The Art of Tasting Beer
I imagine you need no instruction on drinking beer. Happily slurping fresh pints at a favorite hangout is a joy that takes little practice to perform with confidence. After my own first half-dozen beers, I had it cold. But appreciating beer means understanding its complexities. You will need to develop a palate that is guided by solid information and honed by practice. You are going to have to learn to taste.
It will take some time and effort, but how could sampling beer ever be a burden? You may have to get out the books, take a few notes, develop a vocabulary, and become more familiar with your organoleptic system that you ever thought you would, but it will be worth it. In the end, drinking beer really is a lot more fun with a trained palate at your disposal.
Become skilled enough and you can pick out details of the recipe and process: hop varieties, malt types, fermentation temperature. With effort, you can read a beer like a book. Get really good and you can even pick up on the brewer’s little inside jokes. I tell the students in my beer style class that as brewer and artists, it’s their job to mess with people’s heads. As a taster you will understand what they’re trying to do to you.
I like to think of tasting as a meditative activity. Learning to taste critically requires a kind of transformation that is very different than absorbing a lecture or solving math problems. Beyond the “thinking” parts of your brain, this involves changes to the deep dark inner regions, a kind of mental training more common in monasteries than in public schools. It is unfamiliar territory to most of us. A seemingly impossible task at first, with proper knowledge and technique the mysteries open up, and you eventually arrive at a heightened awareness, without knowing exactly how or when these new powers were acquired. It’s trippy stuff.
Some of it can even happen without any particular intention. Your enthusiasm for hops, sensitivity to the clove-tinged subtleties of weissbier, or appreciation for the finer points of roasted malt can all occur with just a little information and a lot of pints. But to really develop as a taster, it helps to have some background on what to expect from of your organoleptic apparatus, and what to look for in the glass when you turn your x-ray vision towards a beer.
The Hungry Lizard Inside Your head
Let’s start with your sensory system. Smell and taste serve to give us information about good and bad things in the environment. As animals evolved, plants co-evolved their ability to create flavors and aromas as a way of getting us to do their bidding. Sweet, fruity flavors are a sign of nutritive value, a trick plants use to get animals to distribute their seeds. Bitterness is a repellant or poison that lets us know the plant doesn’t want us eating it. Our organoleptic system deals with many other aspects of the environment. It’s no surprise that one of the musty markers for stagnant water is the most potent aroma chemical known, with a threshold in the parts per quintillion.
Taste and smell are separate sensory systems, but are sometimes hard to tease apart. Taste is the simpler of the two.
As every schoolchild knows, our tongues are covered with small bumps called taste buds. And while the familiar “taste map” delineates different regions for sweet, sour, salty, etc., modern science has shown this to be a fallacy derived from a bit of 19th-century pseudoscience akin to physiognomy, in which personality traits were supposed to be mapped by the bumpy irregularities on the noggin. Despite its untruth, the tongue map has been firmly wedged in the textbooks ever since. In reality, all areas of the tongue are sensitive to all taste sensations.
Look at your tongue in a mirror and you will notice that among the field of small bumps are a number of larger ones. These are the buds responsible for bitterness. The useful bit of knowledge is that because they are larger, it takes longer for the sensation of bitterness to fire the neurons that send the signals to the brain, and once stimulated, longer for the sensation to go away. Tasting, as you probably already know is not a single moment’s experience, but a process that takes a while to develop, build, and then fade to an aftertaste. Pulling apart this time dimension is an important goal of sensory training, and it is helpful to understand details like the longer time-constant of bitterness.
It used to be thought that there were only four tastes: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Now it appears as if there are two more. The fifth is umami, or the glutamate receptor, important in fish and seaweed-accented Asian cuisine, but unimportant in beer. The sixth is fat, which scientists have recently decided is an actual flavor and not just a mouthfeel sensation. Sweetness and bitterness are obviously big players in beer flavor, and, although it might not taste so, beer is actually fairly acidic. Saltiness comes into play only with certain water types, where is typically adds a sense of palatefulness.
