Do you struggle to pick out flavours in your beer? Do you want to talk about what you’re tasting but find it hard to put those flavours into words?
You’re not alone!
I remember watching wine expert Oz Clarke on TV back when I was barely old enough to drink. I was amazed by the colourful yet precise language he used to describe wine. What impressed me most was that he found so much to talk about. How could he get so much from just a couple of sniffs and sips? He seemed to experience taste more vividly than I could ever hope to.
Each time I tried to describe a wine or beer I was drinking, I found it almost impossible to think of anything more than ‘fruity’ or ‘bitter’. The flavours were there in my mouth — sort of, maybe — but the words just wouldn’t come. I couldn’t talk about what I was tasting, and I wasn’t sure that I was even tasting all that much.
I figured there was nothing to be done about it and that some people were just better tasters than others. Oz was gifted with a superior palate and I wasn’t, and that was that. But I was wrong.
Your sense of taste isn’t fixed at birth. It’s not something you’re stuck with. Tasting is a skill like any other, and with practice you can improve. My interest in flavour stuck with me, and eventually it led to me work at becoming a better taster. Now I’m a beer sommelier and international beer judge, with professional qualifications in cider and spirits too.
Oz Clarke is still a legend, and amazing at what he does, but tasting and describing flavour in an accurate and engaging way no longer seems like a superhuman ability that I could never hope to achieve. Now I realise it’s just that he’s been doing it a lot longer than I have.
Learn how to taste beer properly
If you struggle to pick out flavours in your beer, then I can help you. Tasting is a skill, and you can learn to become a better taster.
Aroma is a vital component of flavour. This means that much of learning to taste better is actually learning to smell better. Among perfumers and sommeliers this is sometimes called becoming ‘a nose’. And our noses are important, of course. But actually this is just a metaphor for developing certain areas of our brain.
A number of studies have shown significant differences between the brains of trained wine experts and everyday drinkers. Research has shown that if you practice enough and really pay attention when you taste, you can alter your brain to become more like those of the trained experts. This is just as true for beer, or cider, or spirits.
The first step is to learn how to taste beer properly. Beer sommeliers, Cicerones and beer judges all learn to taste beer in a particular way that allows them to evaluate beer systematically. This systematic approach to tasting beer takes you through the flavour experience step by step and allows you to fully experience all the beer has to offer. I’m going to share with you the simple technique that professionals use for tasting beer.
Before you pour
There are a couple of things to consider before you start tasting your beer.
First, you need to 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.
Strong smells will hamper your ability to concentrate on your beer, so don’t try to do this in the kitchen while someone else is cooking. Research has also shown that loud noises can influence the way we experience flavour. (That’s why airline food always tastes a bit wrong.) It’s also just annoying trying to taste while there are loud sounds competing for your attention. So if you can find somewhere quiet to taste your beer, that will help too.
Choosing the right tool for the job
The glass you use matters too. It can affect how you taste your beer in a couple of ways.
First you should choose an appropriately shaped glass. The most important thing is that your glass has a tapered rim. This will enhance the drink’s aroma by concentrating it at the top of the glass, making it easier to smell.
You should also pick one that’s a good size. You want a glass that is comfortable to hold and to drink from, not too large or too small.
Most important of all, you should make sure your glass is clean. A dirty glass can spoil the aroma and flavour of your beer.
Too warm? Too cold? Or just right?
You should also get your beer to the right serving temperature. I’m not suggesting you dip a thermometer into your beer. (But hey… you can if you want!) Just remember that 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 it.
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.
Pour it out
Finally, we’re ready to drink our beer. That’s why we’re here, right? Let’s get that liquid out and into the glass!
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 of foam 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. Gently turn the glass back upright as it fills.
Leave room in the glass
If you were simply drinking this beer for fun you would 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 slightly differently.
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, 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 — including volatile compounds such as esters and phenols — 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 captured your beer’s aroma you can assess how it looks in the glass.
Hold it up to the light and check the clarity. Look at the colour of the beer. These are your first clues to what sort of beer you’re drinking and how it will taste.
Notice the carbonation — how much is there and how fast is it rising through the beer? Look at the head: again how much is there? Is it hanging around or did it dissipate? If you swirl the beer, is there any foam left clinging to the sides of the glass? This is called lacing, and it’s a sign of a well-brewed beer.
Is there any viscosity coating the glass? Beer can have ‘legs’ just like wine. This will give you a clue as to how strong your beer is.
