Beer has really come into its own in the last several decades, at least in the US. Once considered the daily drink of the poor man who could not afford wine, beer is now viewed as a serious equal to wine, in terms of flavor, quality, variety, and culture. It is unfortunate that many people view wine tastings, and now beer tastings, as something pretentious or snobby, a sort of bluffing one’s way through flavor descriptions so complicated and outrageous that the common man feels left out. That is simply not the case.
The reason that so many people love wine and beer is because of the complex, broad flavor profile (and, of course, the intoxicating effects). And one does not have to be an expert, or a snob, to appreciate these great flavor profiles. Perhaps one of the aspects of wine and beer tasting that turns off some people, is the types of descriptors used. For example, if a wine taster declares that the wine bares a nose of melted plastic, burnt toast and deck shoes worn without socks, would not anyone be a little suspicious?
Well, the problem is that, for so long, people have tried to put into words the delicate, complex, and subtle smells and flavors that they can detect in beer and wine. Ann C. Noble, former professor at UC Davis, thought so, and so she developed the wine aroma wheel, which scientifically, methodically, and categorically organizes all possible aromas of wine. There is also a wine flavor wheel and a wine mouthfeel wheel.
As for beer, there are a few attempts at a flavor wheel. It is debatable as to which is the most reliable, as beer connoisseurship is a new field compared to that of wine. Most beer flavor wheels are very similar, and are developed by experts on chemistry and brewing. Most of them divide all possible beer flavors into twelve broad categories: fruity, herbaceous or vegetative, nutty, caramel, woody, earthy, chemical, pungent, oxidized, microbiological, floral, and spicy. Some beer wheels also contain mouthfeel and aroma categories. Each of these main categories is divided into two levels of sub-categories. The number of possibly flavors detected is astounding and specific in description, with terms like black olives and green olives being descriptive and recognizable.
Because beer as a noble gastronomical pursuit is still in its infancy in the US and in most of the West, there is no one, single beer flavor wheel that is accepted as the industry standard, but I am sure that that will change in the future, as more and more experts narrow down the aromas, flavors, and phytochemicals in beer that produce such vivid sensations.
There are two things about the beer flavor wheel (in all its manifestations) that I believe are very important. First, its existence shows that people are beginning to take veer seriously, especially in the US, a country where — let’s face it — traditional beer has been mass-produced, watery junk. Second, it helps to introduce novices to the world of beer and wine, and the pleasure and joy associated with both. I am confident that, as beer connoisseurship continues to grow around the world, beer will earn its place alongside wine as a drink for the ages.