We don’t want to be snobby about a pleasure that can be as simple as you want or need it to be. Just knocking back a beer to quench your thirst, without thinking about it, writing notes, wondering about how one lager stacks up against another or tweeting your favorite beer blog is perfectly OK. Sometimes beer is like a cola—just a beverage. It hits the spot. You get on with your day or night.
However, if or when you want your beer to represent something more, its depth and range will reward you. Anyone can learn to enrich his experience of beer by tuning in to its nuances. With practice, you can soon review a beer in the manner of a professional.
Although it might seem logical to begin a discussion of beer and the senses with a look at taste, we won’t. Taste is the obvious starting point. Our goal is to enrich our experience, nudge it towards places we don’t often go.
Begin your journey with a hand-washed, air-dried glass; if you are sampling multiple beers, each should get the same fresh start. A glass at room temperature is fine- save the frosted mugs for root beer floats.
Relax. You will be sipping rather than chugging, and focusing upon one or two aspects of the beer in your glass before you turn your attention to another of its qualities. All five of your senses will have something to do.
Sight: Judging the Appearance of Beer
Our sense of taste is heavily dependent upon visual and olfactory stimuli. What we see and smell conjures expectations in our mind about what we will taste. We anticipate a certain flavor from a bubbling, light gold beverage topped with two fingers of white foam, but a different flavor when we see a glass full of deep, shiny brown liquid with a sandy tan head.
Take note of what you expect the beer to taste like, given the way it looks. If your beer is dark, especially if it is near black, do you expect to taste chocolate? Coffee? Cola? Burned toast? Charcoal? If it is light gold, are you expecting a light crisp flavor? Lemon? Banana? Are you expecting to be refreshed? Did reality match your expectations?
What to look for in a Beer
During a tasting session, one studies the beer’s characteristics, including:
- Color of the beer
- Color and duration of the foam head
Beer comes in an astounding range of ambers, from pale yellow to just about black. What color is the beer in front of you; to what extent does it adhere to the expected color range for the style of brew? Is it just brown, or can you see red tints? Red tints, for example, might indicate that the beer maker blended malt styles and, if so, perhaps you will be able to detect a flavor or aroma that differentiates this beer from one made in the same style that does not show red tints.
When you poured the beer, how substantial was its head? Was it white, yellow, off-white, chocolatey? Were the bubbles billowy and uniformly small, or did they seem tightly packed, perhaps pockmarked? Sometimes the head endures; sometimes it dissipates almost immediately. As you sip the beer, the foam may leave traces on the side of the glass, at times barely noticeable, at others it will grip like frost on a window. We call the traces of foam lacing. Style determines if a beer is supposed to generate a substantial head, so not all well made beer generates gobs of foam. However, if you see substantial lacing, it usually indicates that the brew was expertly crafted.
Hold your glass up to the light. Can you see through it? Clearly, or is it murky, or hazy? Does it block light (as a stout will) or seem to glow from within? Do you see particles floating around in it? If you are drinking a wheat beer, it’s normal to see yeast sediment floating around. If you see particles in your nut brown ale, they are not nuts- the beer has a problem.
Is the beer carbonated like a soda, or entirely flat? Can you feel the carbonation as your sip?
Smell: Judging the Aroma of Beer
What we smell taps into expectations developed by what we see. You are more likely to expect a whiff of coffee or chocolate from a near-black beer because the color has conditioned you to those flavors and scents. Your sense of smell is far more acute than your sense of taste, and aroma to a considerable degree determines what you taste.
As you sample a variety of beer types from different geographic origins, you will notice a wider range of aromas in your beer. If you formerly only drank lager from megabrewery x and sometimes y, you might have thought that beer smelled like, well, beer. As you become familiar with offerings from craft breweries, however, or with imports other than pilsners, beer will no longer simply smell like beer. Scents of greater specificity will sprint to mind.
Beer will begin to smell like bread, perhaps even toasted white bread or rye bread; like flowers and trees, perhaps gardenia or pine; like spice, but maybe you’ll be able to narrow the aroma down to nutmeg, cloves or coriander. One beer may not only smell like “fruit,” it may smell like banana, grapefruit, orange, raison, or plum- and not be a fruit beer, either. Chocolate, apple, coffee, honey, pear? Every noteworthy craft brew will begin to smell like something far different from “beer.”
Even if you never develop the ability to distinguish the hundreds of flavors the professionals seem to, you will learn to differentiate hops from malt from yeast, and even these basics add up to an appreciation greater than your prior assessment that beer tasted and smelled like beer.