In this article we will look at tasting and describing your beer, these are skills which will help in your quest to find your next “best beer” and will prove invaluable when you are tasting beers with a group or trying to explain what you do or do not like about a beer.
The key with describing your beer is to tell it like it is, before jumping into the “subtle scents of hollyhocks, undertones of pomegranate with an aftertaste of northern spring water” you need to use words like sweet or bitter. Your initial beer tasting exploits will include descriptions which use simple but powerfully descriptive words – and they often have more effect in describing the beer than if you flounced the description up with all the arm wavery of a wine critic.
For example, often at beer festivals me and my beer-drinking buddies will all try a beer, assess the subtle character, smell it, look at the colour, try it again, think for a few minutes and then all declare “tastes like beer”. This is not a sleight on the brewer, in fact quite the opposite. With all the efforts to brew unique ales, brewers often forget that the beer drinker likes the taste of beer. Some of my favourite beers are best described to the layman as “tastes like beer should”, yes we often go on to describe in more detail the malt, hops and balance of the beer – but the initial impression is that the beer in fact tastes like one would hope.
Your initial impression is important, if the nose smells boggy or sour then vocalise it. If the beer tastes soapy or flowery then mention it. You can then refine your description and go into detail, but if a beer has instantly turned you off with its flavour no amount of analysing will make it taste nice.
Onto the tasting, the first part of any beer tasting is the appearance. Take a moment to look at the beer, note it’s colour, any head and whether there are bubbles (carbonation). Think about how you would describe the colour; dark, red, copper, light… vocalise this and discuss, usually people can agree on the colour of a beer. In the case of dark beers such as stouts or porters it is often a good idea to hold the glass up to the light, often these beers give a deep red colour to the light passing through them. Also if the beer is cloudy and you do not think it should be then it may be off, tasting notes will usually tell you if the beer should be cloudy as this is not usual for real ales.
Next move onto the aroma, tilt the glass and smell the beer. The smell of the beer is a good indicator of what the taste will be like, it also helps you to taste – your nose actually has a very significant effect on taste (as anyone with a heavy cold will love to tell you). You should be able to smell the malt and hops that have been used in brewing the beer, over time you may be able to identify what is in the beer by the way that it smells. If the beer has an unpleasant smell then think what the smell is like. Remember that it may be off; if the beer smells bad and looks bad then this may be the time to chuck it away! the beer should not smell of vinegar or too heavily of sulphur. Try to describe the smell to your tasting group and see if you can agree what it smells like. Words often used would be like tea, pine, floral, malty. You will usually be comparing the smell to something very familiar.
Tip: familiarity is the way to describe beers, it is no good saying something like “well it smells like my gran’s garden and has a taste much like my mums Victoria sponge” you may know exactly what you mean but others will be clueless. Try to stick to descriptions which most people would know – for example many dark winter beers are described as smelling/tasting like fruit cake, most people know that smell/taste and instantly know what to expect.
Once you are done admiring your beer and sniffing it, move on to the bit most people associate with tasting – the actual taste.
Swallow enough of the beer that your whole tongue is covered, this is key, your tongue has different areas for tasting different tastes, by making sure your whole tongue is used you ensure that you will detect all of the different flavours which may be present in the beer. Note that there is no spitting here, your tongue goes right back into your mouth and you need all of it – so drink it down.
When I taste beer I concentrate on the three different parts to the taste, the initial feel of the beer and the start of the flavour, then the middle flavour and finally the end notes and any aftertaste.
Some beers will change in flavour from the first moment you taste them to the last as the taste of the beer fades away. It is best to describe the taste stages, vocalise what the initial taste is like – dry, bitter, smooth, sweet, use words which you think fit and listen to what words others use.
Next describe what this leads into, does the flavour change, does the initial taste fade or disappear quickly? This middle set of flavours will also give the body of the beer, does it taste full or thin? It is likely that you will taste any malt flavours at this point.
Finally the end notes or finish, what flavour does the beer leave in your mouth? does it have an aftertaste (good or bad)? The finish is usually where you will taste the hops and in more floral beers where the majority of the flavour is.
Next – taste it again, I tend to take my first taste and think through what the beer tastes like, off a dry palette it is also the best time to notice any interesting at the beginning of the flavour. I usually keep quiet until I have had my second sip and have really got to grips with the beer flavour.
I cannot stress enough – speak about what you are tasting, the best way to get a common language in beer tasting is to discuss it with people, I have often spoken to people who think they just drink beer and it tastes beery only to find that when I discuss a beer with them they know exactly what I am talking about when I say “this one has a nice malty middle to it”. And it is ok to disagree, everyone’s tastes and taste is different, you may find that you are more or less sensitive to different flavours than your drinking buddies, use this – if one guy can tell the different hops in beers then they are likely the best person to describe a hoppy flavour.
Hopefully this will encourage you to start describing your beer tasting and will work towards some common ground in the world of beer description. Next article I will prepare you for your first beer festival – an ideal opportunity to go out and try some new beers.