Have you ever found yourself taking a deep breath when you smelled something wonderful just to take more of it in? Not only does this smell make you smile, but it conjures up memories and emotions, even images in your mind’s eye. That, my friends, is the magic of your Limbic System! Aromas are processed instinctively and unconsciously by the brain and can elicit potent psychological responses. Part of the joy of drinking beer comes not only from the taste, but the aroma as well. We learn to associate certain smells with various experiences, some of which are pleasurable. Is it any wonder that we begin to feel happy the moment the aroma of a freshly poured beer hits our senses? That’s what I call beer aroma-therapy.
Our sense of smell is incredibly complex; much more so than our sense of taste. In fact, it is the most powerful of all our senses. Airborne aroma molecules enter the nostrils and come in contact with olfactory neurons. Those located in the upper nasal cavity, the ortho-nasal receptors, are mostly instruments of analysis. The retro-nasal receptors, located in the back of the throat and in the canal between the nose and the mouth, are more responsible for flavor, and are linked to our concepts of familiarity and preference. Humans have around 1,000 different receptor types that can detect 10,000 different smells. Each aroma arouses a particular set of neurons, each with a specific intensity. Like the keys on piano, a smell plays its own specific chord within our sense of smell and sends a signal to the brain. That signal travels to several parts of the brain including those that store memories, regulate emotion, control appetite, and manage basic bodily functions.
How your brain interprets those signals is another story. Sometimes what we smell alerts us to danger, but other times it denotes a safe, pleasant situation. Like the fact that we’re about to enjoy a fresh glass of craft beer! To be fully enjoyed, beer should be poured out of its bottle or can and into a glass whenever possible. As an art form, beer is greatly enhanced by its aroma. If positive emotions or memories are triggered during the experience, a greater affinity for the beer can be achieved. We can be transported to another time and place.
One summer, when I was on my annual road trip to Washington State to see the Dave Matthews band at the Gorge, I went to a local grocery store in Wenatchee to stock up on beer. I happened upon a gem of an IPA called Topcutter by Bale Breaker Brewing which is located in Yakima Valley, the heart of hop country. When I drank it, I knew it was something special. The fruity, citrus, floral hops smelled and tasted like they were fresh off the farm. I thought of all the rows of hop crops I’d passed along my drive. Since then, when I’ve had the pleasure of drinking that beer, from the first smell, I’m immediately brought back to that time and place. I’m hanging out with good friends, and listening to great music in a remote and beautiful place among the orchards, wineries, and hop farms.
Beer can have many odors going on at the same time. When you take that whiff, you could be picking up on the malted barley (caramel, nutty, chocolate), the hops (citrus, floral, piney, herbal), or even the yeast (fruity esters, banana, barnyard) used to brew the beer. One element may stand out more than others. The most difficult thing is interpreting what we smell. It takes concentration and a lot of practice (my favorite part). Ever smell something familiar, but can’t quite put a name to it? Close your eyes and allow your mind to go on a little journey. See what memories or pictures come into your mind as you inhale. The more you can put yourself in that place, the better chance you’ll have of identifying the aroma. Call it beer meditation. “Om.”
Of course, the point of meditation is to quiet your mind and just be. Be in the moment. Be there with your glass of beer, the aroma rising up off the foam and into your body. Did you have a tough day? It doesn’t matter. Not anymore. You are officially on vacation, at least for this moment. You are enjoying a little beer aroma-therapy.