I (Re)Tried It: Belgian Strong Ales Blind Tasting

At the beginning of this year, I posted about doing a Belgian Strong Ales blind tasting as part of my Advanced Cicerone studies. Here I am, 10 months later, re-studying for the Advanced Cicerone exam, the retake of which is a terrifyingly close 6 weeks away.

Some days, I feel like my palate has vastly improved since the first time I took the exam, but other days, not so much. Luckily, the not so much days are getting fewer and fewer, although learning is an ongoing process, so I hope to never experience the day when I think I've learned it all about beer (obvs I will not have). 

As I've mentioned before, my biggest roadblock in sensory training is getting my brain to STFU and rely instead on my senses and my sensory memories. I'm getting much better at saying out loud what I'm tasting or smelling instead of double guessing myself and/or waiting for someone else to say what I'm tasting or smelling first and then agreeing with them.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in Self-Reliance: To-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.

Maybe a bit heady for a blog post about blind tasting beers, but true nonetheless.

I've also mentioned before that it is important to describe your sensory experiences not only in acceptable beer descriptors, such as bready or stonefruit, but also in terms that are personal to you. For example, oxidation sometimes smells and tastes like old library books to me and any Guinness beer always has a faint spearmint flavor, which I've described as tasting like someone spit chewed up gum into my beer.

chewing-gum-2153922_1920.jpg

The first time I tried a Belgian Strong Ale tasting, I sampled the following beers:

  1. Leffe Blond Ale (Belgian Blond Ale)
  2. Affligem Blond (Belgian Blond Ale)
  3. Duvel (Belgian Golden Strong)
  4. North Coast Pranqster (Belgian Golden Strong)
  5. Chimay Cinq Cents (Belgian Tripel)
  6. St. Bernardus Tripel (Belgian Tripel)
  7. New Belgium Tripel (Belgian Tripel)

This time, I couldn't quite duplicate the above list but I got pretty close:

  1. Leffe Blond Ale (Belgian Blond Ale)
  2. Brunehaut Blond (Belgian Blond Ale)
  3. Duvel (Belgian Golden Strong)
  4. North Coast Pranqster (Belgian Golden Strong)
  5. St. Bernardus Tripel (Belgian Tripel)
  6. New Belgium Tripel (Belgian Tripel)

For reasons unknown, I could not find a bottle of Affligem or Chimay Cinq Cents, so I substituted Brunehaut for Affligem and decided to keep it to two of each style. 

Belgian Ales Bottles.jpg

The results of this tasting were light years better - out of six samples, I correctly identified four, only mixing up a Golden Strong with a Belgian Blond (Duvel and Brunehaut, respectively). I also correctly specified Leffe Blond, St. Bernardus Tripel, and New Belgium Tripel, which was pretty cool.

 September notes

September notes

I hadn't looked over my notes from my previous Belgian Strong Ale prior to this tasting, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that I described Leffe almost exactly the same both times, including notes on it smelling like damp earth, grainy malt, and mint. The mintiness I pick up in Leffe is not the same as the mintiness I get from Guinness, as it is almost medicinal in Leffe and spearmint in Guinness. However, it seems to be something specific to which I am sensitive, because both times I've said I pick up mintiness, it surprises my husband, who doesn't pick up the same notes.

 January notes

January notes

I'm not sure what the compound is in Leffe that I associate with mint, so one day I'll do some digging and see if I can identify it. In the meantime, retrying this tasting panel was very validating for the improvement I've perceived in my palate as well as the importance of describing beers in sensory terms that are personal to you and not just the commonly accepted sensory descriptions.