At first glance, tasting beer is a simple task.
One simply tips back the glass/mug/flute/cup/stein and then enjoys to varying degrees (from highly to not at all) the beverage. If quantities/time/circumstances/
If only it was that simple. While the steps listed above describe the drinking of beer, this is certainly not what many would call ‘tasting’ beer.
Truly tasting a beer is far more complex and, at times, more rewarding than simply pouring the liquid down one’s throat.
To truly taste beer one must attempt to describe the sensations one experiences from the brew. This explanation can be written, verbal, or more likely, in an inner self-dialogue.
At a recent beer tasting, I was asked to elaborate on how to adequately taste and describe beer.
This question is one that is worthy of thought and discussion.
Is there a method that we can use to describe beer that we are tasting that is simply understood, free of excess fluff and formulaic?
We must accept that there are many ways to taste and describe beer. Blogs, websites, newspaper pieces and books are dedicated to beer reviews and use a variety of means to describe the beverage. From alphanumerical systems, to symbols such as stars or pint glasses, to wordings in a variety of styles, people use systems from the surprisingly simplistic to the flagrantly flowery and proselytizing prose of the tortued beer writing artist.
With such a variety of styles and methods available, is there a balance that can be struck? Can we use a simple method that has enough depth to adequately describe the beer without being overly pretentious and unapproachable?
Use Your Common Senses
Beer appeals to the senses, and as such is best described using empirical language that is approachable to many. It’s organoleptic properties are often broken down into several common categories, and these conventions are a useful beginning in describing beer.
What follows are common categories to describe beer and some pointers to guide describing beer descriptively.
Appearance/Looks – Comment on colour of the beer, clarity, amount of carbonation, head/foam colour, texture, duration. Many choose to describe the appearance of lacing left on the glass.
Aroma/Smell – Comment on the characteristics given to the beer by the malt, hops, yeast and any additives. Describe how all combine, as well as the strength and characteristics of each. Be as descriptive as possible, citing common yet specific references. (‘Hops smell of citrus’ is a good start, but ‘a very strong level of American hops with notes of grapefruit’ is better). Do discuss anything out of the ordinary, such as common brewing flaws like the presence of DMS or Diacetyl.
Flavour/Taste – Describe each of the beers vital components (malt, hops, yeast, adjuncts and occasionally water). Discuss the interplay between the components. Discuss the presence of any off flavours and how significant they are. Do not discuss things that can’t be perceived directly.
Mouthfeel/Palate Sensations – Discuss the carbonation, body (thickness or viscosity), length of finish, general perception (sweet, dry), alcohol sensation (warming, hot, imperceptible, high, low)
Overall – This element is often one of the hardest for many new to describing beer. How does the beer seem when compiling all characteristics? Are there special nuances or flaws that add to the beers enjoyment or detract from it? How could the beer be improved? How would this beer compare to others of the style? Would it be acceptable to a novice drinker? To an experienced drinker? Was it of adequate age or freshness?
Style – If the brewer claims the beer is to a certain style, how well does it match up to others of its kind? When possible, compare and contrast to similar kinds of beers, taking in to account that there are always outliers in any system. Would it be better placed in a different style? (this happens more often than some would like)
Watch out for Traps
Things to avoid.
- Overly poetic language (keep it approachable yet not simplistic)
- Non specific language. All beers are wet, drinkable, quaffable, approachable. Words like these are filler and not descriptors
- Lack of quantifiers: how malty, how carbonated etc.
- Symbols, numbers etc. Reducing a beer description to 3 stars and ‘somewhat malty’ really does an injustice to the beer, the brewer and those that you are explaining it to or sharing it with
- Using more words than necessary. Be concise
- Saying negative things without describing the nature of your criticism. Don’t complain, use details. How can it be improved?
- Reviewing or discussing a beer that is gone beyond its normal lifespan. It does a disservice to all
With some effort and forethought we can certainly do a better job of describing this noble beverage in a manner which it deserves.