As beer enthusiasts, we know there is a difference between simple, enjoyable drinking and a more serious activity called tasting. Drinking is mindless, while tasting has structure. Drinking comes naturally, while tasting requires training and effort. Mastering the latter opens a lot of doors and steps us up in seriousness and prestige in the world of beer.
But what does that mean, exactly? Tasting’s goal is to retrieve as much information as possible from that beer before you. Tasting typically has a purpose or a desired outcome, and it can vary widely. Brewery taste panelists doing quality control are on the lookout for off-flavors and any deviation from the flavor specifications of the beer. For beer-serving professionals, beer quality may focus more on problems that can have root causes in shelf life or draft system issues. Those serving beer owe their customers a beer that is balanced, interesting, stylistically correct, original, extreme, or any of the other intangibles to which their bar’s patrons may respond. For those trying to get to know beer better and train their palates, the task at hand is to describe the tastes, textures and aromas that present themselves in the glass.
No matter the approach, we are all working with specific tools and the structural components of both our minds and our bodies. With good technique, training and practice, we can download quite a lot of information from even a small sample of beer. A few simple rules and practices make the job manageable.
Let’s start with the glass. A white wine glass is ideal, but millions of beers are sampled and judged every year in clear plastic airline cups. Whatever vessel you use, don’t fill it more than about a third full. You want to leave some headroom for aromas to collect. Make sure the beer is at an appropriate temperature, with lagers and lighter ales a few degrees above freezing and heavier beers at a cool cellar temperature. Remember that beers warm up quickly when poured. If a beer is too cold, clutch it in your hand with a lot of skin-to-glass contact, swirl gently and it will warm quickly.
Recently, I was lucky enough to spend three days with the Cicerone certification program staff under the tutelage of Dr. Bill Simpson, the president of Aroxa, a company that makes flavor-spiking samples for beer and many other industries. His first instruction was to take the sample cups with the beer in them and swirl them counterclockwise at 45 RPM. “This is for your muscle memory,” he said. “I want your brain to know that whenever you do that, you’re in tasting mode.” The speed and direction were a little unnatural, providing a Pavlovian cue to our inner brains.
Reeling in the psychological processes involved in tasting is a little like herding cats. We have to work with a number of different brain parts to be successful, but not all of them are under our conscious control. Many, like the amygdala, contribute to the shadowy world of our emotions. You have to trick these psychological processes when you can and have confidence that with training, practice and experience, they can become your tools for tasting.
Putting yourself into tasting—rather than drinking—mode is essential. Using the little trick with the glass is just one technique. Tasting in a quiet place with a minimum of distractions is also very helpful. A prompted tasting sheet can nudge you to pay attention to every facet of the beer and may even suggest specific flavors to be on the lookout for; even a blank sheet of paper or a notebook is helpful. The simple act of writing down words forces us to be more detailed in our tasting, while looking at the words we’ve written recycles the ideas through our brains via different pathways and adds another layer of understanding and memory to the experience.
First, if possible, pour the beer yourself. Bounce it straight down the middle of the glass to get a little foam going. Focus. Can you smell anything while it’s sitting on the table? Try picking it up and gliding it past your nose, a technique called a drive-by tasting. What can you smell? Strange as it seems, there are some highly volatile chemicals in beer that are best smelled from a distance and in brief bursts, lest your nose become acclimated.
Next, get the cup right up to your nose and take a couple of short sniffs. What do you notice? Try to put what you’re experiencing into categories: the spectrum of bready, malty, biscuit, caramel, burnt sugar, toast and roast, or perhaps the herbaceous, floral or fruity notes of hops or the spicy, fruity or wild notes of yeast. If you’re really not getting much, try holding one hand over the top of the glass and swirling gently, then moving your hand away and simultaneously taking a sniff. If the beer seems cold, warm it up a little. If you find the aroma triggers a memory, follow it back to the source—perhaps a candy store, grandma’s kitchen or wherever. Quite often, this is enough to pull out a specific vocabulary word.
