This week we delve into the world of beer tasting notes, these can be almost as diverse as the beers themselves. But with a little guidance and some experience you will soon be able to navigate even the most cryptic of tasting notes.
Information on your beer can come in many different ways, from the label on the back of the beer bottle to a simple indicator in the pub of what the beer might be like, to the more extensive tasting notes handed out at a beer festival. All forms of tasting notes are there to give you, the drinker, a better idea of what beer is available and give you enough information to select which of the available beers you may like.
If the notes do not give you enough information to select a beer, then they aren’t fullfilling their purpose.
The information you will want will vary depending on where they are (festival, bottle, pub, book), but there are several key items, most are obvious but the worst written tasting notes will miss some of these off:
Name – the beer needs a name, otherwise how will you identify what you want to drink. However, one thing is worth noting, some pubs will rename certain beers to their house name. I have seen a club rename a beer after itself (with the breweries sanction) and in another pub green beer has been re-named “green stuff”. Also some beers have been known to change their name, in this case good tasting notes will often tell you the old name (for the tickers out there)
Brewery – another key fact, as the brewery is so very important to the taste of the beer this piece of information is essential in tasting notes. Furthermore there are names which are common across many beers, e.g. Gold, Best Bitter, Oyster Stout – the brewery name helps to distinguish between these beers.
ABV – or any other indication of the beer strength, this is essential information, not least because you do not want to be caught out by a beer which tastes weak when it is actually strong
Region – not always included, but this is a very good indicator beyond the brewery name, and is very useful if the brewery is not one you have come across before. As regions often have a distinct taste or style people will tend to like beers from the same region, this is a characteristic which I often use when deciding which new breweries I would like to try first at festivals.
With this information you will have some idea about the origins of the beer and enough information to mentally (or physically) catalogue the beer . Although this information does not give any direct information about the taste, it is enough such that if you see something familiar in the above you can start to get an idea about whether you will like the beer.
Colour – it is worth noting that probably the next most important piece of beer information is colour, one of the best pubs which I have been to has small shot glasses of beer next to the pumps to indicate the beer colour, other pubs have had L/M/D for the colour and in a festival tasting notes I have seen little coloured boxes to indicate the colour of the beer.
The next thing which you are most likely to see in tasting notes is a brief description of the beer. This is where the most variation seems to occur.
Some tasting notes prefer to focus on the character of the beer (in my opinion the most helpful) it’s colour, flavours and taste. This gives a very good idea of what the beer will taste like.
Other tasting notes will focus on the ingredients in the beer, the particular malt, hops or additives and maybe something about the brewing style.
Finally others will detail the brewery, past beers from the same brewer and any changes to the brewery or beer such as head brewer or location.
The best tasting notes will have a bit of all three, giving enough information on the beer and it’s ingredients so that the drinker can work out if they are likely to like the taste of the beer. Plus any important details about the brewery and its processing, such as breaks in production or changes to the recipe – especially important if you have had the beer before.
As tasting notes are often restricted by space, and presumably the time to compile, it is unreasonable to expect all the information all of the time, but it is quite easy to see when care has been taken in preparing the notes and when it is simply a cut and paste exercise from the brewerys website.
In many cases breweries websites and the back of beer bottles have quite a different approach. I presume because if you are on the website you are less likely to be looking to buy beer and if the bottle is in your hand it is likely the contents are in a glass and you are reading about the beer you are already drinking. Anyway, beer bottles and websites do tend to instead give little stories about where the beer came from and anecdotes about the beer’s name, although not completely absent in other tasting notes these do seem to be more common on the bottle and website (and tasting wise are less useful)
At this point it may be worth mentioning the cyclops beer system, the system is often used in tasting notes as a standard for beer description. The cyclops system aims to standardise beer tasting so that descriptions used in one set of tasting notes correlate with those in another completely seperate set of notes, it also makes available a standard set of notes for acredited beers. More information is given on their website
Apart from the content of beer tasting notes, the order and layout can also vary considerably. Obviously notes on the back of a bottle or in the pub will have their own layout dictated by the pub or label designer respectively. Printed beer festival tasting notes will similarly usually have their own format and often the particular festival will stick to the format for several years this means that navigating them can sometimes be a challenge.
Common layouts are alphabetically by brewer, region or beer. As often the notes are organised by physical bar at the festival it is becoming more common to see the local (Locale) beers in a seperate list as they are seperated out. The best tasting notes I have come across have however had an additional list in easy alphabetical order for those looking for an easier reference of what beer is available.
It is likely that you will quickly learn how to read beer tasting notes and how to get the best out of them, but one more thing to bear in mind – they are subjective, even with the best will in the world tasting notes will not cover every aspect of the beer. Each person’s taste buds are slightly different and they will pick up on some flavours more strongly than others, combine with some personal taste and the notes become nothing better than a guide. But with a little care and reading you will soon at least pick up on the descriptions, regiond or brewers which may just lead you to a beer you will soon call one of your favourites.