For beer tasting, there is theory and there is practice.
The ultimate word is yours.
Theory of beer tasting
Tasting is about the last thing in the world most beer drinkers would think they need advice on. But to get the most out of the experience, emulate professional wine tasters and strike out into new territory. Learn what the pros know...
Start with a clean, dry glass for each brew being considered. Some argue that having the glass at the same temperature as the brew is best, since it prevents altering the liquid as it's poured. Experiment both ways, with a glass colder than and at the same temperature as the beer container.
Prepare to think about a few of the major characteristics of a beer, and focus on at most one or two for a given sip. Appearance, aroma, mouth feel, flavor and aftertaste all play a part in the experience, along with more subtle aspects.
Humans are visual creatures. What they see strongly influences their subsequent perceptions.
A brew that appears golden, bubbly and has an inch of white foam will generate one expectation. A glass of dark brown with a creamy brown two-inch head will create another.
Blind taste tests often produce surprising results. Many have identified their favorite brew as dull or even distasteful. Drinkers who wouldn't normally enjoy a strong Belgian have rated one highly during label switching tests.
Further, the long standing debate about the pros and cons of cans versus bottles has very little basis in objective criteria. Since the 1980s, cans are lined with a type of plastic that prevents any detectable influence of the metal on the beer.
Yet many continue to prefer bottles, even when the liquid inside is exactly the same and even when the brew is poured into a glass first.
The sense of smell is many times more sensitive and complex in humans than the sense of taste, even given the varied sensitivity of different parts of the tongue. In any good taste test, before the liquid enters the mouth it hits the nose.
Though beer aromas aren't usually described in terms of a bouquet they have distinctive odors. (As more evidence that perceptions are influenced by factors other than pure taste, consider that even the use of the word 'odor' is likely to suggest something foul.)
Though hops are added as a means of offsetting the sweetness of malt, they also serve to produce aromas that add to the total. Hops, after all, come from a flowering, vine-like plant with cones. They can impart floral, spicy or citrusy odors.
Malts likewise influence the aroma. Roasted as part of the process of breaking down the grain buds to produce malt sugars, they can be light and grainy or dark and chocolate or even burnt.
Beer is generally carbonated and often served at lower than room temperature. The character of the malts, hops and the brewing process in total contribute to the feel of the brew in the mouth.
Carbon dioxide bubbles interact with receptors on the tongue and influence whether the brew feels thick or light, creamy or thin. Brews run the gamut from metallic to astringent to warm and gentle. Some are lighter like a golden lager others are full-bodied.
Some beers, often as result of being spoiled or stored too long, are described as like cardboard or leather. Those characteristics are as much a matter of mouth feel as flavor.
Often the aspect focused on most, flavor is rightly so the center of the beer tasting experience. Research suggests there are over a 1000 identifiable flavors in a given brew.
Of these, professional tasters can identify around 100 distinct flavors. The beginner will do well if he or she can find three or four. Work up to it. It's a worthy goal.
Contemporary research suggests there is a large overlap between perceptions. It can be difficult to say how much is due to the physiology of the tongue and how much is contributed by the brain receptors. Neither functions without the other in any real setting.
Flavors can be sweet, sour, salty or bitter in line with the four traditional divisions of different parts of the tongue to which they are most sensitive. They go well beyond these categories, however.
This is brought out by recognizing that many flavors don't fit neatly into any of the four categories. Sulfur may be said to be a combination of salty and bitter, for example. But in what category is phenolic, which has a medicine quality like Band-Aids?
Some are described as clove-like, some butterscotchy, others coffee-like, or chlorinated, grassy, 'alcoholic' or even metallic. None of those are easy to fit into those neat divisions.
After swallowing, flavor and aroma combine to produce an aftertaste which is often distinctly different -- even though caused by -- the taste of the brew. Taste, after all, is a chemical reaction and it doesn't stop when the majority of the liquid is cleared from the mouth.
Sweet caramel, grassy, soapy or oily, bitterness, spicy and many other qualities are all part of the experience of aftertaste. Balance between sweetness and bitterness is only part of the total.
The intensity of those qualities is also part of the aftertaste, often heavily influenced by the amount of alcohol in the brew. Alcohol evaporates more quickly than water and that helps volatize compounds that produce the aftertaste profile.
How long the aftertaste lasts is also part of the total experience. Some disappear quickly, others linger. Either can be good or bad, depending on the specifics.
The overall character of the brew is a function of all these factors. Drinkers will get the most out of a fine brew by not merely drinking, but tasting as well.
Beer tasting professionals have developed practices over decades that can easily be used by anyone wanting to maximize their tasting experience.
Begin with a fresh brew. Beer older than a few months, with some notable exceptions, are less than ideal candidates. Use a clean, air-dried glass. Cotton and paper particles can introduce unwanted character, can interfere with head production and oils and dirt can interfere with aromas and alter head retention.
Pour slowly into a glass tipped at a 45 degree angle, until about half-full (not half-empty, there are no pessimists among beer tasters!), then straighten and finish pouring. For extra foamy brews, pause mid-way then finish.
Observe the appearance.
Some beers, such as yeasty Wheat beers, have a cloudy haze. This isn't necessarily undesirable. All the professional experience in the world doesn't alter the fact that taste is an individual affair.
Note the color and degree of carbonation. Different styles will have their own characteristics. Light lagers are golden with large heads, dark ales are chocolatey and some form no head at all. Like dogs, they can vary. But within a 'breed' they should exhibit the character of their type well.
Experience the aroma.
Smell is a sense with much greater complexity than taste. According to studies carried out at the Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago and elsewhere, 90% of perceived taste is the result of smell.
Use it to enhance your pleasure by noting the odor. Swirl the glass to aid vaporization and hold the nose directly over the rim. Hoppy or malty? Fruity or phenolic? Some have hints of lemon, others are more iodine-like.
Chamomile, pine, pepper and a wide variety of other secondary scents are found in brews. Take the time to search for them.
Test the mouth feel.
Taste and touch combine to produce distinctive mouth feels. Proteins in beer don't ferment and contribute strongly, for example. Hardness or softness of the water used makes a big difference, too.
Search out alkalinity or metallic feels. Decide if the brew is astringent or gentle. Carbonation plays a part, obviously. The bubbles interact with special receptors on the tongue to impart a distinctive sensation, flat or 'zingy'. This kind of flat isn't necessarily bad - some stouts aren't intended to be as fizzy as a pilsner.
Thick or thin, viscous or smooth, dry or tart, soapy or oily and other characteristics all play a part in the overall mouth feel. See how many you can distinguish.
Taste the flavor.
Not for nothing is this considered the centerpiece of the beer drinking experience. Tastes range from the sweet Lambics to the almost tasteless mass-market brews that shall go unmentioned.
High-alcohol brews often have a spicy taste. Test first by wetting the lips with the liquid and inhaling slowly through the mouth, then sip. You'll also get the double-whammy effect of aroma evaporating off the lips into the nose.