Lots of us like to record the beers we drink somehow. For many a simple list is enough. For others, rating them on an app is the way to go. If you have the time it’s worth going deeper and keeping proper tasting notes.
Why you should start keeping tasting notes
It is essential to keep tasting notes if you’re studying to become a drinks professional. But even if you’re not, it can lead to a deeper enjoyment of your beer. Plus there’s evidence that it’s good for your brain.
Learning to write useful and memorable tasting notes will improve your ability to read beer reviews. You can use this knowledge to buy and enjoy better beer.
I’ve written before that tasting notes are boring. The good news is they don’t have to be if they’re done well. It’s just that most are not!
Learning to write good tasting notes is a skill, just like learning to taste beer. And with practice you can get better at both.
Why tasting notes are useful
By writing tasting notes you will learn to talk about beer’s flavour in a consistent way. This is an important skill if you want to unlock which beers taste like one another. It will let you better predict which beers you will like or dislike, and understand why.
Writing tasting notes builds several powerful skills. It improves your observation, by making you look at your beer in a detailed and systematic way. It improves your description by making you put nonverbal sensations into words. And it improves your recollection because the act of writing notes down fixes impressions in your memory.
You may remember tasting a handful of beers for several days or even a couple of weeks. But the details will get harder to recall the more you taste. (Even more so for pros who taste many beers frequently.)
You will remember some beers just fine — the particularly good and the hilariously bad — but the majority that fall somewhere in between will get lost.
Tasting notes are useful, even important, because they allow you to look back at beers you’ve had but since forgotten. As our tastes change over time this can be particularly rewarding.
How to write memorable tasting notes
The first thing to remember is that these are your notes. Don’t worry too much about what to put in them. Unless you’re taking an exam soon, what matters most is your personal impression of the drink. Record what you’re interested in.
Having said that, it is a good idea to settle on some kind of format, even if it’s only a loose list of points to look out for. That way over time you will build up a bank of notes that are more easily compared with one another. This makes them even more useful.
It’s always a good idea to start with the basic details. Note the date, the brewery name, the beer name, the style and ABV. I also like to include the format (can, bottle, how many millilitres), the price, and where I bought it.
After that I usually move on to the beer’s colour and general appearance in the glass. (And it is worth using a glass rather than drinking straight out of the can. Also, make sure your glass is clean.)
If you follow a systematic tasting method, then your notes can follow the same progression from how a beer looks to how it smells to how it tastes. Remember to include things like its aftertaste and how it feels in your mouth. These are important elements of a beer’s overall flavour.
It’s helpful if you bring some knowledge to bear while you’re tasting. Remember what you know about a beer and let that guide you. Look for what you know should be in the beer, and notice when you taste what you know should not. This will help cement that knowledge in your mind and deepen your understanding of the beer.
Your notes don’t have to focus only on aromas and flavours. You could also include information about where you got the beer. You could record something were told about how it was made, something that makes it stand out.
You might like to take individual elements of a beer’s flavour and capture them on a scale. You can rate traits like bitterness, sweetness, acidity etc. as low, medium or high, or perhaps score them out of five. This is only useful if you do it consistently, but it’s worth considering if you want to record a very quick picture of a beer’s character.
I like to jot down one or two food pairing ideas with my tasting notes. I do this even if I’m not eating at the time — in fact especially then. This is a particular way of thinking about beer and flavour that is especially relevant to me as a beer sommelier. It might be less so for you, in which case you can leave it out. Again, these are your notes.
How to organise your tasting notes
I don’t make tasting notes for every single beer — particularly if I’m drinking a beer I’ve had already. When I do take notes, I prefer good old pen and paper. And I like to use a system of abbreviations to save space and speed the process up. I use A for aroma, T for taste, MF for mouthfeel, AT for aftertaste… you get the idea.
And there are of course dedicated apps for recording your beer notes. The most well-known is probably Untappd (although I no longer use it myself). There’s also Brewer’s Eye, a new alternative that aims to deflate some of the hype that Untappd can whip up.
I don’t generally share my notes with anyone else. Tasting notes are a bit like holiday snaps. Your own are fine but other people’s are boring. There’s nothing wrong with keeping this stuff private. It has value even if it’s written just for you.
However you decide to keep them, it’s worth sticking at it. The more you build up the more valuable they become, and reading through them is like turning a key in your mind to unlock old memories.