The objective is to identify specific aroma chemicals to the extent possible. New tasters lack the kind of training and experience that make this possible, so if you’re a novice just let your impressions (and emotions) take you where they may. Make notes in as much detail as you can and move on.
Take a moment to observe the beer. Is it appetizing? Is the foam plentiful and stable? How’s the clarity, how’s the color? But don’t spend too much time focusing on the visual aspects of the beer. That our eyes deceive us is ancient wisdom, seldom more true than when tasting. The average person is far more capable of resolving small differences in color, for example, than of detecting different aromas. What that means is the eyes set up expectations that our inner selves will find a way to deliver whether they’re there or not. Black beer? It must be roasty, right? Have someone serve you a black IPA and a standard one without being able to see the liquid. They’re harder to tell apart than you think. Trained tasters and beer judges continually work hard to remain untainted by the trickery of the eyes.
Now, a sip. Be aware that taste changes second by second. With a really hoppy beer, it may take a full minute or more to get the full effect. Acidity registers right away, then sweetness chimes in, and—wait for it—there’s the bitterness, building slowly. Don’t be in a rush to swallow. Let the beer warm in the bottom of the mouth and then let it slip slowly down your throat. As you do, breathe gently out your nose with your lips closed. This is the retronasal taste, and it activates a part of your olfactory system, sending signals that are perceived more as flavor than aroma and are highly attuned to familiarity and preference. Often you pick up additional information with this technique.
It’s also important as you taste to pay attention to the texture, or mouthfeel, of beer. Beer is a colloidal substance that’s kind of like a thinned-down Jell-O: a network of protein molecules creating the viscosity responsible for much of beer’s body and texture. Carbonation is an obvious characteristic. In stronger beers, alcohols may be “hot” or peppery. Any astringency will be most obvious toward the end of the taste.
It’s also important to try to tease apart tongue tastes like sweet, bitter and sour from aromas. It seems like it should be an easy task, but, to paraphrase Capt. Kirk, we’re not machines, dammit. Our brains conflate taste and aroma, especially once something is in our mouths. It takes a special effort to pull them apart.
And now at the end of the taste, the beer has left your mouth but the taste goes on, with some lingering bitterness and perhaps other sensations such as astringency. The concept of a taste having a beginning, a middle, an end and maybe even an afterglow is crucial. A really great beer smells and tastes great all the way through.
The importance of practice can’t be overstated. To get really good, you have to regularly engage in formalized tasting activities. The best way? Judge homebrew. Most clubs have annual competitions (there are probably several competitions in your area), and serious judges for these competitions are always in demand. It doesn’t matter whether you brew yourself or not, although it is helpful for anyone on the path to being an expert at tasting to go through some brews, at least as an assistant or observer. The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP.org) is well worth checking out. While it doesn’t conduct regular classes, it does have free study materials available, and people in a specific area who plan to take the certification exam often form ad hoc study groups, meeting regularly to taste beers and discuss styles.
There are also formal classes offered at brewing schools and sometimes at culinary schools. In addition to learning about beer styles, classes are the best way to learn about specific beer flavors like diacetyl, DMS and many more. You’ll encounter them along the way if you regularly judge, but it’s helpful to go through a training session with those chemicals spiked into beers at a really obvious level, as it gives you an instant familiarity and some idea of what to look for in the context of real beer. You can even get a group together to share the cost of the sample spikes available from Siebel, Aroxa or elsewhere and do this yourself. It’s definitely eye-opening.
Be prepared to settle in for the long haul. There is no quick shortcut to mastering this fine and peculiar art. I’ve been at it for more than 25 years, and I am constantly humbled and rarely walk away from a tasting or judging without learning something completely new. It’s a lifelong pursuit, one where you really never reach your destination, but make enjoyable progress toward it with practice and over time. Along the way you will also develop confidence, which makes tasting more fun as well.
Just keep at it. Someday soon you’ll be sitting at dinner and absent-mindedly pick up your water glass, give it a counterclockwise swirl and dive in for a series of critical sniffs before you snap back to reality. At that moment you’ll know—you’re a taster.
This column appears in the September 2014 issue of All About Beer Magazine. Click here for a free trial of our next issue.