With a world of styles and flavours to choose from, beer tasting can be great fun. There are around 3,000 different beers on sale in Britain from home and abroad. Why not try something other than a 'pint of the usual'? Everyone has a different palate and preference, so the fun comes from trying lots of different ales and finding one to suit you.
It’s important to remember that when tasting beer, you need to use all your senses.
Beer tasting is similar to wine tasting, but you don't spit it out. The hoppy bitterness is tasted at the back of the tongue so can only be sampled properly by swallowing. If you are really serious about it, then a clean glass of water should be kept at hand to cleanse the palate after each beer.
The beer should be dispensed so that a good head forms, although not so violently that the glass is filled with foam. Also, make sure the beer is not too cold… while an ice-cold beer tastes refreshing on a hot summer day, a slightly warmer beer releases more of the aromas and flavours locked in a beer. Swirl your beer, gently in the glass. This will pull out aromas, slight nuances, loosen and stimulate carbonation and test head retention.
The first thing to do when tasting beer is to take a long hard look at it. A good beer will look ‘bright’ although, depending on the beer, it may not necessarily be clear. Hold your glass up to the light to see its true appearance, but not to direct light, as this will dilute its true colour. You are looking for the four C’s…
Don’t assume all cask ale is brown. The colour of the beer, which is derived from the malt used to make the beer, can typically be described as pale, straw, yellow, gold, amber, red, brown, black, etc. Darker beers are generally stronger flavoured with more body although some brewers use dark malts in light-tasting beers, just to ring the changes.
Can you see your fingers through the beer in the glass? All cask ale, apart from wheat beer, should be crystal clear and polished. The beer should be clear, but some wheat beer and often lagers could be cloudy. There may be a 'chill haze' caused by the beer being too cold, but this should disappear as the beer warms. The clarity of the beer is influenced both by the ingredients used and whether the beer is filtered or unfiltered, and may be described as clear, brilliant, opaque, hazy or cloudy.
Does the beer look ‘lively’? Can you see the carbonation when you swirl the glass? If the beer is completely flat, it may be a sign that all the ‘condition’ has been lost, indicating a beer that has been on sale for too long.
The head needs to leave a cling on the glass as you drink it. This is also known as lacing; another sign of a cask beer in great condition.
Holding your glass should tell you very quickly whether your beer is the right temperature. There’s plenty of debate about what that temperature is, but typically a cask ale will be drunk at somewhere around 12C-14C. Some beers, particularly light and wheat beers and lagers are meant to be drunk cold, say between 5°C and 10°C. Most beers need a degree of warmth to fully release the flavours and aromas. Beer which is too warm could release unintended off flavours, so aim for a serving temperature of 10°C to 15°C.
You can often see the head has a slight colour of its own. Is it mousy, creamy, frothy, stable, or does it disappear quickly? The head is important for releasing the beer’s aroma as the scents are released as the bubbles burst. A fizzy, 'sizzling' head that flattens quickly suggests a brew with less malt and more sugar. This can produce excessive carbon dioxide leading to a more acidic tasting beer. Even 'cloudy' beers such as wheat beers should be lively and enticing and not flat and dull.
The aroma of beer is key, as 80% of taste comes from the nose. There are a number of different approaches to this step… some experts insist you need to take several short sniffs of the beer, others insist you need to swirl the beer in the glass to release hidden aromas and then stick your nose right up to the glass.
Put your hand over the top of the glass, swirl the beer, then inhale the aromas. You may get a range of different aromas, depending on what type of cask ale it is. Some smell like biscuit, toffee or are malty. Others may be grassy, citrussy, and herbal. Now stick you nose right into the glass and with your mouth closed, take a deep breath through your nose. Hold that aroma for a while and look for specific scents... hops in bitters and pale ales, chocolatey flavours in stout and citrussy hints in lagers. You should do this a few times looking for a different theme with each breath. Let olfaction guide you. Enjoy its bouquet. Finally, note whether you detect any new aromas after you taste the beer, because much of our sense of smell is retronasal… the aromas that are breathed out after we swallow.
Sometimes there may be a fault with the beer and this manifests itself in ‘off’ aromas. If beer smells vinegary, medicinal, or like cooked vegetables, it’s not a good sign.
Drinking the beer is the bit everyone looks forward to. Our taste buds are located all across our mouth, not just the tongue. Start with a small sip to get the initial flavours and then take more of a mouthful… but don’t swallow it right away. Instead, let it sit on your tongue and let your taste buds register their initial impressions of the beer. Again, take note of the various ingredients in the beer you are picking up in the taste, as well as how they interact with each other to form an overall flavour of the beer. Some experts will tell you that you need to ‘chew the beer’ or almost become one with the beer at this stage. You may describe various sensations on your taste buds as sweet, salty, bitter, sour, or even meaty. The important thing is to let your taste buds do the talking.
Let it wander and explore your entire palate. Note the mouthfeel… that almost indefinable feeling the brew has whilst in your mouth. Consider what stands out about the body of the beer, or other characteristics of the beer you notice such as its consistency, thickness, and mouth-filling properties. The mouthfeel can also be described as the sensory qualities of a beverage other than flavour, such as body and carbonation. Your description may include words such as thin-bodied to moderate-bodied to full-bodied. Beers with high malt content will feel 'thicker'.
Savour the consistency of the liquid's body, and breathe out during the process of tasting. This process of exhaling is called ‘retro-olfaction’ and will release retained stimulations at the mucus and mouthfeel level, but at a higher temperature. At times this will be the same as the olfactory process if not different and complementary. Try to detect any sweetness, salty flavours, acids and general bitterness. After your first mouthful, you will notice all the flavours. You should get the sweet of the malts at the front of your mouth, while dry and bitter flavours come through at the back of your mouth. Look for the balance between these two… is it a bitter or a sweeter beer?
There is no right or wrong way when it comes to the taste of a beer, but considering most of the sense of ‘bitter’ is right at the back of the tongue it’s important not to spit it out, but to swallow it… one of the main differences between beer tasters and wine tasters. It’s no good doing what the wine tasters do and sucking up lots of air and liquid into your mouth. This will just fill you up with froth, so take a small mouthful first and swirl it around your mouth to get the beer on every part of your tongue.
The finish is that aftertaste which can be quite different from the front taste. Is there anything that stands out about the level of hop bitterness and how it is balanced against the other qualities of the beer?
Once you have completed these steps, it is important to combine all of your impressions to reach a final conclusion… was it a good beer or not? As you evaluate the beer, consider whether you liked the taste. Was it true to style, were there any off-flavours, how does the beer compare to other brands, what is the history of the beer, what foods would pair well with it?
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