Ellie is 24 months old and has been to 22 breweries. She likes sitting on bar stools and playing with coasters and pouring from the help-yourself water jugs some spots offer. At home, when I open the fridge to get her a snack, she points to the bottom shelf and says to no one in particular, “Thas’ daddo’s beer.” Sometimes, when I’m drinking from a can and she’s sucking her sippy cup, she asks me to “cheers” her and we clink our respective vessels. She has snatched my Other Half tulip off the coffee table when I’m not paying attention, but, luckily, she has never drank from it.
Through it all, she has, oddly, improved my beer-drinking palate.
You wouldn’t think having a child would improve your drinking life in any way. Yeah, you might start drinking more—how else to handle the interminable stress?—but surely you’d expect to have less time to go to bars, go to breweries, acquire cool beers and enjoy them in an intellectual way. Indeed, when Ellie was born two years ago, I quickly found those things to be true, true, true, and true. Rather, it’s the newfound simplicity of raising a small child, with their bland cuisine, which has unexpectedly helped me on the beer-tasting front.
Ellie is currently obsessed with raisins. They’re the first thing on her mind when she wakes up in the morning. “I can have ra-ins?” she asks the second I open the door and flick on the lights at 6:30AM. I give her a tiny matchbox-sized Sun-Maid and she extracts individuals raisins with her tiny fingers. Because she’s a toddler, she’ll often drop one accidentally. My floors are clean enough, but you can’t give a kid food off the floor and I’m often too lazy to go throw them away, so I eat them myself. The first time I did this, I probably hadn’t tasted a raisin in 30 years. I mean, I had tasted raisins in, say, trail mix or carrot cake, but I’m not sure I had eaten a singular raisin by itself in some 30 years. That’s key.
That afternoon I happened to be conducting a blind tasting of Belgian trappist beers. Now any experienced beer drinker can quickly offer some tasting notes for Belgian dubbels, tripels, and quads, without even having one in front of them. “Dark fruits” is often a common descriptor. In other words, figs and dates and prunes and, yes, raisins. But, again, how often do you ever actually taste those individual fruits to actually have a strong sense of what they truly taste like?
In a way, when we’re saying this Belgian quad tastes like, oh I don’t know, medjool dates, we’re referencing a flavor that we referred to as medjool dates the last time we tasted a Belgian quad. Not because we’ve tasted an unadulterated medjool date any time recently. But now I taste raisins every day—and at that Belgian beer tasting, the flavors of raisins were just exploding on my palate and in my mind. Gritty and sweet Thompson raisins, tangy Black Corinth raisins and even light, fruity golden raisins. I suddenly felt a heightened ability to taste, to describe my palate, all thanks to Ellie and her boring diet.
Ellie also pops blueberries as a snack (“I wan’ boo-bewries.”) which mean, yes, I eat them too. Now, whenever I have a IPA with Mosaic hops, the aroma of blueberries hits me right in the face—I had never noticed it before. Ellie eats bananas sliced into little discs. An estery saison now seems like banana juice to me. Ellie eats terrible, nearly-flavorless water crackers. I pop a German pilsner at 5 p.m. and can’t get over how damn cracker-y the malt bill is.
Whereas adults eat meals that are cooked and combined in interesting ways, ways that are greater than the sum of the parts, melding ingredients together so many of them aren’t even recognizable, children eat the raw building blocks, the simplest foods prepared the most simply. And now, so do I.
Think about all the ways we discuss the flavors of beer: Smells like ripe pears, tastes like stone fruit, I get tropical notes from the hops. Then think how many 25-year-old haze bros are ever eating slices of pear or peaches or mangos all by themselves. I’d encourage you to start; not just for shrinking your beer belly, but for your palate too.
Alas, Ellie’s palate is maturing, though, and her desire to eat interesting things that adults eat has intensified. I worry my superhero sense of smell and taste may soon return to normal. Last Saturday, at the bagel store, she ignored her dry, whole wheat bagel she has long loved. The one that, if I took a bite or two, reminded me of a hefeweizen with it’s doughy, slightly yeasty profile. Instead, she focused on my sandwich—an everything bagel with scallion cream cheese, loaded with raw onions, tomatoes, capers and lox. She pointed at the bright pink lox.
“Was’ dat?” she asked.
“That’s called lox,” I told her.
“I can have wox?” she asked.
I hesitated, but gave her a small sliver of the smoked fish. She loved it.
And with that, my palate training may be finished. I don’t even think Mikkeller has a lox beer in their portfolio.