All this goes to show that if you pay close attention at every step of tasting a beer, you will get more out of the experience.
Alright! Drinking at last! But wait: we’re not glugging here.
One of the biggest mistakes people make when they’re trying to taste a beer is going too fast. This isn’t everyday drinking. Don’t simply chuck your beer down your neck, no matter how thirsty you are.
Take in enough beer to coat your tongue and keep it there. Don’t swallow right away. Holding the beer in your mouth for a few seconds will accomplish two things that will help you taste it better. First it will warm the beer, which releases more aroma compounds. More aroma equals more flavour. Second, it will allow the beer to wash over more tastebuds, again meaning more flavour for you.
At this point most guides say to swirl the beer around your mouth. This is important because we have tastebuds all over our mouths, not just on our tongues. They can be found in the sides of your cheeks, the roof of your mouth and the back of your throat. But to me the word swirl brings up images of people rinsing 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.
If you’re still struggling then you can look at a beer flavour wheel, which will give you some prompts to figure out what you’re experiencing.
The example above is the most commonly-used one in the drinks industry, but for beginners it is perhaps a bit overly technical. Luckily it’s not the only one. You can find more examples here, here and here.
This is personal
It’s important to remember a few things at this point:
- If you’re a beginner, you probably won’t come up with much during your first few attempts at identifying and describing flavours in your beer. Don’t get disheartened. Stick at it and you will improve over time.
- Different people will have different experiences, even when they’re drinking the same beer. We all vary in how sensitive we are to particular flavours.
- Whatever you’re tasting will be particular to you. Even if no one else is tasting what you do, that doesn’t mean you’re wrong.
- Taste and smell are tied to memories. The more widely you experience flavours outside of beer, the more you will have to compare your beer to when it’s time to taste it.
As you taste you should also pay attention to how the beer feels in your mouth. The experience of a beer’s texture is also an important part of the overall tasting experience but it’s often overlooked.
Ask yourself, how does the carbonation feel on your tongue? Are the bubbles large or small? Fast moving or slow? Do they tickle or sting?
What about the beer’s body? A full body means the liquid itself feels thick. A thin body, sometimes called light, is the opposite. Think about the difference between the way whole milk, semi-skimmed, and skimmed all feel in your mouth.
Are there any other sensations from it’s texture? Sometimes a beer can feel slick, and almost oily. This is definitely worth noting down. Sometimes it can be a sign of a fault in your beer.
Is there any heat? Some beers have chilli added, others are strong enough that the alcohol can give you a warming sensation — or even a burning one.
Is there any dryness? In general, dryness on your tongue after you have swallowed the beer is a good thing. It sets you up for the next sip of beer. But some beers can have a tongue-puckering astringency that is unpleasant and throws the beer off balance.
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 training to become wine tasters here. 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.
Boost your tasting power
We think of smell as something that happens outside our heads, usually somewhere just in front of our teeth and under our nostrils. This isn’t true at all.
Smell happens in your brain, and also inside your head somewhere just below and behind your eyes. That’s where your olfactory receptors are. And the aromas that you pick up there can just as easily come from inside your mouth as from outside.
We can take advantage of this with a beer tasting super tip. I’m about to give you one more technique that can boost your tasting power in a noticeable way. It is called retronasal tasting.
Here’s how to do it. You will need to control your breathing as you taste so that you breathe out through your nose after swallowing. If you keep your mouth closed as you do this, you will flood your olfactory sensors with another burst of flavour information from beer that is now significantly warmer than it was in the glass.
As we’ve already learned, warmer beer released more aroma compounds, and more aroma means more flavour. This retronasal technique can reveal a huge depth of flavour, and it’s pretty easy to pull off once you’ve had a go.
Have fun tasting beer!
Sometimes you need to stop and ask yourself: 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.
What to do when you get a bad beer
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 bad 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 it lost all of its monetary value. The only thing that remains is any enjoyment the contents can bring you. If it’s bad, be ruthless. Get rid and move on.
The last sip
What I’ve shared with you is the basic technique used by every professional in the drinks trade when we are evaluating a beer.
None of us drink our beer this way every single time. Most of the time we drink for fun, just like you and countless other people do every single day.
I’m not suggesting you drink this way every day either, 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 friends.
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.
If you’ve made it this far, you obviously care about flavour and want to learn more about beer, and maybe other drinks too. If that’s the case, sign up for my newsletter. It’s 100% free, and comes out once a month.