Goose Island Clybourn’s “Beer Academy”

Just after Black Friday, I wrote a long post with some substantial tasting notes about beer. I enjoyed writing it, but I also thought I came off as a bit of a beer wanker. Interestingly, my friend Jen wrote a comment demanding I go taste more things and write about them. Apparently she liked the commentary. Given her demands, I thought maybe I’d share a bit about how I learned to taste beers and write ’em up like that.

I learned to taste by trying a ton of beers. I learned to talk about taste and understand what I am (was) tasting by trying to hit every single Beer Academy Goose Island Clybourn has put on for the last two years. I have not, in fact, managed to attend all of them. But I’m close. I suspect that of 21 beer academies since I discovered Beer Academy, I’ve probably attended 15. And, if you are interested in beer, especially learning more about how to taste beer, I strongly recommend you meet me there sometime! Maybe tomorrow!

Since I’m going to be attending again tomorrow, I thought I’d give a run down of how it works.

In effect, it starts out seeming like a casual paid beer tasting. Attendees hand over $20 (in advance) for a seat in Beer Academy. Each month has a different beer “theme” or style. For example, “Belgians” is usually the theme in March, but April is “Experimental Beers”. Once you get to Beer Academy, you get a packet of paper listing 8 – 15 beers you’ll be tasting that evening, with plenty of room for notes about each.

There’s four empty glasses on the table, some water for rinsing glasses out and some pub chips for snacking on if necessary. There is also, of course, a dump bucket for any beer you don’t want to drink or for rinsing your glasses into. Then, the first beer hits the table, and there’s no further resemblance to a casual beer tasting or flight.

First of all, there’s only one beer under discussion at any time. It takes a bit of time to pass out a beer, so there’s usually a moment or two to sniff your beer, look at color, whatever you want to do. But don’t drink it all before Jared, Goose Island Clybourn’s brewmaster, starts talking! Because Jared’s questions are most of what makes this an actually educational experience.

Jared asks a lot of questions, typically, but there are three he always asks. Every time, for every beer:

# What does this beer smell like?
# What does this beer taste like?

# What food would you pair this beer with?

It turns out that it’s really easy to quickly decide whether you like a beer or not. In fact, Jared sometimes asks the group if we like a beer or not. It’s a lot less easy to say why. And, occasionally, it’s downright HARD to describe a beer. Stopping to consider what, literally, a beer smells or tastes like really improves your ability to understand what you do and don’t like in beer. Plus, it can be fun! Or even mind-bending, such as when I sniffed a beer last month and realized it smelled like cheddar cheese and cranberries.

To be clear, answers to the first two questions such as “fruity” don’t cut it for Jared. Neither, for the third question, do answers like, “dessert” or “veggies.” Jared makes you dig down and answer, “What kind of fruit?” “What kind of dessert?” “Which veggies?” And it’s in these sorts of answers that the education happens.

It turns out? These questions are awesome, because if you’re willing to consider them, you can often answer them even for a beer (or beer style) you absolutely hate. Take IPAs, for example. As a class, I can’t stand them. I’m not a big fan of big bitter flavors. Still, when “Hop Dominance” came around in July, I was able to keep up with the group in describing what I was smelling and tasting, and what foods might go well with a damn beer. I even ended up in something of a bet with Jared that I could turn one particularly hoppy beer into yummy food. I’m pretty close.

I think that trying the “nasty” stuff is a huge part of where you learn this stuff, because you aren’t lulled into a sense of, “I love it” with no more thought. The first sip of something is easy. It’s taking the third or fourth sip to analyze something you find unpalatable that’s hard. But once you have the analytic process down, it’s easily applicable to the delicious stuff!

This is all what happens when Jared runs beer academy, which is most of the time. Occasionally, one of the other brewers runs Beer Academy, and the questions are often different, but no less interesting (at least to me). It’s fascinating to hear what the other brewers consider important to discuss, to ask about and to touch on. Sometimes, they simply tell you what they smell or taste, which can be helpful for calibrating your own nose or taste buds, especially in the beginning.

So, if you’re in Chicago, free tomorrow night (or the last Wednesday of January, or so on), and interested in furthering your beer education, I strongly suggest checking out Beer Academy. I actually just called Goose Island Clybourn about Beer Academy, and it turns out this month (Holiday Beers) is not sold out yet.

2 thoughts on “Goose Island Clybourn’s “Beer Academy”

  1. I think something like Beer Academy would help me pin down what it is I like and don’t like about various beers. I’ve learned a lot about wine through wine tastings with the guidance of helpful and knowledgeable tasting staff at vineyards, and I can now talk about it in more complex terms than “this one’s good”. I’m still nowhere near being able to smell strawberries or leather in the glass, but I’m closer than I was before. As you say, it’s a matter of practice, and a having someone there to give you the vocabulary you need while you calibrate your nose and palate. I’ll try and time my Chicago trip (it’ll happen, mark my words!) around a Beer Academy night so I can get my learnin’ on.

    • Almost always the last Wednesday of the month! But you have to let me know you’re coming by the first. What kinds of beers do you typically like?

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