Earlier this year I was at a beer event in Amherst where I talked with a guy who told me he only liked drinking beers with bold, intense flavors. He ticked off his list of favorites: Double IPA, Imperial Stout, Barleywine, and just about anything barrel-aged.
I asked him what it was about such beers that made him want to drink them to the exclusion of everything else. “I can taste them!” he told me. “If I get beer that doesn’t have those big flavors, I can’t taste anything.”
That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Dedicating your palate to beers with prodigious flavors will make it harder to appreciate beers that rely on subtlety and nuance. But it’s not as though the pleasure of one type of beer need come at the expense of another. With just a bit of effort, almost anyone with a tongue can appreciate the full spectrum of beer flavor.
It all boils down to how you approach the beer in your glass. If you simply want to pour the stuff down the hatch, then you’ll probably never find the thrill of a great Pilsener equal to that of an average IPA. There’s no wrong way to taste beer, but that path will definitely be limiting. And why would you want to limit your pleasure?
I’m going to outline a basic approach to tasting beer that’s easy and straightforward. It’s a method commonly used in sensory panels. It works especially well for beer and it won’t make you look like a twee snob.
There are five basic steps. No need to memorize them. After you try it a couple of times, it’ll become second nature. Before going any further, I’d suggest grabbing a beer, pouring it into a glass and playing along. Any beer will do.
Step 1: Give That Beer a Good Look.
Is the beer clear or cloudy. What color is it? Is the foam made up of small, tightly knit bubbles or large, rocky ones? Does it have a stark-white foam, or is the foam tan or off-white? If you get in the habit of looking at your beer you’ll rapidly build a mental catalog. You’ll begin to associate certain appearances with specific flavors. Before long, you’ll be able to look at a beer and have a general idea of what it has in store for you.
Step 2: The Drive-By Sniff.
Take a short, very casual sniff of the beer. Don’t think about it too much. You just want to wake-up your olfactory system to prepare it for what’s ahead.
Step 3: The Full Snort.
Swirl the beer. Then get your nose into the glass and really smell it. No need to make a career out of it. The first pull will be the most informative. Be alert for the aroma to trigger associations. Does it remind you of a particular food or flavor? Maybe it recalls memories that aren’t necessarily related to beer? If you can put words to what the beer is bringing to mind, the experience will be more enduring.
Step 4: The Drink.
Get the beer into your mouth. Don’t rush it down your throat. Let the beer coat your tongue and wash against the sides of your mouth. What’s the mouthfeel like? Is it full? Thin? Slick? Effervescent? What flavors do you notice? Don’t belabour it. This shouldn’t take more than a few seconds.
Step 5: The Swallow
Swallow the beer. As you do, try not to breathe either in or out. This will help fire your powerful retronasal receptors, which contribute greatly to our ability to taste. After the beer has sunk within, exhale through your nose. Notice the residual flavors and aromas that the beer leaves. Again, try to put words to the sensation.
That’s it. Now go ahead and drink the beer as you normally would. This isn’t something to employ each time you raise a glass of beer. This is a technique to help you increase your enjoyment when you first encounter a beer. Don’t let it become a task. Don’t let it get in the way of your fun. Ever.
Here are a couple of resources, that’ll help if you’d like to pursue this further.
- Craftbeer.com features an excellent resource that will help you familiarize yourself with beer styles and the flavors that are common to them.
- Also available at Craftbeer.com is a tasting sheet that can be downloaded. This is a great aid for helping identify flavors.