“It’s… er… nice?” Do you like tasting drinks but get completely stuck when you have to talk about it? Have you ever been asked by a guest to help choose between two wines, and then been unable to offer anything more useful than, “Well, I like this one.”
This week I’ve been writing a new Level 1 course on Tasting & Describing Drinks, which is a simpler and more generalized introduction to the more detailed (and already written) Level 2 course on Tasting & Recommending Wine. The new Level 1 course now includes an introduction to tasting and analysing beer and white spirits too, and when it’s finished, will also have a lesson on dark spirits.
The big idea with this course is to actually explain to staff what they are tasting when they take a sip of wine, beer or spirit. It was born out of two observations:
It seems that the world (especially the wine world) wants to answer that second question with highly detailed and carefully worded instructions for taking a sip out of a glass. It’s as if no one ever worked out how to drink liquids before, and needed to be told exactly how to pick up a glass and what to do with it when it gets close to your face. And just when you’ve finished the 500-word explanation of nosing, taking a small sip, moving around your mouth, then spitting out, the article ends. These pieces should be called “How to put 20mls of liquid inside your mouth carefully and with a serious face on”, not “how to taste”.
What we wanted to do instead was help beverage service teams analyse what it was they were tasting in that glass of wine – the flavours, the aromas, the character – and then be able to arrange those observations into a coherent and simple description that customers would in turn be able to understand. And we wanted to create methodologies that even staff who weren’t experts would be able to adopt easily.
These systems are going to make describing taste in wine, beer and spirits much easier for staff
At this point I will hold my hands up and thank the internet, actually. There is a lot of great discussion and explanation about different taste qualities in wine, beer and spirits online, and these helped confirm and organize the vocabulary I already had for talking about each of these beverage categories. However, what was still mostly missing was a system to arrange these words and concepts within, that would guide less experienced tasters and help get their heads round the beautiful but huge sensorial explosion that happens when you first take a sip.
What we have devised is a triangular diagram that describes taste by looking at three key taste qualities present in all wine, beer or aged spirits (after a bit of head-scratching I realised the system didn’t work for white spirits – read the lesson to find out how we handle these instead). Although the diagram is the same, the three qualities are actually different across wine, beer and aged spirit: wine is sweetness, acidity and dryness; beer has sweetness, bitterness and fruitiness; and aged spirits are described by primary flavour, alcohol and wood.
Next, the diagram represents the concept of opposites – or balancing – flavours. Each quality is positioned at one of the triangle’s points, and each quality is balanced by the two qualities opposite. Here’s the one for wine:
The simple idea is that anyone tasting a wine can use the diagram to understand the relationship between acidity and sweetness, and then also understand how both those might be balanced (or softened) by dryness. And in the particular context of wine, we use the further concept of fruit flavours to explain exactly how acidity and sweetness are expressed.
We’re pretty confident that these systems are going to make understanding and describing taste in wine, beer and spirits and much easier for staff. And it’s exactly this kind of practical knowledge that will help waitstaff, bartenders or retail teams do their job: confidently and helpfully meet the service expectations of your customers.
Yes, there are much more detailed explanations of taste in all beverage categories available, especially if you read books or talk to experts – and their explanations might reveal shortcomings in our very basic approach. But will their explanations help staff who don’t have much of a grounding in wine, beer or spirits already? We don’t think so. All the same, we’d love to get feedback from sommeliers, whisky experts, beer geeks so we can improve our methodologies – and of course feedback from staff once they’ve taken these lessons.
The Level 2 wine course is up already. Level 1 course will be available from next week. If you already train on Small Batch learning, managers can add the content through their training library. If you don’t, click here to set up your free training account – yes, this content is 100% free. So, no more hesitating and nervously telling a guest asking about wine that you’ll “go get the manager”. Happy sipping, describing and hopefully, sometime in the near future, recommending to customers!