts in sympathizing with the plight of the writers of menus. You'll understand them better. You'll see all the possible ways of writing the little stories made to attract you to tonight's preferred flavor of unrepeatable experience.

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