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“I’ll be the first to admit that it’s totally a gimmick!” says author Justin Kennedy. “But it’s also a fun way to learn about beer.

Mike Pomranz
January 29, 2018

Justin Kennedy is a serious beer writer. He has contributed to publications like Bloomberg, Lucky Peach and BeerAdvocate Magazine, and produces the podcasts "Steal This Beer" and "Beer Sessions Radio" on the Heritage Radio Network. He’s an ever-present figure on the New York City beer scene. (Full disclosure: I’ve had a beer with him myself on more than one occasion.) He even holds a master's degree in Food Studies from New York University. And yet, for his first book, he decided to take a not-so-serious approach.

Released late last month, The Scratch & Sniff Guide to Beer: A Beer Lover’s Companion is literally what it purports to be: a 160-page tome that also includes sniffable spots to help guide your nose in understanding the aromas of beer. Other unique features include its own “Brewdoku” puzzle and a handful of quizzes to sharpen your memory. Oh, and it’s also packed with a wide scope of incredible info about beer regardless of your experience level.

After seeing such an unorthodox approach to the craft beer book, we decided to speak with Kennedy to quiz him on the ins-and-outs of his project…

F&W: Why a scratch and sniff book?

J.K.: Anyone like me who grew up in the ‘80s remembers scratch and sniff books and stickers and wallpaper and greeting cards. These were ubiquitous. So it’s a recognizable if admittedly nostalgic format that hopefully conjures warm and fuzzy memories but on a subject that we probably didn’t enjoy as kids: beer.

F&W: Some people might consider the idea just a gimmick. Sell them on why this style of book is actually a good way to learn about beer?

JK: I’ll be the first to admit that it’s totally a gimmick! But it’s also a fun way to learn about beer because beer aromas are a 100-percent integral to beer flavors. Ever tried tasting a beer (or anything for that matter) while holding your nose? Doesn’t work so well. And of course, the technology to do a “scratch and sip” book isn’t readily available, so this is the next best thing.

I do hope it encourages people to begin sniffing more in general, though. Pick up and smell the produce every time you go to the grocery store. Sniff rocks and soil and plants while you’re out on a walk. Whatever it takes to get those olfactory senses routinely alert and stimulated. Sniffing will make you a better taster overall which will enhance your experience with food, beer, wine – what have you.

F&W: Were there any challenges in crafting the scratch and sniff portion of the book? Seems like turning the complexity of beer into a bunch of stickers might be a bit tricky!

J.K.: Rather than trying to recreate the overall aroma of a particular beer, we took an easier route with the stickers and scented them with singular, easily identifiable fruits, vegetables, spices, and plants whose aromas are inherent to the corresponding beers (e.g., banana and clove aromas to illustrate Belgian witbiers). When you’re tasting beer, being able to identify these kinds of flavors goes a long way towards communicating what you’re experiencing. And hopefully it will make readers more confident in their tasting abilities.

And yeah, technically there were other challenges with the scratch and sniff stickers. Not the least of which was making them aromatic enough to overcome the smell of the printed page. In fact, the book’s publication date was pushed back a couple months because of that!

F&W: Are there scents you would have liked to include in the book but that couldn’t (or shouldn’t) be turned into sticker form??

J.K.: For a long time, I was stuck on how we could include something Brett-y and funky in the book without repulsing the reader. I love some mousiness in certain styles and something like “wet horse blanket” or “toe jam” would’ve been super fun to include. Alas, those aromas weren’t easy to recreate at the scent factory and in the end, lusher, agreeable scents made it into the book. That’s probably for the best.

F&W: Beyond the stickers, in general, the book is more light-hearted than other beer books. What made you take that approach?

J.K.: I think it would have been a mistake to write a “serious” beer book with a theme like “Scratch & Sniff.” From the start, and throughout the entirety of the project, we knew this was going to be a light-hearted, fun book with many whimsical components (sections on shower beers and aging beer in your closet, for instance). It just made sense given the angle we were taking.  

That said, I don’t think it’s a trivial beer book. I have plenty of strong, thoroughly considered opinions about things like glassware, food pairings, and beer cellaring in there. I tried to not dumb-down those sections while simultaneously keeping them breezy and approachable.

F&W: The book is a great companion for experience beer drinkers, but it’s also a great introduction for novices. Kind of random question: If someone has never drank a beer before, what would be the first beer you recommend they drink?

J.K.: That’s a hard question. I would start by asking what they enjoy food- and flavor-wise and use that as a springboard for recommending a beer. Nowadays, the beer flavor spectrum is so utterly broad that there’s a beer out there for everyone—even if you think you don’t like the taste of “beer.”