March 16, 2012
This week on Clayton’s Corner I want to guide you through the process of tasting a beer. This is not meant to be an education in judging beer, or finding flaws in beer. It is just a primer in the steps one can follow if they want to get more out of drinking beer. Whether you want to know more about how beer is made, different styles, or the differences in beers from different breweries, you can only do this if you have a good process for approaching beer. These steps are important because many great drinking experiences are lost on the unthoughtful drinker. Drawing new and interesting things from beer is not a skill exclusive to a few people, but you can only participate in new and interesting beer experiences if you are attentive to what you drink..
“Tasting” a beer does not mean simply drinking it, but using the all the senses to understand the beer. Taste is influenced heavily by appearance and smell, so a thorough tasting of a beer should begin first by looking at the beer. You want to hold the glass up to a light source so that it is properly illuminated – you will be surprised at the change in color that will occur when light shines through the beer. What are you looking for when you look at a beer? Obviously, one thing you notice is the color. Analyzing the color will give you a sense of what is coming. The color of a beer is influenced by the malt being used, and the malt used influences the flavor of the beer. A dark, inky black beer presents a different drinking experience than a nearly transparent pale beer. It is helpful to behold this appearance before diving in. It is also helpful to note the carbonation of the beer, as well as any haze which may be present (haze is important to some styles, such as Hefeweizen).
Next bring the glass forward to your nose to smell. Don’t take a huge whiff (your olfactory organs, the ones responsible for what you smell, can only handle a limited amount of stimuli), but draw in a first-impression. This impression can be specific in some beers – you may end up getting a distinct green apple smell. It can also be more general: earthy, floral, “roasty,” etc. At this point, even an experienced taster shouldn’t be finding “a nose teeming with currants and elderflower, set against a decadent chocolate backdrop, with an ever so slight whiff of blackberry and lightly charred oak.” Rather, you’re participating in the same activity as when you held the glass up to the light; you want to prepare a general impression of what to expect so you can focus on specifics later. On your second smell, you want to build on the first impression. For instance, if the beer smelled fruity, you can parse that out. Is the aroma like that of apricots, or is it reminiscent of bananas? You will probably pick up some secondary smells. Depending on the beer, it could be anything from licorice to lemon zest. For varying reasons, the smell of a beer does not necessarily match its flavor, or certain elements of the aroma will be emphasized differently in the flavor. Brewers know this and work hard to balance aroma with flavor. It is only fair that you pay attention to the aroma equally.
At this point, you are ready to taste the beer. As with aroma, it is not useful to pound the beer at this point. After about four sips, your taste buds will have trouble picking up new flavors, and one big gulp might do the same thing. On the first sip, you are again gathering a general impression. Pay attention even to things having nothing to do with flavor. How carbonated is the beer? Does it leave an aftertaste? Is it thin, or very full? Is it sweet or bitter? If you have looked at and smelled the beer with care, you should have a pretty good expectation of the taste. Even so, take note of what surprises you. For instance, if you have a very dark beer with a strong coffee and chocolate aroma, it would be surprising if it had a very thin texture. Take note of these things. On your second or third taste, begin to take note of more subtleties and specific flavors that appear. Let the beer sit on your tongue for awhile, since some flavors only reveal themselves with care. Towards the end, start contemplating the whole. How does the whole beer fit together? Does it seem in balance? How might you describe it in a sentence?
As with beer and food pairing, tasting beer does not have to be a serious and pretentious activity. I do not carry a notebook with me every time I try a beer, I do not stick my pinky out, and I do not force my drinking companions to sit with me for ten minutes waiting to taste a beer. I always try to enjoy myself in the context in which I am drinking. But following these steps and paying decent attention is a good return on my investment. If I’ve made a decision to to drink a specific beer from a specific brewery, sometimes paying more to do so, it’s only worthwhile to take a minute to give it some thought.