Beer Tasting: Ruminations on an Unscientific Adventure in the Realm of Local Brewing

First published in Valley Homes and Style.

20160424_beer-55By Tim and Pam Lettie

We set off to write about beer breweries – a hot trend in the food industry – but wanted to find a way to talk about the beer in a meaningful way. While we have eight decades of beer drinking experience, we like dramatically different types of beer and wanted more input. For help, we enlisted four of our friends in a semi-random taste test.

We purchased two bottles of light-colored beers from each of three Purcellville breweries –  Adroit Theory, Corcoran and Belly Love – for a total of six bottles.

This wasn’t meant to be scientific to the point of definitively pointing at a beer and pronouncing “yeah – that’s the one – it’s the best.”  After our experience, some of the beer world’s alleged objective rankings of fair, good, better, best now seem rather suspicious. Our biggest strength was our willingness to talk trash and make our taste differences known.

We tried White Noise and Angel’s Trumpet from Adroit Theory, Three-Nine and Blue Ghost from Corcoran, and Narcissist and Shut the Fook Up from Belly Love.

The favorite of almost everyone in our group was the Three-Nine. The runners up ranked as follows: White Noise, Angel’s Trumpet, Narcissist.

Two beers that did not make our coveted “best of” lists were Blue Ghost and Shut the Fook Up. We were definitely drawn in by the catchy names.

On our journey into beer tasting, we were surprised by three things:

  • the difficulty in describing the taste of beer
  • the factors that influenced taste, and
  • the differences in perceived taste within our group

Describing Beer

Wine tasting begs a kind of professional seriousness. We gaze across expansive vineyards, in tasting rooms that are cathedrals for the gods of grapes, and wax philosophic about life and the hints of oak barrel aging in our last sip.  

Beer drinking by contrast is in darkened pubs or cellars devoid of distracting spiritual atmosphere. These surroundings encourage us to speak in raised voices and gulp, chug and slosh our beers and lower the level of discourse. While wine itself takes center stage, beer is usually content to sit in the wings and act to enhance a mood, but not create it. Few proposals are finished with a toast of lager.

We don’t always bear down on how we taste beer. Fortunately, there are a number of online guides for beer tasting. Scholars have written about how language affects the way we think. For a starting vocabulary for our beer tasting, we printed lists of adjectives used to describe beer – a beer tasting crutch.

The Three-Nine was well liked by our group. We used words like bright, light, mild, fresh, citrus; we made notes about it being best on a warm summer’s day. Perhaps because the hints of flavor or aroma were more muted, no one limited it as a beer with a certain type of food.

By contrast, some of the IPAs had the characteristic hoppy taste that lingers and were tagged with peppery, minty, lingering and lemony.  Given the boldness of their flavor footprint our informal review group paired these with Indian, Thai and just generally spicy meals.   

It was insightful to hear a friend’s descriptions and then go back for a 2nd or 3rd taste to discover that those taste experiences were available to us, if we would just dig a little deeper.  Flavors like earthy and mushroom sometimes did not form at first, but came in the after-taste; some of what makes beer is that lingering flavor on the palette. While we expect much from wine in smell, taste, and that flavor left on the palate, we can get that from beer too if we are open to it.

Factors to Influence Taste

Speaking of smell, the olfactory experience was fascinating. We experimented with holding our noses and denying the taste participation of smell. Unexpectedly, the taste of beer is dramatically colored by smell. So, that lifted glass, held for a split second below our noses, is not just a kind of window-dressing to set-up the taste experience. It IS the taste experience.

Also influencing taste is the appearance of the beer, both in the bottle and our glass. Bottle labels are the brewer’s first path to our tongue. We start expecting something based on what we see. If a bottle promoted mango – then we tasted mango. Likewise, labels with weird Picasso-inspired women braced us for something different. Even a beer’s actual appearance as turbid or milky could steer us away from adjectives like clean and mild and set up expectations for bold and lingering.

We generally kept away from our mobile phones during our tasting, not wanting to color our experience, until we discovered the Narcissist described as a “helles” beer. A quick look-up revealed comparisons to Oktoberfest beers, to be imbibed in German beer gardens. The prescribed description resulted in shared visions of festive gatherings and of a beer less bold and capable of a longer afternoon full of simple pleasures.

Differences in Perceived Taste

One person’s bold flavor is another man person’s objectionable flavor – described in terms of yeasty or bitter. While we shared some common views, some of the bitters (the hops content of the IPAs for example) served to divide us. These differences were tough to predict. To everyone’s surprise, one of our tasters emptied a-beer-that-shall-not-be-named onto the lawn. The rest of the group was shocked that she wouldn’t just pour the brew into another person’s glass; she said it was just too bitter. Others liked it just fine.

