I have a knack for thinking and saying the unpopular things in life. Have a look at this post.
Folks who know me are usually willing to overlook this shortcoming, but with strangers this can be a tougher sell. I am going to come right out and say it point blank: when tasting beer, it has been my experience that people that brew beer are better at it. At this point I am sure that some readers will have clicked and moved on to other destinations on the website. To those that remain, hear me out. To my thinking there are several levels of tasting beer, and each of them has different goals and methods.
The most basic level of tasting beer is the simple like/dislike approach. Quite common for casual tastings with folks of varying degrees of interest, folks tasting beer like this may simply be looking to develop some level of experience in tasting beer. Tastings at this level tend to focus on ranking beers for more to less likeable. Quite often they are very casual and are quite fun for all involved. To me the real downside to this kind of tasting is that it leaves out the deeper questions about the beers being served. Questions about age, composition and faithfulness to historical styles are typically absent or downplayed. Beers served at this type of tasting may or may not be of similar types.
What I call an intermediate level tasting is one of the most common amongst tasters. One or more people provide several beer for sampling and they tend to be of a more focused selection. Typically a few beer styles are covered with several beers of a style available. Care is given to arrange the tasting order for the session so that the more flavourful and higher alcohol offerings are served towards the end so that easier drinking beers are not drowned out. As well, this allows the tasters to ease their way into the “palate wrecker” level beers.
My personal favourite type of tasting is focused or “theme” tasting. Beers served at this type of event tend to focus on a much tighter group of styles or on a particular theme. Beers judged at BJCP style competitions certainly fit into this type of tasting, but so do things like homebrewing club theme competitions brews. Essentially at theses types of tastings beers tend to have more elements in common and thus are usually somewhat similar in their aroma and flavour focus. Tasting at these sorts of events then become more nuanced as the tasters home in on the elements that make the beers stand above their peers. Beers that do not reflect the focal point of the tasting may not do well in the tasting, yet still be very good beers in their own right.
The last level of tasting that I think is worth mentioning here is that of tasting beers just to improve them. Often largely informal and very small, the goal of this sort of tasting is to ascertain the strong and weak points of a beer to determine what is wrong with it and how to improve it. This kind of tasting can represent everything from tasting home-brews, to tasting commercial beers for cloning, to tasting panels for commercial breweries. Attempts are often made to describe the flavors and aromas present in the beer and determine how to best improve future brews. Discussions here can take into account off-flavours, hop characteristics and even malt and yeast selection.
If these represent many of the typical tasting sessions, what describes the tasters themselves? It would be great to say that there is a natural progression from the simpler tasting to the more complex, but alas the world rarely works in the way the models would have us believe. The models tend to overlap a fair bit, save the last one. I have been a part of dozens of tastings and have seen people of all levels of experience at each sort of tasting and I love the diversity that this offers. However, brewers themselves make tastings even better as they have a lot more to offer at these sorts of events.
Why brewers you ask? Its simple really. They understand the process, they know the ingredients and what they bring, and they are very passionate about the product. They have the language necessary to discuss all the elements that go into the beer and what each brings. One of the best ways for many people to learn about something is to do it, and that is exactly what brewers bring to tastings. They have a deeper level of knowledge from having worked with the ingredients and the necessary processes. And yes, they have also made many of the mistakes that we have all tasted, from an undercarbonated beer to poor bittering levels to various staling reactions.
Whether a beer is excellent or terrible, talking about it with a taster that is also a brewer allows one access to a patois that lends itself to deeper discussion. Rather than something simple, it brings a level of complexity that allows for a finer focus on the tastes at hand. From hop selection to discussing gravities and grist bills, the brewer simply brings more to the tasting table than the non-brewer.
Do I think brewers are the be all and end all to tasting beer? Of course not. But they do more to the table than the average taster. And like many things in life, more is generally better.