Why do we taste beer?
Most people simply like to sip, enjoy, and relax when it comes to drinking beer. This uncritical approach can be just the ticket on a hot summer day or after a hard day of work. Nevertheless, there are situations where a more focused approach to tasting beer is required. Possibly, the most critical analysis of beer can happen in competitions, where one beer is judged against another or according to the archetype of a particular beer style. However, there are many other applications. Sometimes you might dissect the flavor of an American IPA before pairing it with your favorite chunk of bleu cheese, or perhaps you might check for quality of taste of an imported Lambic before sharing it with your friends at a dinner party. Whatever the case may be there are over 300 recognized flavors that can occur in beer, and we have over 10,000 taste buds in our mouth biting at the bit to taste them.
How to taste beer
If you look at your tongue, you will see that it is covered in small bumps. These small bumps are actually papillae, which are loaded with up to 250 taste buds each. Taste buds work with our primitive brain to distinguish between six basic flavors: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami (savory), and fat. These basic flavors helped us as primitive beings to determine if something was nutrient rich or edible vs something that was toxic or spoiled. It is the combination of these basic flavors in different concentrations that allows for the overabundance of flavors that exist in the things that we consume. It’s the particular concentrations of these basic flavors that make a chocolate chip cookie (sweet laden concentration) taste different than filet mignon (umami laden concentration.) Other than the taste buds on our tongue, we can also sense flavor and taste through receptors on the inside of our cheeks, in the back of your throat, and in the nasal cavity. To accurately discover the essences a beer has to offer, you must stimulate all of these sensory panels.
The proper form for unlocking the full flavor of beer is pretty simple and can be summed up in a few short steps. (These steps may look a bit crazy when doing them in public, but take some pride in discovering beer and own the process.)
1. Firstly you must select yourself a beer and pour it into the proper glass. Make sure the beer is fresh and the beer glass is clean and free of contaminates. Also, make sure that the environment that you’re sampling in is free of distractions and aromas. This will help in isolating the actual flavors of the beer.
2. Once beer is in the glass, pick it up with your right hand and begin swirling the beer in a counterclockwise motion at 45 rpms – it seems a bit technical to swirl at 45 rpms, you will naturally determine the right speed of swirling. For left handed drinkers, use your left hand and swirl in a clockwise motion. This swirling helps release the aroma molecules from the beer so that they can more easily be detected by the nose.
3. Thirdly, it’s time to smell the beer. Begin by doing a few quick passes of the glass by your nose, keeping it at a distance. This will allow you to smell the vapor trail of the beer without being overwhelmed by its full aroma. I often find most off flavors in beer, if there are any, during this step. You can then do a few quick and direct sniffs of the beer to analyze the aroma better, followed by a few longer sniffs. Allow time in between sniffs so that your nasal receptors can reset, this will avoid “nose blindness.” Finally, you will want to cover the glass with your hand, opposite of the swirling hand, and swirl the beer for a few seconds before removing it and taking a long deep sniff – as if you were Ferdinand the bull sniffing daisies. You will be astonished at the variance in aromas that you will pick up using these altered methods of smelling. You might pick up the hint of vanilla on the vapor trail of an imperial stout but discover the espresso like malt character of the beer on the long sniff.
4. Next, it’s finally time to taste the beer! Take a good sized sip and swoosh it back and forth in your mouth, exposing it to all of your taste buds. Notice the way the beer feels in your mouth, is it slick, viscous, or biting? Does it seem sweet, sour, or roasty? This first sip will leave a lasting impression of the beer in your mind, and will mostly likely determine whether or not you will take another sip. Alright, go ahead and take a second sip. This time notice the way the beer tastes and feels as you swallow. Is it drying, thirst quenching, or smooth? What are the flavors you notice after you swallow?
5. Lastly, you can try the retro-nasal approach. This requires you to plug your nose and take a sip of beer. Swoosh it around in your mouth and swallow. Most of what we taste is actually determined by aroma, closing off the sensory of smell will allow for the discovery all sorts of flavors hidden in the beer. After you swallow the beer, close your mouth, unplug and breathe out through your nose. You will sense flavors in the back of your throat and up through your sinuses. These tastes will help generalize the main flavors of the beer such as malty, roasty, or caramel from the malts and resin, citrus, or floral from the hops.
Now that you’re an expert taster – in practice, it’s time to analyze what you just tasted. Like I stated before, there are thousands of unique aromas and flavors that exist in the world and over 300 that can be identified in beer alone. Being able to recognize just half of these flavors will make you an expert taster of beer. Following the steps provided, and with a lot of practice, you will start to be able to distinguish one style from another based on flavor alone and whether or not it is of the highest quality.
As you practice recognizing the flavors that can arise in beer you will be able to discover certain flaws in beer such as diacetyl – a buttery flavor from the brewer not allowing the beer to rest after fermentation, or lactic – a sourness that is sometimes put there by the brewer or can occur as a result of dirty draft lines. But be careful when diagnosing all beers, as not all “off-flavors” are flaws. For example, you may smell bleu cheese, band aids, and olives in a particular beer. What you’re really smelling is the flavor molecule Phenolic-4-Ethyl Phenol which is produced by Brettanomyces yeast and can exhibit all of those “enticing” flavor characteristics. This might indicate a Brett infection in the fermentation process, however if the brewer specifically barrel aged with Brett, then these flavors are a good thing. Practice flavor identification by literally making a list of all the flavors that you detect as you diagnose a beer. Take notice of the difference between styles and the length of the list of flavors they have. For example, you may only be able to recognize 12 different flavors in an American Adjunct Lager and 45 flavors in a Belgian Quadruple, as you should relatively speaking. These are two distinctly different styles of beer and the flavors associated with them are intentionally designed by the brewer based on the purpose of the beer.
In closing, I challenge you to no longer explain an American IPA as “hoppy,” but rather as a sweet biscuit, bready, caramely ale with a strong aroma of citrus-like, piney and resinous hops. By breaking a beer down into its simplest forms (flavors), you will gain a true appreciation for beers and the hard work that the brewers did to get them to taste the way they do.
Beer fanatic is quite the understatement when describing Nate Reynolds. From brands to home brews, Nate knows it all (or at least wants to). Obsessed since early college years, Nate dreamed to make a career for himself in the beer industry. Posts written by Nate will be packed full of information (seriously, gauntlets of information) because frankly… that’s what he’s all about; educating people about beer. When he’s not working, Nate can be found brewing up something funky in the Adirondacks with his beautiful wife and Aussies, or at an EQX concert!