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.