Sam Merritt became New York state’s first certified cicerone in 2009. Today, as Southern Wine & Spirits of Nevada’s director of beer education, he teaches consumers how to select, store, evaluate and truly enjoy beer. And with 150 varieties from 25 countries on offer this weekend at Vegas Seven’s third annual Desert Hops International Beer Festival, even the most battle-hardened beer drinkers are going to need a solid game plan for world beer domination. So we called on Merritt to lead the charge.
How do cicerones help us drink better?
People want credentials. If you walk into an attorney’s office there is usually a diploma on the wall. So it puts people at ease to say, “OK, there’s someone with a qualification.” But I also think that it’s not necessarily a thing you need to get the job done.
Are you allowed to have favorites?
I don’t permit myself to have favorites. I teach retailers, bartenders and servers that the opinion of the guest is really the key to guiding people, because everyone’s taste is different.
Well, I love big, dark beers and the quirky, barnyard qualities of certain Belgian beers and saisons. I also know some ladies (and men!) who adore light, fruity, sweet beers. Does our gender have anything to do with how we experience flavors?
From my experience, women can taste more. They have more ability to pick out flavors.
How can I tell if a bottle or can of beer is fresh?
Look for a ‘best before’ or ‘bottled on’ date on the label. You want a beer that is less than 90 days old. A month is really good. Seasonal items will usually be fresh. You can also ask the manager of a store’s beer section what’s moving really fast, turning over quickly. That’s always a good beer to get, because it hasn’t been on the shelf long.
Should I evaluate a beer from a glass or bottle?
Putting it into the glass exposes the top of the beer to the air, and when the bubbles pop from the foam, they release aromatics. It has so much to do with the nose. So if you’re drinking out of the bottle or can, you’re not smelling the beer first.
How do I properly evaluate a beer once it’s in the glass?
It is very important that the glass be clean. If you pour beer into the glass and there are bubbles along the sides, that means there are points of nucleation on the side—particulates. That glass isn’t totally clean, and it’s funny because you even see this in advertisements.
How does a beer’s appearance tell me what I’m about to drink?
The color of the beer—light or dark—tells us a lot about the grain malts that are used and therefore quite a bit about how it tastes. On the very light end we have golden beers, and that usually indicates some light sweetness and a kind of fresh white bread, baked bread or rising bread note. A little darker, toward caramel, you’re going to find caramel notes, toffee or a more intense bready sweetness, whether it’s honey bread or wheat bread. And if it’s very dark, you can definitely expect some smoke, and usually chocolate or coffee. What the color is not going to tell is us, however, is the strength. A pitch-black stout might look intimidating. It’s actually low in alcohol and balanced, but you sometimes have to prepare somebody for that. A lot of people are afraid to drink dark beer because they think it’s going to be strong.
The next thing I always want to do is “nose” the beer. Is there a right way?
People usually have a preferred side—one eye is better, one ear is usually better and so it goes. Take short breaths; one long draw is not as effective as a bunch of short sniffs.
How does a beer’s smell indicate what the beer will taste like?
It’s really important to understand that the smell of something and the taste of something are the same. Ninety percent of flavor perception is olfactory. Your tongue is responsible for the five main flavors—salty, sweet, bitter, sour and umami—but your nose is everything else. So if I pick up a saison and I smell some candied pineapple, that’s not a taste, that’s the nose talking. Scent is the preview of flavor.
What do I never want to smell in a beer?
Cigarette butts. [Laughs.] As with wine, there are a number of funky things you might smell in a beer that would seem offensive on their own, but in the beer they seem to fit perfectly. So all the barnyard smells—the animals, manure, hay—those are natural to some beers, your more rustic Belgian styles. The Trappist beer Orval comes to mind, because it is bottle-conditioned with a somewhat wild yeast called Brettanomyces. So barnyard would be appropriate in there. But it would be inappropriate with any lager. You also don’t want to smell antiseptic, Band-Aids or plastic. It’s really all according to style. So in a German pilsner, I don’t want to get any fruity or very few spicy notes, but in a German hefeweizen, I had better get a whole bunch [of both].
So, now the best part: How do I taste the beer? Or should I just dive in and drink it?
Luckily, drinking comes with tasting. I advise to just drink a little bit, but no less than a half an ounce. You want to have enough to coat every surface of your mouth. Swish; I also do a little “chew.” Moving it all around will give the full effect, because there aren’t only taste buds on your tongue, but also inside your gums and on your cheeks. It’s also going to give you the sensational input that you need: the feeling of the beer, how viscous it is, and how effervescent. Does it have tiny bubbles? Or very smooth nitrogen bubbles like our nitrogenized stouts? Is it really bright, or is it thick? Sometimes I wish I had more taste buds!
What does my reaction to that first taste tell me about what kind of a beer drinker I might be?
Taste is aversion and attraction. It starts very young, in the womb for all we know. It is very important to trust your own taste, because you’re so different than everyone else. The palate is a fingerprint. There are three things about beer that are important to everyone: how strong it is or isn’t, how dark or light, and how bitter or sweet. With those three things, we can get a really good idea about where your palate is and where you want to go. Just don’t pigeonhole yourself. There is so much out there.
We’re going to be presented with a lot of beer this weekend at the festival. How should I devise my plan of attack?
If you’re going to taste a few different types of beer, go from low intensity to high. Just as the appetizer is usually less complicated than the entrée, so is the order of beer tasting. It just takes a little bit of knowledge to find out where they fall. Start with your eyes: “Those look like some light beers, but I don’t know the alcohol content. That one looks cloudy; it’s probably wheat, so I’m gonna go there first.” Then I’m going to go to my medium browns. I’m going to save my darker browns. You can be certain that with Mexico—if you try the Pacifico, Victoria, Corona—those are going to be delicate enough to start with. Then I might end with Belgium; they’re the strongest of the beers that we carry, and a lot of the time the most intense. Another ending note might be some of the strong American IPAs.
Are beer festivals only for the very knowledgeable?
They’re for everyone. I would much rather have people who don’t know anything about beer showing up to festivals, because I think it’s much more about discovery.
So I’m on the gluten-free wagon right now. Should I just give my ticket away, or will there be something here for me to enjoy?
There will be a beautiful Spanish beer, Estrella Daura, which is really well made and very well-balanced. It tastes like a beer, which is very difficult to do with gluten-free. We also have quite a few beautiful ciders: Samuel Smith organic cider from England and Rekorderlig cider from Sweden, as well as Ace from California and Strongbow from England. You could just drink cider and get a really good flavor experience.
How can I use this festival to broaden my beer horizons?
There will be representatives from the importers there, and also most of the people working the tables are Southern Wine & Spirits people whom I’ve trained. So just ask and you should be showered with information, or at the very least pointed in the right direction. I will also be there, so come find me and I will definitely take you through some beers!
Finally, they say beer is the most democratic of all adult beverages. Agree?
Absolutely, and I’m really trying hard to keep it so. Beer elitism should be squashed at every turn. Unfortunately, when there is a product that sometimes needs a little bit of knowledge to be enjoyed, people take advantage and use that knowledge to make themselves feel better and make other people feel not so good about themselves. There is really no such thing as a bad beer, and no such thing as a good beer—the best beer is the beer you like. No one should be judging anyone. If someone wants to drink beer out of their shoe, let them. Of course, if they want a beautiful imported beer glass, they should be able to have that, too.
Sam Merritt talks about Seven‘s Beer Issue on 97.1 the Point. Listen to the broadcast below.