So you want to get better at describing beer

There’s no getting round it, if you want to become a better beer taster you need to learn how to describe the stuff clearly and accurately. Flavour is wrapped up in language, and you need to identify and understand what you’re tasting.

So you can follow proper tasting technique and write scrupulous tasting notes, but… how do you actually get better at describing beer?

Different ways of describing beer

In his article on the language of flavour in Ferment Magazine, Mark Dredge sums up the linguistic tools we have at our disposal:

  • Hedonic assessments (I love it, I hate it)
  • Specific flavours (coffee, lemongrass, honey)
  • Figurative language (silky, rich)
  • Metaphor (a glass of sunshine)
  • Cliché (dangerously drinkable)
  • Analogy (as bitter as my ex)
  • Imagery (spring-like with floral hops and fresh cut grass)
  • Idioms (not my cup of tea)
  • Slang (juice bomb, crushable)
  • Abstraction (smooth, clean, funky, dry)
  • Anthropomorphism (lively, subdued, “the can is calling my name”)
  • Technical (wort-like, well-attenuated)
  • Scientific (esters, diacetyl, oxidised)

We can also apply scale to these qualities (subtle aroma, medium-bodied, intense bitterness). We can add reasoning to our preference (it’s good because). We can add context (it’s a classic Bavarian Helles), place or memory (which reminds me of Munich) and emotion (where we sit in the social warmth of the beer garden).

This is a great list that breaks out lots of different approaches we can take to describing beer. Some of these are more useful than others, so let’s take a closer look.

Explain beer’s flavour

First up, the like it/hate it assessment. This is a perfectly valid thing to mention when you’re describing a beer but it’s not very useful on its own. If you go a step further and say why you like or dislike a beer you will always reach something more valuable. I don’t like it because it’s too bitter, for example. Or I like it because of its roasty chocolatey flavours. You’ll deepen your own understanding of what you’re tasting, and you’ll tease out some information that will be of use — or at least interest — to other people.

Technical and scientific terms are great, but only in the right place. If you understand them, and your audience does too, then they’re a gold standard. Specific, straight-to-the-point, based on the application of technical knowledge, and usually about things that can be measured objectively. But if you’re not talking to brewers? Forget it. Or find a simpler way to say it.

Clichés, slang and idioms have their place, but again assume a level of understanding between reader and audience. So for that reason, you may want to use them sparingly.

The rest of the list I think boils down to one thing. No one wants to read or listen to a laundry list of flavours. That turns something joyful, tasting a lovely beer, into something lifeless and tedious. But if you use some of the techniques on this list you can bring your experience closer to life for the person you’re trying to reach.

Writing better tasting notes

But what if there is no audience other than your future self?

In that case, you need to concentrate on what matters most to you. And you can use all the shorthand you want, as long as you’re confident of remembering what it means next week, next month, in five years…

But again I think it’s worth spending a little time trying to set down a few words that also capture how you felt about the beer. What did it remind you of? Where would you want to drink this beer? Who would you want to drink it with?

If you write better tasting notes, you’ll find that it’s easier to remember that particular beer when you read them again in the future. And you’ll also strengthen the connections between flavour perception and language processing in your brain, which is the ultimate aim of this exercise — this is what will turn you into a better beer taster in the end.

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