Roaming in aroma

Mark Dredge is bored of the same smells.


I’m bored of the same smells. 

I miss the smells of somewhere else and the way the air of a place has its own aromatic fingerprint. Fig leaves and a salty breeze of a Greek island. Rome’s hot smell of frying garlic and the cool damp of thousand-year-old stone. Smoke, aniseed, incense, and humid over-ripe fruit in Hanoi. Cinnamon and coffee in an American gas station. Meaty broth and a vinegar tang in a Bavarian beer hall. 

When we breathe in, volatile aromatic compounds are sucked through the olfactory bulb and sent to the limbic system in the brain. For all of our lives, the limbic system has been recording every sense memory, including aroma, taste and how it made us feel, into an infinite library of experiences, and whenever we smell something our brain searches back through all the stored information tied to that aroma and invokes involuntary memories and emotions.

Smell is uniquely individual and we all have certain smells which are specifically evocative to us: cold mud makes me shudder to think of playing rugby in school, while dewy mowed grass makes me miss playing cricket; mosquito spray makes me think of Angkor Wat; wood-burning fires is the energising smell of cold runs past canal boats in east London; the mineral smell of cold pebbles and sea water is immediately calming to me. 

Food and drink are especially nostalgic because of how inseparable they are to sense-experience, memory and emotion. Grilling sausages makes me think of campsites; frying doughnuts is the smell of English seaside towns; curry powder makes me think of cheese on toast, a combo my dad occasionally made; cheap cider has me heaving, while the smell of Bramley apples reminds me of the tree in my parents’ garden, and of mum’s homemade pies, crumbles, and a steaming bowl of stewed fruit with melting vanilla ice cream. 

For years I’ve regularly given my limbic system a lot of new stuff to document, but recently it’s been unstimulated and under-used, becoming over-familiar with the same old smells and static with ennui. Without being able to travel to stretch my olfactory muscles, I needed something to exercise that part of my brain, and it was beer which was able to – literally – rejuvenate my senses. 

There were beers which were obvious and impactful in their aromas, and others which teased me with their subtlety, with their fruits and spices and elusive somethings which I tried to figure out. I sat back and I took the time to think and focus, to open a notebook and write. Some beers engaged me, some challenged me, some were great and others were bad, some bugged me as my pencil tap-tap-tapped the paper, with smells, flavours and memories all swirling together as I tried to withdraw the right memory from the limbic library and scan my flavour dictionary to put the right words to it. There was papaya, peach skins, preserved lemon, pomelo and fermenting pineapple, verbena or lemongrass (or maybe it was kefir lime), cream soda and a Solero, pear schnapps and Pedro Ximénez, paracetamol and cough syrup, frangipane, floral honey, marmalade, black tea, soy sauce, fruit salad sweets, Bounty bars and rich tea biscuits. 

Then came a succession of beers which brought back visceral memories which were moving physically, emotionally and biographically, transporting me off my sofa and far away. 

I opened a Weihenstephaner Hefe Weissbier – banana, vanilla and clove-infused custard, a little zing of citrus and peppery spice – and I was in their beer hall and the air was heavy with gravy and roasting meats. And then I was in the garden outside, with wasps and chestnut trees and a cool wind carrying the sweet wort smell of the brewery a few metres away. I’ve drunk there a dozen times and I’m almost always disgustingly hungover until this beer revives me, and with that bottle at home I felt similarly rejuvenated.  

West Coast Double IPAs came next with a vivid memory of entering San Francisco’s most famous dive bar and yelling the words ‘Pint of Pliny, please’ over the blasting rock music. The thrill of that simple moment was electrified by the beer and its unforgettable aroma of sweet, tangy and bitter citrus fruits, which jolted back to me in my kitchen, and then soon merged with other memories, coming as a cascading collage of Californian beer experiences: San Diego sunsets with Societe’s The Pupil, American pool and pints of Racer 5, fish tacos with Stone IPA, a road trip with my dad, pizza by the ocean, the view from Alcatraz. 

Then it was a classic Munich lager which brought the beer garden in spring: fresh pretzels, fresh air, blossom, grass. I could somehow hear the distinct sound of glasses pushed together with a ‘prost,’ the belly laughs of old men, and the giggles of kids running around, and I could smell whole fish grilling on sticks. I remembered the first time I went to Munich with my girlfriend; that time I wore lederhosen in the beer garden; the time we got soaked trying to shelter from a storm; that special tingling feeling which comes halfway through your first litre of lager. 

I was bored of the same smells. I was craving new experiences, new sounds and tastes and feelings, and when I couldn’t get them in real life, it was beer which re-engaged my senses while also bringing back old memories. I wonder if one day I’ll open a beer and be reminded of the unforgettable summer of 2020… 

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