Sniff It!

It’s probably the most distinctive sign of the beverage geek: the attentive sniff.

When you see someone taking a long sniff of a beverage (say, a cup of coffee, a pint of beer, or even a glass of milk), you just know that this person is an avid enthusiast of the sensory exploration that drinking can be. Of course, that person may also be wondering about some strange odour coming from that drink. But even that may be a step in the direction of beverage hedonism.  If the sniffer also looks intently at the beverage and takes a long time to concentrate on every sip, you know this person is a true geek. If that person also takes notes or even listens to the beverage, the geek meter should go off the charts.

Sure, much of it sounds really funny. And there’s often social pressure against this type of enjoyment, especially in cultural contexts linked with Calvinism or Puritanism.  Yet, there’s a lot to be said about experiencing a good beverage.

One thing is the sheer pleasure of the experience. Concentrating on a beverage can be as pleasant as almost any other thing in life. Smelling a good coffee can evoke so much, partly because of the relationship between smell and memory. In my mind, these memories then merge to become the basis for new memories. Pleasing experiences connect with one another to serve as a backdrop for a pleasant existence.

A related point is the fact that, when you really concentrate on a drink, you’re not just consuming it: you’re involving yourself in an experience. For the utilitarians among us, there’s a clear economic advantage to this type of experience. By concentrating on a beverage, you get more out of that beverage than when you simply drink it. As they say in the U.S., “more bang for the buck.”

Imbibing to a beverage’s fullest potential is also a learning experience.  Even without developing formal expertise on a beverage, paying attention to that beverage’s characteristic has effects on perception. These are related to the point about memory but, more specifically, there’s a type of “sensory knowledge” one can get from paying attention to a beverage.

Then there’s the “relaxation” aspect. Taking the time to “smell the roses” has a direct effect on decreasing stress levels. Enjoying a beverage for its own sake is like walking in a park, especially if it didn’t become an obligation. You take the time to sniff your drink because you can. Freedom!

When you concentrate on a beverage, you learn to respect it. Which means that you’re unlikely to overindulge in that beverage. And while drinking too much milk has relatively few negative impacts on lactose-tolerant people, chemical compounds like caffeine and alcohol tend to have unwanted effects when they are present in high concentrations in someone’s blood. And even without those compounds, the caloric content of drinks is an important factor in imbalanced diets. In the case of beer, both dimensions are relevant to consider. Those who concentrate on beer’s aromas and flavours are much less likely to get drunk on beer than those who drink it simply to “get a buzz.” And, though “beer bellies” are common among beer drinkers, it’s easier to control your caloric intake from beer if you already pay attention to the beer itself.

Though the sensory experience is individual (and, therefore, subjective), there’s a social dimension to paying attention to a drink’s aromas and flavours. Sharing a beverage with someone is one of the most common ways to socialise. Sharing about a beverage is a way to enhance both the social experience and the beverage experience itself.

Much of what I’m saying here would also work with food. In fact, I thought about posting this entry while eating some sole with herbed butter I had made for myself. But there seems to me to be something specific about drinks. Though I haven’t read it, Standage’s History of the World in Six Glasses seems to contain much insight about this specificity. Personally, I tend to think of the social character of drinks in relation to the fact that beverages are often drank because of the enjoyment which can be derive from them instead of being consumed for their nutritive properties. While a liquid meal is certainly possible, some of the most important drinks in human history are low in “nutritional value” and contribute fairly little to a balanced diet. Coffee, one of the most traded commodities in the world, is a good example of this. By itself, coffee has almost no caloric content despite being chemically complex. In other words, coffee has something close to water’s nutritional value but it’s also one of the most elaborate food items we ingest. All aroma and taste, no nutrient. Liquid incense?

Of course, coffee has caffeine and caffeine is usually defined as a drug. It certainly fits my own simplistic definition of a drug as any substance which is ingested mainly for non-nutritional reasons. Most drinks correspond to that simple definition and so do all medications, candies, and tobacco. Thus defined, drugs have social significance beyond nutrition.

Beer and other alcoholic drinks are known as “social lubricants” as they help decrease some inhibitions and generate sensations which are compatible with social communion. The late Alan Eames was convinced that the effects of alcohol remained important even among those beverage enthusiasts who claim not to care about it. Without beer’s alcohol content, it is unlikely that it would have maintained it’s popularity. Interesting to note that among the six “glasses” described by Standage, three contain alcohol while the three others contain caffeine (beer, wine, spirits, tea, coffee, colas).

As I think about all these factors, I’m reminded of the late Michael Jackson, The Beer Hunter. Jackson’s career as a beer writer certainly inspired a large number of people to not only sniff beer but to conceive beer as part of life. It’s only fitting that I should join other beverage geeks to toast Michael Jackson, a true model for beverage enthusiasm.

About enkerli

French-speaking ethnographer, homeroaster, anthropologist, musician, coffee enthusiast. View all posts by enkerli

6 responses to “Sniff It!

  • First Myriade Session « Disparate

    […] front of me, with as few preset expectations as possible. It’s all part of my attitude toward hedonistic tasting (e.g. in my tasting notes about Cuvée Coffee Roasters’ Sumatra beans as […]

  • enkerli

    Stephen,

    That’s a good strategy. Our sense of smell isn’t as acute or accurate as that of dogs but it’s usually a good to spot spoilt food or beverages. My point here, though, is to fight against the presumption that smells are mostly good and bad. Recently a café owner and friend of mine reminded me of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille’s approach to odours in Süskind’s Perfume. Grenouille was looking for a variety of olfactory experiences and didn’t simply just smells as foul or pleasant. In my frequent discussions of artist and engineer approaches to beer brewing connect with this notion. The stereotypical artist is mostly about experience, regardless of absolute standards. The stereotypical engineer is mostly about perfection (the absolute standard), and will even see variety of experience as a form of inconsistency, something she tries to avoid.
    As for your sense of smell, I’m sure you could do more with it than you give yourself credit for. Even if it’s not that acute, you can probably use it to immerse yourself in a beverage.

    Thanks a lot for your comment!

  • Stephen Downes

    I just sniff it to make sure it hasn’t gone bad. My sense of smell isn’t very acute, and so have to be extra attentive for bad or spoiled food.

  • enkerli

    Sylvain,
    Merci pour ton commentaire et ton compliment!
    Bien d’accord avec toi pour le contexte. J’en parle d’ailleurs assez souvent. Mais, cette fois-ci, je pensais plus à l’aspect sensoriel «pur». C’est pas une question de boire ce qu’il y a de mieux, c’est d’apprécier ce qu’on a devant soi.
    Côté bière, je m’étais dit que j’allais t’en parler à PodMtl 3.0 mais j’ai pas pu y aller. Disons qu’on est de plus en plus chanceux à Montréal, côté bière et café. D’ailleurs, j’ai un billet sur les bières de Dieu du ciel, sur un de mes autres blogues.

  • Sylvain Grand'Maison

    You’ve got a good post here. You know I like to enjoy a good beer, or a good wine. Sometimes the words come short to express all the experience we’re having because I think most of our enjoyment comes from the state of mind we’re in at that moment. Good friends, a nice meal, a beautiful sky, being outside, etc. Those beverages would sure not taste the same if we’re in a bad mood. At least, our perception of it would not be the same.

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