I remember watching TV wine experts – it was always wine then, never beer – telling us a particular wine tasted of hay or leather or strawberries. I would ask myself how they managed to pick out these flavours. Were they really there, or were the experts just making it all up? And if they really could taste all that in a drink, then why couldn’t I? I supposed you had to be born with a good palate and that mine was just defective.
But of course I was wrong. You can train yourself to pick out more flavours, and you can have a good time doing it too. So when craft beer came along and pints started to taste more interesting, that’s what I did.
I started seeking out beers I hadn’t tried before, and paying attention to what I was tasting. The more I did this, the more I was able to describe each beer I drank and to recognise what made me like or dislike it.
Here are a few pointers I picked up along the way that really help you get a handle on the drink inside your glass.
Take a proper look at your beer
Checking the beer’s colour and clarity is always a good place to start. You’re not simply looking for faults – if your beer is cloudy that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s off. Doing this also gives you an idea about what to expect when you taste it.
The darker the beer the more robust its malt flavour will be. (Usually.) A bit of haze is a good sign that the beer will have more body – that is, it will feel fuller and smoother on your tongue. If it looks bright, lively and inviting, you’re probably in for a good time.
You should also look to see if the beer has a proper head, and note the level of carbonation. If your lager looks listless and has no head, it might be time to worry.
Your visual once-over also lets you check the cleanliness of your glass. Big patches of bubbles clinging to the side show where it’s dirty. Don’t be shy about sending drinks back if the pub gets this one wrong.
Get your nose in on the action
Think back for a moment to the last time you had a really bad cold. Nose completely blocked. Unable to smell a thing. Can you remember how food would taste muted and bland?
You can try it now for yourself if you have a drink to hand. Take a sip and note how it tastes. Then hold your nose closed and take another sip. You’ll find you won’t taste as much.
This is because our sense of taste is hugely dependent on our sense of smell. And it doesn’t stop in front of our lips. Aromas travel from inside our mouth back up into our nose all the time adding body, depth, and colour to the flavour sensations our tongue sends up to our brain.
Smell your beer before you take a sip, but don’t take huge long sniffs. This will just dry out your nose and overload your olfactory receptors. Two or three shortish sniffs are better.
Start by identifying basic aromas like sweet or sour, then move on to anything else you might recognise. Common descriptors are fruity, grainy, grassy, floral, and so on. Then you might specify further – not just fruity but stone fruit like peaches and apricots. You get the idea.
Usually at this point it’s a party in the glass, but if things are a little bit lifeless you can give the beer a gentle swirl to wake it up. You can also cover the top of your glass as you swirl to trap the aroma compounds before they escape into the open air. Take another sniff and see what you get now.
Your beer’s aroma will develop as it warms in the glass. If you can’t smell much it could just be the beer’s a bit too cold. Try coming back in a couple of minutes once it’s had time to warm up in your hands.
At last it’s time to taste your beer
OK here’s what to do. Breathe in and hold it. No need to fill your lungs to bursting, a normal breath is all you need. Take a sip but don’t swallow it right away. Let the beer coat your tongue for a few seconds, then swallow. With your mouth still closed, breathe out through your nose. This pushes a second wave of aroma compounds across your olfactory receptors, and is called ‘retronasal’ tasting.
The things to look out for here are flavours, mouthfeel, and aftertaste.
The flavours should be similar to the aromas you noticed earlier, and you can assess them in the same way. Start with a broad brush approach, then narrow it down. If you feel some guidance would help you can check out the beer flavour wheel.
Mouthfeel might sound technical but it’s just describing the physical sensation of the beer in your mouth. Is it thick like full fat milk or thin like water? Is there lots of carbonation or just a little? Is it sharp or soft?
Aftertaste is important to beer so give yourself a moment between sips and notice: is there a drying effect, are there any flavours lingering, or any new ones developing? If it’s a strong beer, can you feel any alcohol warmth in your throat?
Don’t worry about right or wrong answers here. Just take a moment to think about this stuff. If you do it regularly you will start to pick out flavours you’ve found before in other beers. The more you do it, the better you will be at describing what you’re tasting and linking common characteristics between beers.
It’s all about the build up.
We do all this is because beer tastes better when you take the time to notice it. I’m not saying you need to sit in silent reverence, notebook in hand, ignoring your mates round the table. But the little bit of anticipation created by this ritual can definitely enhance your enjoyment of a beer, and it only takes a moment. Try it next time you’re out for a drink.
Anthony Gladman is a Beer Sommelier and freelance writer based in London. Anthony loves beer and wants others to love it too. He runs tutored beer tastings, food and beer pairing events, and training sessions. He is a member of the British Guild of Beer Writers, and a World Beer Awards judge. You can find him online at anthonygladman.com, and as @agladman on social media. For a more in-depth look at tasting technique check out this post on his blog.