In looking at these local brew pub options we came across some very different beers and some very different ways to present these beers. In our entertaining and eating out we are entering a world of choice and variety and quickly exiting our world of consistent expectations.  We seek out nuance and the new experience. Our local brewers offer us easy access to a much desired world of taste and adventure.

 Pam and her husband, Tim, travel throughout the Valley looking for their favorite restaurants, and are happy to share their finds with you. If you have a suggestion for a review, please email tplettie@visuallink.com.


Planning a Beer Tour

Beer brewing is just coming into its own. The atmosphere of the breweries is more casual than that of wineries, but a comfortable and relaxed environment is a common theme among the breweries on our very partial listing. We only managed to visit a few of the many wonderful small breweries in our area. Check their websites for special events, hours, tours and tastings. Many have trivia nights, deals on growlers, and live music offerings to draw in a larger clientele.


Belly Love

725 E. Main St.

Purcellville, VA 20132

540-441-3159

http://www.bellylovebrewing.com

20160424_beer-41For a small town, Purcellville has a booming brewery business. We visited three of the breweries at least twice to get a feel for the different times and crowds. Belly Love has a small outdoor space that welcomes dogs; our yellow lab was treated to a bowl of water while we sipped our brew. Inside, the large dining room with brick walls is centered around a large L-shaped bar. With the most extensive food offerings of the Purcellville breweries we visited, they were hopping on Friday night; even on a Saturday afternoon, many of the tables were full. On the menu, the brewers wings were our favorite tasty treat. Nice and glazed with a sweet-hot flavor.


Adroit Theory

404 Browning Ct. Unit C

Purcellville, VA 20132

703-722-3144

http://www.adroit-theory.com

20160424_beer-28The most industrial of the breweries, Adroit Theory is tricky to find, since it’s hidden around back of a prefab office building with its patio jutting into a parking lot filled with Mack trucks. None of that was a deterrent for those in search of a beer, however. On the Friday night we visited, there were a mere handful of guests, but on a warm Saturday afternoon, it was hopping. There was a busload of drinkers, every table inside and out was full, and the energy was infectious. Adroit Theory touts its barrel aging as its claim to fame. They don’t prepare food, but have some prepackaged options, occasional food trucks, local delivery pizza or bring-your-own food. Each beer sample is sold separately in 3 oz. portions.


Corcoran

205 Hirst Rd.

Purcellville, VA 20132

540-441-3102

http://www.corcoranbrewing.com

Around the back of different professional building is Corcoran Brewing Co., a partner business to Corcoran Vineyards. The tasting room feels like a pub: dark walls, tabletops sitting on barrels, free popcorn and games to play while you sip. The patio has wrought-iron furniture and green carpet, but nearby picnic tables back up to a secluded wooded area. Pizza and pretzels are the only foods available for sale – fine as snacks if you want to nibble while enjoying a brew. Beer samples are sold in flights of five. You write your choices on a piece of paper that you get back with your samples – a nice way to help you keep track of your selections. The Irish Red was our favorite on the evening we visited.


Starr Hill

5391 Three Notched Road

Crozet, VA 22932

434-823-5671

http://www.starrhill.com

We first visited the Starr Hill Brewery shortly after it moved to its current location in the former ConAgra plant in Crozet. The owner personally gave us a tour of the brewing facility. How times have changed! Starr Hill has an extensive tasting room, food trucks, live music and a thriving business.


Backroom Brewery at Sunflower Cottage

150 Ridgemont Rd

Middletown, VA 22645

540-869-8482

http://www.backroombreweryva.com

The Backroom Brewery has a nice, but limited selection of food. We’ve tried the turkey reuben (good), the bratwurst (also good), the triple tapenade (great for sharing) and the portobello flatbread and the soft pretzel (can’t go wrong with this). The venue at the Sunflower Cottage Herb Farm makes the outdoor seating particularly relaxing with pastoral views across the fields. Many of the beers are flavored with basil or chili pepper or cilantro, etc., to give different taste combinations.


Roy Pitz

140 N Third St

Chambersburg, PA 17201

717-496-8753

http://www.roypitz.com

With an extensive menu, this Pennsylvania brewing company is worth a visit. We only went once about a year ago, but we are ready to go back!


Flying Dog Brewery

4607 Wedgewood Blvd.

Frederick, MD 21703

301-694-7899

http://flyingdogbrewery.com/

The Flying Dog is our aspirational brewery. Their website says that beer cheese and pretzels are the main food offerings, but aren’t put off by the limited choice. Their beers are sold throughout our region, and we like them.

 

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