Tasting a beer is a pretty simple thing to do. After all we taste things all the time, day in day out. But I’ve been struck lately, while judging at beer competitions, how some people seem to do it well while others struggle to come up with anything beyond a basic assessment. We all taste beer in the same way, so how come some of us seem to be better at it than others?
It’s not just about picking up flavours — although that does come into it. I think there is something even more fundamental at play here. It’s about being receptive to what you’re experiencing, and being able to recall those sensations and put them into words.
If you want to get better at tasting beer, you must be able to communicate.
(This is just as true for wine and spirits too, by the way.)
If you study beer, wine or spirits, the chances are you will be taught to take a systematic approach to tasting the drink in your glass.
The reason behind this is to ensure you involve all your senses, and pay attention to all aspects of the drink. By breaking the experience down into parts like this you will be more able to relay it to someone else.
But it goes beyond the simple to-and-fro of information. Replaying the taste in your mind and fixing it in language helps to strengthen those pathways within your own mind. From my own experience, I truly believe you get better at recognising flavour by talking about it.
Another tactic is to start with broad descriptions and then refine them. Perhaps your beer is sweet. Is it really just sweet thought, or is it fruity? If it’s fruity, what kind of fruit does it remind you of? Is it citrus or stone fruit? Orange, or apricot?
This approach is mirrored in tools like the flavour wheel, which can help to guide you through this process of refinement.
Describing a beer to someone with specific words — not just orange, for example, but marmalade — will trigger sensory memories and give the other person a much clearer idea of what you’re talking about. And it will sharpen up your own perception, too.
If you’re really serious about learning to taste beer then you will to learn to recognise off-flavours, such as skunked beer, diacetyl, oxidation etc. But that’s a story for another time.
One thing you can do right away to improve your beer tasting skills is simply to pay attention to all the aromas and flavours that you come across during everyday life. Noticing them is the first step, after which you can try to describe them. Start broad and hone in on the details after that.
The more you practice recognising and describing flavours, the more you can use this skill when you’re talking about a beer.