Sometimes you just want to drink a beer. It’s one of life’s simple pleasures. Not every beer has to be deconstructed and captured in a notebook. There are times though when you might want to slow down and consider the beer you’re drinking in a little more depth.
What follows is my guide on how to taste beer, and how to make sure you are getting the best from that experience. So, get ready to go full craft beer wanker. If you have access to a beard, prepare to stroke it thoughtfully. We’re going to evaluate some beer!
Before you pour
Step one. The fundamentals: pick a good place and a good time. If you really want to concentrate on the flavours and aromas you want to be able to sit somewhere you won’t be distracted or disturbed, away from any strong smells.
The right tool for the job
Make sure you have an appropriate glass. It’s good to have one with a stem and a tapered rim that will enhance the drink’s aroma. The Spiegelau tulip glass is a good example. Teku glasses are another popular option.
More importantly pick one that’s a good size, not too large or too small, that is comfortable to hold and to drink from.
And most important of all make sure your glass is clean; a dirty glass can affect the aroma and flavour of a beer.
Too warm? Too cold? Or is it just right?
You should also get your beer to the right temperature. I’m not suggesting you get all anal with a thermometer, but as a general rule the darker the beer the warmer you serve it. There are of course exceptions but we won’t worry about those just now.
Most beers will do well somewhere between 7°C and 13°C; that usually means somewhere between an hour and 30 minutes in the fridge. Look for cool, but not ice cold. The colder a beer is the less you will taste in it.
Pour it out
Finally, we’re ready to drink our beer. That’s why we’re here, right? Let’s get that liquid out! Tilt the glass at about 45 degrees and pour like you mean it. Don’t dump the beer in, but pour with confidence and control.
You want to build up a head on your beer, and this won’t happen if you’re too timid. Pour the beer in a steady stream onto a spot about halfway down the side of the glass and gently turn the glass back upright as it fills.
Leave room in the glass
If you were simply drinking this beer for fun you’d pour until the bottle was empty and the glass was full, and what a lovely thing that would be. But today you want to evaluate this beer, so you’re going to pour with slightly different considerations.
You want to leave room at the top of the glass for the aroma, particularly if you’re using one with a tapered rim. My advice is to fill about one-third of your glass with beer. This leaves plenty of room for a good head and more for all the swirling and sniffing to happen.
This might mean you don’t pour the whole beer out at once. Most of the time this makes no difference, but with some beers such as Hefeweizens pouring every last drop can affect the flavour. Keep this in mind and dispense your brew accordingly.
Smell before you taste
So now we drink, right? Not quite. Some people will tell you to assess the look of the beer first. I say let that wait. The colour’s not going anywhere but the aroma can change quickly as volatile esters escape into the room, so have a smell first.
The most common method is to tilt the glass slightly and get your nose right in there. Some of the more delicate aromas – those esters I was talking about – are best discovered a little further away from the beer. Sometimes these will be evident as you pour, even from quite far away. More often they will be found within say a hand’s width of the beer. I suggest stopping to notice any smells just above the glass before you tilt it, and then going in for a proper sniff.
Long sniffs will do two things: dry out your nose and overload your olfactory receptors. Don’t do long sniffs. Two or three shortish sniffs are better. It takes your nose about 30 seconds to reset, so back off a little and think about what you just smelled before coming back for more.
Start by looking for basic aromas like sweet or sour. From there move on to anything else you might recognise. Common descriptors are fruity, grainy, grassy, floral, and so on. Then you might specify further – not just fruity but stone fruit like peaches and apricots. You get the idea.
Don’t forget that the aroma can develop as the beer warms in the glass. Come back occasionally as you taste to see what’s changed.
Usually at this point it’s a party in the glass, but if things are a little bit lifeless you can give the beer a gentle swirl to wake it up a bit. You can also cover the top of your glass as you swirl to trap any esters and other volatile aroma compounds before they escape. Take another sniff and see what you get now.
