As craft beer and other artisan food and beverage industries reckon with their lack of diversity and seek to court new demographics, this posture of reciprocal learning and the empathy and curiosity that go with it can serve as an invitation.
By David Nilsen
My wife, Melinda, grew up in a split-level ranch house in a forgotten suburb south of Chicago. She went to college in the Windy City’s cavernous downtown streets and worked in the city’s Gold Coast for years before moving to the small town in Ohio where I’ve lived for most of my life.
The landscape she grew up with was one of steel and glass canyons reaching for the clouds, the wind off the cold water wending its way up those steep valleys like evening fog in the mountains. Natural life was found in the oases of urban parks, curated gardens, and manicured medians. The waves of Lake Michigan spoke much of wildness, but an austere wildness, not one lush and verdant with growth.
I grew up in farm-houses among the crops and copses of western Ohio, where the field grass can rise as high and swift as any flood and the morning glories spread across it like paint spilled on a table-top. I grew up the son of an itinerant preacher in perpetual search of a church, and we landed in this forgotten corner of the Midwest when I was eight years old after he’d tired of his quest. The fields here are interrupted by small towns that haven’t so much seen better days as heard of them, caught a glimpse of them passing through like the trains that no longer do.
As much as I’ve chased the world’s literature and art and culinary gifts around the map, my sensory encyclopedia is cracked along the spine on the page marked Ohio in all its ramshackle glory, its well-weathered Rust Belt hallelujahs echoing plaintively through the lonely, midnight howl of truck tires on distant highways.
This is a story about beer. Well, not really. It’s about being from a place, and the way place colors in the corners of one’s sensory vocabulary, leaving swathes of it blank while festooning others in vibrant hues. It’s about childhood memories and our emotional connections to smells and flavors. And it starts not in Ohio but in a storied beer bar on a quiet side street of Bruges, Belgium.
Bruges was one of the trade capitals of medieval Europe, a hub of the far-reaching Hanseatic League that dominated commerce across northern Europe for centuries. The city saw its peak long before the first Europeans planted flags in North America, and has since settled into relative anonymity on the world stage, an impossibly lovely little cobblestoned jewel nestled among the canals of west Flanders. Belgium is a wonderland of traditional beer styles, and Melinda and I have visited the country a couple times in our quest for a deeper understanding of this historical drink.
Years ago, we were sitting in the Brugs Beertje—The Little Bruges Bear—a legendary beer bar on an out-of-the-way side street. In classic Flemish tradition, the bar is cozy and warm and just a touch disheveled, like some middle-aged lover tousled its hair one fine morning and it just never combed it back down. We were tasting through bottles of Oude Gueuze, a complex sour ale style that’s been brewed around Brussels for a couple hundred years.
The unusual methods of inoculation and resulting fermentation used in the production of this style and the extended period of time it spends in oak barrels before being blended and bottled lead to a dazzlingly complex flavor profile, and I find the more complex a beverage is, the more our own descriptions serve as something of a map of our own past sensory experiences. That sensory map in my own head led me to images and words from my childhood growing up in the rural Midwest.
Notes of fall Jonagold apple and sweet hay melted over the initially quiet but assertive underlying funkiness. Faint cedar, wet stone, even diesel emerged, and the image that began to form was one of high grass fields at the cusp of autumn, the September sun on the leaves of unkempt apple trees, a low rock wall separating orchard from pasture. The smells of the farm drifted in on the light breeze—horse, barn, exhaust, hay—but they were comforting in their place, not offensive.
We both loved these beers, but there was one problem we realized as we tasted and discussed them together—growing up in Chicago, Melinda had never smelled or tasted half of those agrarian notes I just listed, and because so much of the standard sensory lexicon for beer has been canonized by white dudes who want to believe they’re in touch with the land (whether they are or not), this Eurocentric, white Midwestern vocabulary for beer description is…kind of the only one that’s been offered.
