Smell & Context


Ah, parenthood.  It’s an olfactory smorgasbord, right?  Last Saturday was a big reminder for me, as the family & I were on our way back home after grocery shopping.  I don’t know if it was the winding route, or if breakfast was a little too rich, but the little guy’s belly couldn’t take any more & he launched pretty good all over the car seat & himself.  After stripping him down & wiping the child seat off to where it was usable, we continued home to bathe the boy & give the rest of the works a good hosing down. 

My wife took the kiddo inside, which left it to me to unload the groceries & take care of the vomit detail.  Leaning over a barfed-on car seat in a hot garage, you can imagine what the smell was like.  After I go it a whiffs, though, & got over my reflex nausea, it took me somewhere else.  I realized that the smell was not unlike that of a famous local cheese counter.  The deep, funky smell of organic by-products, so repulsive where I was at that moment, could be, in a different context, really delicious & inviting.

It made me think of how many times I’ve smelled something in the context of beer that was pleasant – even delicious – that also sounds disgusting on paper, or in its original context.  How many times I’ve had to qualify a descriptor with “not-in-a-bad-way”.  The big one for a lot of folks is cat urine, that pungent, ammoniacal smell that makes you reel from a litter box, or a Craigslist loveseat.  In a dank IPA, it’s pretty tasty & supports the pine, citrus, & tropical notes very well.  But there’s just no other word for it – “catty” gets thrown around a lot as a light euphemism.  It actually has a chemical identifier (p-methane-8-thiol-3-one). 

Similarly, how often have you caught hints of sulfur, skunk, or even rotting vegetables in a pilsner or pale lager?  It's not uncommon for European-style beers to carry these kind of notes, such that some consumers even demand it.  Folks got used to these smells in imported lagers, packaged in green bottles, & without it they just weren't the same (so I hear).

Evil Twin’s Soft DK, a vanilla stout, was actually born of the joys of new parenthood.  Jeppe, the Bjergso bro behind Evil Twin, had fathered his first & was changing a diaper when he caught a buttery, vanilla-like aroma.  Voila – Soft Dookie (its original name)!  The beer’s very tasty, but can be a little challenging if drank with its origin story - & accompany inspiration – floating around in your head.

The world of sour & wild beers really opens up this experience – think of all the funky, organic smells created by wild yeast & bacteria.  A wild ale can yield notes of mushroom, sauerkraut, musky sweat, barnyard, enteric smells – there’s so much possibility.  On some level, it’s because they are actually fermented with similar organisms, the way that Limburger cheese emulates armpit because it contains the same bacteria that causes B.O.  In real life, in their “natural habitats”, these odors repel us - & for good reason.  Amid the background of a complex, earthy beer, with other balancing factors, they can add to the depth & richness of flavor, heightening the experience. 

I still can’t say that a vomit-flavored beer appeals to me (though I’ve tried a few of my own creation that have come close), or that I look for notes of sewage when I bring the glass to my nose.  But these gross-on-paper facets are just one more piece of what makes beer cool & can give it character.  So many things go into making a good beer more than the sum of its parts, even if they aren’t always pretty in &  of themselves.
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