There are other sensations in your mouth beyond taste, called trigeminal sensations after the big nerve that serves many functions in the facial area. Heat and cold are perceived, of course, but tickling, tingling sensations of carbonation, perceptions of heaviness or oiliness, astringency, and chili heat also come through these pathways. All of these sensations may offer clues to the nature and quality of a beer.
What the Nose Knows
The olfactory system is vastly more complex. Nine million neurons of about 1000 types are together capable of registering 10,000 different aromas. Despite a huge amount of research, the chemistry and physiology of olfaction is still poorly understood, and is a fascinating area of study.
The olfactory receptors are in two places: in the nose, as you would expect, and a second cluster at the upper part of the back of the throat, connected to the brain by different wiring. Recent studies have shown that the aromas sensed through these back-of-the-throat sensors are perceived more as flavor than aroma per se. Also, they seem to be involved in food preference, which means they may have played a part in your childhood hatred of broccoli.
An important concept is called potentiation. Sensory neurons respond only to a change in stimulation, which means they stop firing when they become saturated, giving rise to the experience we’ve all had of coming back inside the house and re-experiencing a smell we’d been completely ignoring until stepping out for a while. This is why experts recommend you do your sniffing in short bursts instead of a long heavy inhalation. And if a particular scent is baffling you, this is why it’s good to give it a rest and come back after a minute or two.
Your olfactory system is wired like no other sense. Signals go very deep into the old lizard parts of your brain: the hypothalamus, seat of appetite and fear; the hippocampus, regulator of memories; and the brainstem, responsible for regulating basic bodily functions. To a taster, memory is a valuable tool in identifying aromas. Scents often generate a vivid memory of some other time and place. Dwell on this memory, have a look around, look to see what’s making the smell. Is it the flowers in Grandma’s backyard? Cookies in the oven? A freshly toppled oak tree? Zap! You’ve got it. It’s amazing what you can find rattling around in those old aroma-triggered memories. It really is a different kind of learning.
Sight is such a huge part of our sensory input that it’s hard to ignore. We all drink with our eyes far more than we should. That said, the visual aspects of beer—like a rich foamy head—have been appreciated for millennia. Texture and color can be valuable clues to a beer’s character, or simply misleading. Don’t rely too heavily on your eyes.
Fred Eckhardt’s sage advice to “listen to your beer” may offer limited information unless you heed the deeper meaning in his message: use all your senses, and never take anything for granted. Pay attention and you will be rewarded with a rich experience, in beer, as in life.
The next big challenge is to know what aroma and taste sensations to expect. This is an area where brewers have an advantage over drinkers. Brewers have the intimate connection to the ingredients and processes that give beer its character, from the colorful shades of specialty malts to the brash aromas of hops to the complex transformations that occur during brewing and fermentation.
As noted in the sidebar, malt kilning, even for the palest malt and beer types, is responsible for nearly all malt flavor. If you’ve ever had soup with barley in it, you know what I’m saying here; barley is as bland as it comes.
The bitter, herby/spicy bounce of hops is the perfect counterpoint to the richness of malt. Since the very beginning of beer, it has been known that some bitter herb is needed to make beer palatable and not cloyingly sweet.
Yeast adds its own bouquet of aromatic chemicals, and also acts in more subtle ways, accenting hops or malts, layering earthy, woodsy, or bright tones on top of the base beer. For brewers who really understand their yeast strains, this is a valuable tool for creating beers with a distinct personalities.
Understanding the ingredients and processes in beer is crucial. If you have a beer-tasting group, I highly recommend you go to the homebrew shop and round up three or four hops and six or eight different types of malt, and lay them all out for everybody to smell (hops) and taste (malt).
Ready to Taste
Tasting itself is best conducted without distractions. In the most critical form it is a near-solitary activity, best to capture one’s own opinion without succumbing to the suggestions of fellow tasters. At the very least, a room with good light, free from smoke or strong food odors is in order. You need a good space for contemplation.