There are aromas and flavors we are so intimately familiar with we assume they are universal. We begin weaving the fabric of our sensory vocabulary the moment we’re born, and some of those threads are so integral to that creation we forget we ever learned them in the first place.
Our personal sensory vocabularies are shaped by where and when we grew up, the places we’ve lived, the racial, cultural, and religious groups we’re a part of, and even our socio-economic backgrounds. My wife spent nearly thirty years in a major metropolis. The sweet smell of hay and the comforting funk of a horse blanket that were so familiar to me were foreign scents to her. Our sensory catalogs aren’t fixed though, and we can choose to expand them.
So, when we got back from Belgium, we decided to take a field trip to the county fair.
The Great Darke County Fair bills itself as the largest county fair in the country, which it almost certainly is not (how do you measure that?), but no one has yet sent them a cease and desist on that claim in the fair’s 164-year history. Our county shuts down every August for fair week, and while we generally only go for one night to eat our body weights in deep-fried food, on this particular year we decided to go on a different kind of culinary mission—Melinda wanted context for the agrarian words so often used to describe the flavors of her favorite historical beer styles.
We walked into the dim, dusty halls of the horse barns so she could smell an actual horse blanket. We went into the agricultural display halls so she could smell alfalfa hay, raw barley, dried tobacco. We strolled the livestock barns so she could pick up that delightful descriptor we euphemistically call “barnyard.” She learned the difference between the earthiness of diesel fumes and the headiness of gas exhaust. Not, perhaps, aromas that we would typically think of as positive descriptors, but the worlds of fine food and drink can lead us down curious sensory paths.
And curiosity is the key. To expand our sensory vocabularies, we have to be like children turning over rocks in the woods. Our chemical senses of smell and taste are intimately intertwined with our perception of memory and emotion, and accessing a child-like curiosity puts our memories and emotions in a position to be shaped by new experiences. Every trip out of the house can be a new sensory field trip.
Since our trip to the county fair, we’ve both paid more attention when presented with opportunities to expand our vocabularies for smell and taste. A trip to the plant nursery in the spring is the chance to break “floral” down into rose, lily, snowball viburnum. A nature walk is the chance to acquire the memory of forest floor, black walnut, moss. An errand to the market brings a plethora of new spice and fruit aromas. It only requires curiosity and the willingness to say yes to new experiences.
While our agrarian county has a rich cultural heritage, that heritage comes from primarily European origins. The county is racially and ethnically quite homogenous (97.1% white as of the 2020 census). While a rural childhood gave me access to agricultural and pastoral aromas I might have missed otherwise, there are a host of sensory experiences from other cultures I had to acquire as an adult, and countless more I have yet to learn. Recognizing this can expand our vocabularies—and our hearts and minds—yet further.
The woven textile of the world’s aromas and flavors stretches far out of our sight, and we hold only a corner of it. When we taste our favorite indulgences—wine, beer, coffee, chocolate, cheese, bourbon, etc.—with people from backgrounds different from our own and discuss our experiences, impressions, and memories together, we open to each other a whole new set of sensory descriptions and their associated emotional evocations. We fill in the gaps in each other’s sensory catalogs and create a bigger crayon box of sensory colors with which to color our future culinary experiences. And we gain new personal and cultural understanding as well.
Food and drink have long been held as bridges between people of different racial, ethnic, cultural, geographical, or religious backgrounds, reflecting a sharing of tradition and hospitality. When we bring a conscious discussion of sensory experiences to the tasting process in that setting, we open empathic doors that allow us to see flavor through the eyes of someone with a different set of memories, and we are better able to hear and feel their stories.
As craft beer and other artisan food and beverage industries reckon with their lack of diversity and seek to court new demographics, this posture of reciprocal learning and the empathy and curiosity that go with it can serve as an invitation. Dr. J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham is the founder of Crafted for All, a beverage consultancy that helps craft beverage companies with diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. She sees this opportunity for exchange as one of the keys to welcoming people of non-European backgrounds into the craft beverage fold.
