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5 Steps to Tasting Beer Like a Connoisseur
July 8, 2014
For the past few years, I’ve been on what I like to call a beer adventure, meaning I’m trying as many different beers as I can. As I try different styles and breweries, I’m always amazed that four ingredients—water, yeast, malt, and hops—can produce such a wide variety of flavors.
Anyway, the more beer I’ve tasted, the more I’ve realized that there are degrees of appreciation. Sure, you can gulp down a beer mindlessly, completely ignoring the careful craftsmanship that went into its production. But chances are you won’t enjoy it nearly as much as someone who patiently takes the time to examine the many facets of its character. It’s only recently that I’ve started to take the latter approach, slowing down and seeking to appreciate the complexity of the many excellent beers out there.
Today, I’d like to share five tips that can help you enjoy and appreciate beer more fully.
1. Smell – Tasting anything always starts with the nose, and if you’ve ever tried to enjoy good food when you’re congested, you’ll know that being unable to smell can make even the most delicious food bland.
When it comes to beer tasting, smelling the aroma of the beer is the first step. The word nose is used to describe both the aroma of the beer as well as the process of smelling it. If you wanted to be ironic, you could probably get away with saying, “I nosed the nose of the lager.”
It is important to realize that, unlike other alcoholic beverages, beer has a very fleeting smell. Nose the beer immediately after pouring, before the aroma has a chance to evaporate. Agitating the beer will also release the aroma more fully.
As you nose the beer, look for familiar scents. Some beers may smell like bananas, others like pine needles, citrus, pepper, etc. Discovering these scents will help you further appreciate the taste of the beer.
2. Color – After you’ve determined the aroma of the beer, glance at the color. Keep in mind that there is no one right color for a beer, as there are hundreds of beer styles, and each style’s color will vary slightly. Still, a beer’s color is part of its character, so it’s worth noting.
Is the beer black? Is it amber? Is it filtered or unfiltered? Of course, these questions aren’t absolutely essential to tasting, but they are good reference points for future tasting.
3. Taste – Now for the fun part. Take a sip of the beer, but don’t swallow right away. Swish the beer around in your mouth, paying attention to what flavors you experience. Is it salty, spicy, sour, bitter, sweet? A good beer will have a complex mixture of flavors, so it may take a couple of sips before you discover them all. Take it slow and don’t be in a hurry.
Here are some common beer descriptors: roasted, sweet, spicy, fruity, bitter chocolaty, caramel, toffee, sour, coffee, malty, tart, subtle, piney. Of course, there can be many other flavors in beer.
4. Aftertaste – After your initial taste, don’t take a big bite of pizza. Allow the beer to linger in your mouth, seeing if the flavors change at all. In many good beers, you will notice new flavors emerging in the aftertaste, also known as the finish. The finish of a beer has a lot to do with the overall enjoyability of a beer, so don’t skip this step.
5. Feel – Like any beverage, beer has a peculiar feel in your mouth. Some beers are watery and thin, while other beers are thick and heavy in your mouth. This quality of beer is referred to as its body. Light beers, like Miller Light for example, have a very light body, whereas beers like Wee Heavy Scotch Ale (unsurprisingly) have a heavier, fuller body. Beers with more carbonation generally feel lighter in the mouth, while an unfiltered, less carbonated beer will likely feel heavier in the mouth.
It’s all about you…
When people first look into tasting beer, or any other beverage for that matter, they are often intimidated by the vocabulary and the impression that you have to taste “correctly.” But this simply isn’t true. Beer, like anything, is a matter of personal preference, and the ultimate criterion for any beer is, “Do I like it?” it’s all a matter of what you prefer.
I, for one, loathe IPAs (India Pale Ale for the uninitiated), and I’ve never understood the mania over them. While one person may taste an IPA carefully and savor the intense, bitter flavor of pine needles, I can think only of Pine-Sol floor cleaner. No thank you.
The point is, don’t get caught up in liking the “right” beer. There is no such thing, even though some people might try to convince you there is. The best way to drink is to try a wide variety of beer styles, perhaps using a notebook to keep track of your experiences, and find what you like best. Think of it as an adventure.
What are your favorite beers? Do you have any tasting tips?
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