Once you’ve done that you can assess how the beer looks in the glass. Hold it up to the light and check the clarity. Look at the colour of the beer.
Notice the carbonation – how much, how fast? Look at the head: again how much, and is it hanging around or did it dissipate? If you swirl the head is any lacing left clinging to the sides?
Is there any viscosity coating the glass? Beer can have ‘legs’ just like wine. All of these things give you pointers about the beer and its quality, and prepare you for that first taste.
Alright! Drinking at last! But wait: we’re not glugging here. Take in enough beer to coat your tongue and keep it there. Don’t swallow right away. At this point some guides say ‘swirl the beer around your mouth’. To me this brings up images of people rincing with mouthwash. You don’t need to go that far. Just allow the beer to move around your mouth naturally, coating all parts of your tongue, and then swallow.
The taste will be similar to the aroma. That’s just how flavour works. As with the aroma, the general idea is to start with the basic flavours and go on from there getting more specific as you are able. Of course if something specific comes to you right away then that’s great, but this general approach can be helpful if you’re struggling to describe what you’re tasting.
Don’t worry if you don’t get it all at first. Wait a few seconds then come back for more. It may take a few sips to get beyond any dominant flavour, for example the bitterness in IPAs, and start noticing any more subtle aspects. That’s fine. This is fun. Give yourself time and enjoy it.
As you taste you should also pay attention to how the beer feels in your mouth. How sharp is the carbonation on your tongue? Does the beer feel full bodied or thin and watery? Sometimes it’s slick and almost oily.
All of this is useful information. Look out for it. It can be hard at first but the more you pay attention the more you will learn to recognise it. Congratulations, you can now discuss mouthfeel with the best of them. That must be worth at least 25 craft beer points!
We’re not wine tasters. We don’t slurp air over our mouthfuls of beer as a rule, and we don’t spit our beer out into a bucket. The aftertaste is important with beer, so we swallow when we taste it.
Swallow, wait, and pay attention. See what happens towards the back of your tongue, around your teeth and gums, in your throat, on your lips. Is there bitterness? Is there warmth? Is your tongue becoming dry, making you want another sip? Perhaps there are other flavours making themselves known. Notice them, get to know them.
Another thing you can do is control your breathing as you taste so that you breathe out through your nose after swallowing. Keep your mouth closed as you do this. It will flood your olfactory sensors with another burst of flavour information from beer that is now significantly warmer than it was in the glass.
This retronasal technique can reveal a huge depth of flavour, and it’s pretty easy to pull off once you’ve had a go.
Is this fun?
It should be, but sometimes it’s not. All tasters have off days. If you’re just not getting anything, don’t beat yourself up about it. If you can only pick out one or two things, don’t worry.
Your palate develops over time. It can take a while to reach the stage where you’re picking out ‘plums with a hint of liquorice’ or whatever. Just enjoy the process, and keep an open mind. Remember that if you like or dislike a beer but can’t describe why then it’s still a perfectly valid opinion.
Taste beer often enough and you will find some you don’t like. It’s worth giving every beer a fair go. It can take your palate a few sips to get used to a beer – especially if you’ve just switched from another one. Even so, sometimes it’s just not going to get any better.
Don’t be afraid to tip these beers down the sink. Life’s too short to drink a beer you’re not enjoying. Don’t worry about waste – there’s plenty more out there you’re sure to like.
Don’t worry either about any money you may have spent. As soon as you opened that bottle or can all of its value is gone. The only thing that remains is any enjoyment the contents can bring you. If it’s bad be ruthless, get rid and move on.
Once again, I’m not suggesting you drink this way every day. But it can be very rewarding to taste beer in this deeper way.
Beer is at its greatest when it’s a shared experience. Tasting like this will help you build a vocabulary to talk about beer and share your experience with others.
Give it a go, and most importantly have fun doing it. And if you’ve tasted a beer you really enjoyed, tell me about it in the comments.