Friends, Romans, countrymen: Lend me your ears. And beers. I have a serious proposition, one that I’ve been meaning to put down in writing for months: Let’s collectively agree to stop using “hoppy” and “malty” as beer descriptors.
Those words tell drinkers nothing, and it’s lazy not to reach for more precise flavor descriptors. When writers (and breweries, who often use these words on packaging) label a beer “hoppy,” that could mean anything from bitter to dank to grassy to floral to citrusy. Different varieties of hops impart a huge range of flavors, just as malts do. Doesn’t it make more sense to tell readers that this “malty” beer offers aromas of toasted biscuit, bread crust or honey? Then we can actually begin to imagine the taste of the beer we’re about to enjoy.
This isn’t about snobbery. We don’t need to write tasting notes like we have poetry MFAs. But it is about precision. Yesterday’s New York Times piece in praise of the American lager (hear, hear!) was an enjoyable read until I dug into the tasting notes on the panel’s 10 recommended lagers. The author, Eric Asimov, one of my favorite wine writers, enchants with his wine descriptions: a young Nebbiolo’s “rippling acidity,” the “honeysuckle, mint and chamomile” notes of an exemplary Vouvray. But he describes the lauded Great Lakes Dortmunder Lager as “pale amber, lightly bitter, with lively flavors of malt and hops.”
Flavors of malts and hops. It’s the equivalent of writing that a wine tastes of grapes, or that bourbon displays fermented grain notes. Of Ninkasi’s Venn Dortmund-style lager: “Golden, aromas of malt and hops, balanced and refreshingly bitter.” I’m left wondering if there’s any difference between the Great Lakes and Ninkasi lagers, or even what characterizes a Dortmunder lager.
This isn’t to pick on Asimov or his panel. Now is the time for mainstream, non-beer publications to write about beer with the same care, attention and seriousness that they afford food, wine and other beverages. But if beer is to earn the respect—and the place at the table—that it deserves, our collective vocabulary needs to lead that charge.