There are many different kinds of beer glasses, each meant to show off a particular style of beer. Forget these. A smallish white wine glass is ideal for tasting purposes, and in fact the ISO standard wine-tasting glass also works perfectly for beer. It has a stem so it can be held without warming the beer, and an inward-sloping rim, to better contain aromas. Fill it about 1/3 full, no more. The ugly truth is that beer competitions can’t manage the vast number of these stemmed glasses required, and resort to plastic cups, which are adequate, if not ideal. The best ones are aroma-free and crystal clear for obvious reasons.
You may or may not have a purpose in mind: judging, quality control, comparing several beers of the same style, discovering a region or simply critically tasting a beer for the pure pleasure of it. Whatever your purpose, it helpful to think about what you want from your experience. It is also helpful to have an understanding of the style of the beer so you have some idea of what to expect. Books like Michael Jackson’s are great for background, and detailed specifications can be found in the World Beer Cup Style Guidelines (www.beertown.org) or the Beer Judge Certification Program (www.bjcp.org). Both were put together as competition guidelines and are kept fairly current.
With your beer at the perfect temperature—40-50°F (5-10°C) for lagers, 45–55°F (7-13°C) for ales—pour the beer right down the center, shooting for one third full when the foam subsides. This is the best way to get a firm, long-lasting head and also to release a big shot of aroma which bounces up as the bubbles pop. First, put it to your nose and give it a three or four short sniffs, concentrating on the sensations. Jot down whatever pops into your mind, however irrational it may seem. Look to see if you can sort out any of the hop, malt or yeast aromas described in the sidebar. Herbal, spicy, grapefruity? Malty, toasty roasty? Fruity, spicy, phenolic? What else? There’s always more.
Then, have a sip. Hold it in your mouth for a moment and let it warm a little. What’s your first impression? Sweet, dry, fizzy, tangy? As the taste proceeds, bitterness will build. To pick up aroma in the mouth, wine tasters use a technique called aspiration where air is gurgled through the liquid sitting on the floor of your mouth. With the carbonation in beer, I find just having the liquid warming up and very gently drawing air inwards and upwards into the nose as you slowly swallow gives you all the aroma you can deal with. Note any additional aromas. As you roll the beer around in your mouth, what is the texture? The body of beer actually is a complex structure formed by proteins. Think of a very thin Jell-O.
What about the balance? Hops vs. malt is the main attraction, but there may be other players. Roasted malt elements may play against sweet, for example. Are there off-flavors? Anything to spoil the perfect experience?
Now, observe the beer. What’s the color? is it clear or cloudy, and is this appropriate for the style? Is the head tight, creamy, long-lasting or otherwise?
Now go back for a second set of sniffs. Aroma components vary in their volatility, so you will find that the second take is probably different from the first. Then go back, have another taste, and observe the way the flavor experience changes as the taste progresses. Is it equally pleasant all the way through, or does it collapse mid-taste? Is the aftertaste clean and pleasant, or does it become thin or astringent? Beer tasters generally swallow rather than spit, as those back-of-the-throat sensations are very important. Since beer is generally lower in alcohol than wine, this usually does no great harm, but be careful at those holiday barley wine tastings!
Experienced judges can usually make sense of a dozen or more beers at a sitting. Novices are probably better off with half that. Although it may seem like a lot of fun (and it is), critical tasting can take a lot of mental effort to tease apart beer after beer in an accurate way. Don’t be afraid to take a break if things are starting to all taste alike to you.
With practice and concentration this all will become second nature to you. With your new knowledge, the good, the bad and the ugly will appear in vivid relief, and I promise you beer drinking will not one whit less enjoyable. And the really good beers will be better than ever.
A brewer since 1984, Randy Mosher is a nationally recognized writer and authority on brewing and beer styles. He is the author of The Brewer’s Companion (Alephenalia Publications, 1984), Radical Brewing (Brewers Publications, 2004) and Tasting Beer: An Insider’s Guide to the World’s Best Drink (Storey, March 2009). In addition, Mosher consults on package design and branding.