“On one hand you have this way language can be deployed that’s very gatekeeping. It can shut folks out,” she explains. “And on the other hand, it can be this really interesting way to reach people. As much as there is a kind of exclusivity to that language it can just as easily be flipped on its side and made into a really engaging invitation. People often walk up to a permeable barrier with a lot of excitement and a willingness to give and to take. If we were more invested in finding these points of exchange, I think we’d be more welcoming.”
I spent the first few years of my life in northern Indiana in a trailer park that gave tangible incarnation to the abstract phrase “The Rust Belt.” I was borderline feral, often wandering all day as a young child, getting into scrapes I’m still sometimes surprised I ever got out of. For all the emotional and relational baggage I’m still dealing with from childhood, that freedom to wander within the natural world left me with sensory memories that still come back at the strangest times. The reek of duckweed on the surface of a swamp, the plaintive desperation of a train horn late at night, the way woodsmoke on a soaking November evening speaks of longing more than anything else I can think of.
My sister, Shan, and I don’t often get the chance to talk about the way those sensory memories call out to both of us, but occasionally one of us will say or write something that immediately stirs something in the other, and we’ll reach out together across the years to our strange, shared childhood.
On a recent bleak winter day, she posted on Instagram a photo taken in a cemetery, the twilight drizzle blurring car lights in the distance, with a caption I understood in my bones.
“Marveling at the connections made inside of me by the wet scent of hickory in the air on my evening ramble… Marveling at the deep, deep water I drink from, the rush of the river.”
A flood of scents came back to me as I read that, the memory of wandering home from god knows where along broken pavement, that rich scent hanging in the evening air promising a comfort that was just out of reach. It got me thinking about how many of my primal sensory memories involved the wood and trees of the rotting rural Midwest.
The wind rushing through the high pines and birches along the shores of Lake Superior when we would camp there, my small frame riding the sway of the wind in the upper branches of a maple tree, the feel of the harsh bark of neglected apples trees we would climb in an abandoned orchard to shake free windfall apples so our mom could make applesauce, the bitter reek of black walnut skins, that heart call of hickory smoke, the way the warmth of wood smoke turned hostile when the chimney of our wood burning stove caught fire and melted the picture frames down our walls, nearly burning down the entire trailer while my sister and I were home alone. I was mostly just excited the fire trucks were for me for once.
Melinda and I said goodbye to 2022 and toasted the new year at midnight on December 31 this year with a bottle of Scratch Brewing’s Single Tree: Hickory, a sour farmhouse ale made with foraged hickory nuts, hulls, leaves, and toasted bark. The bright tartness that announces the beer diminishes slowly to reveal warm, rich hickory wood and leaves. The acidity recedes to the shaded undergrowth and haloes the beckoning warmth of the underlying wood. I’m forty years old. These flavors are in my bones, in the deepest crevices of my brain. I can’t think of a better way to have greeted 2023 than with such a primal provocation.
Right now, I’m drinking a farmhouse ale made with locally foraged pawpaw fruit. It’s tart and weird, with notes of banana and pineapple flitting over a bed of minerality and forest undergrowth. It brings to mind the woods I wandered aimlessly as a child long before “free range parenting” was a buzz term, and also, surprisingly, the candy I might have been sucking on while I did so. It might remind you of something completely different—a place I’ve never seen, and fruits or spices or elements I’ve never experienced.
It might make both of us think of home. We won’t know till we taste it together, eyes and ears open to each other’s stories.
David Nilsen is an Advanced Cicerone© and a North American Guild of Beer Writers member. He’s the host of Bean to Barstool, a podcast looking at the intersections of craft beer and craft chocolate, and the co-editor of Final Gravity, a zine telling immersive, personal stories from the world of beer. He lives near Dayton, Ohio, with his wife, daughter, and irritable cat.