Today we have one more Beer Week post from Jim Wagner, business owner and designer by day; devoted husband, father, and beer nerd all the time. He’s been brewing his own beer since receiving an equipment kit as a college graduation gift a long, long time ago. What little free time he has is spent writing about craft beer and beer culture at kcbeerscouts.com.
Beer has a history that predates history itself; a simple basic recipe of malted grain, water and yeast (though no one knew about yeast until very recently) that has stood the test of time by providing everything from a more sanitary hydration source to a spirit-lifting libation at modern social gatherings.
Brewmasters throughout the ages have found ways to tweak and build upon that basic recipe to create beers with characteristics as diverse and nuanced as humankind itself. First came spices and hops, then an array of grains and malts enabled more variety and flavors than ever before. So let’s take a moment to honor beer’s amazing history by rightly taking our place in it. Today we’re on a mission to find the beers (or, let’s be honest, all the many beers) that speak to us!
To do that, you’ve got to learn the art of truly experiencing a beer. We’ll get all five senses involved to help us evaluate a beer. So grab some friends and a mixed-six to set up a good ol’ beer tasting party, or just venture over to the local liquor store and pick up a bottle of something you’ve never tried before. I challenge you to start with something fairly bold and out of your comfort zone, and prepare yourself for an experience.
Now, if we’re going to take the time to sit down for a sensory evaluation of a drink — be it tea or beer or wine — let’s be smart and get it out of the bottle or can. The packaging deprives two of our senses from getting in on the action, because we probably can’t see the beverage, and we certainly can’t smell it properly.
What to pour it in, then? A tulip or snifter are excellent beer tasting glasses. They have large round bottoms with narrower necks to hold in aroma. A standard pint glass is okay, but a wine glass is even better.
If you’ll be tasting several beers, have some neutral food and water to cleanse your palate between samples. Saltines, white bread and some still water are best. And if you’d like to keep track of your thoughts as you taste, I’ve got a form that’ll help you out right here.
Now that we’re prepared, let’s get to it!
Time to open your first beer. Kkshhhuuh! Pfffst! Ah, sense #1: Listening. That crack of the can or pop of the bottle cap has been used for a century to sell beer to people thru radio and television. Enjoy it! Your other senses are already getting jealous. That sound can also give you a clue as to how carbonated your beer is. A big noise may mean more bubbles, and a softer sound, fewer.
Tilt your glass to the side slightly and pour about half of your sample of beer down the side of the glass. Then tilt the glass back up and pour the second half right down the middle. This way you get a nice, fluffy cap of foam to admire. Sense #2: Vision. Like great food, great drink should be admired with the eyes.
Look at your beer. Notice the details — there’s more than just color. Start at the top with the head of foam. What color is it? Is it full of tiny, dense bubbles or just wisps of dissipating foam? How long does it stay in the glass?
Now, onto to the beer itself. Most beer color falls in a spectrum from straw-yellow to black with a whole range of lovely goldens, ambers and browns in between. The colors may show more complexity near the edges of the glass with tinges of orange or red. Beer with additives like fruit may take on a more shocking hues of scarlets and pinks. Finally, notice its clarity. Brewers often strive for crystal-clear beer, but some unfiltered styles may be cloudy to downright opaque.
Now that you’ve gotten a good look, let’s move on to sense #3: Smell. Or, in beer terms, aroma. Give the glass a gentle swirl — enough to stir up the beer and release some carbonation, but not enough to spill. During this exercise, capping your glass with your hand to avoid a mess is totally accepted. Now, stick your nose right into that glass. Go totally Miles from Sideways. Take a short sniff. What do you smell? Bread? Caramel? Grapefruit? Coffee? Alcohol? Dive back in for a longer whiff. Do you notice anything new? Cookies, pine needles or dark chocolate? It may be intense or subtle, but it’s an indication of what’s to come.
Alright, it’s finally your tongue’s turn. Sense #4: Taste. Take a small sip, but don’t swallow right away. Let the beer roll around in your mouth. The human taste bud can only pick up five flavors, sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savory (umami). Any of these five may be present in your beer, though most likely you’ll be tasting sweet, bitter and maybe sour. Go ahead and swallow your sip. How did the beer taste compared to how it smelled?
Take another drink. This time pay attention to how the beer feels in your mouth. Sense #5: Touch. It is thick and viscous? Thin and watery? Does it tingle with high-carbonation or make you pucker like an over-steeped tea? Does the bitterness grab the back of your tongue, refusing to let go until long after you’ve swallowed? Does a pleasant hint of fruit linger?
After your second drink, try to exhale thru your nose. That will give your olfactory system another shot at picking up aromas and scents. Aaah!
So there you have it — the Beer Scout guide to how to taste a beer with all five senses. (Sound a bit like eating mindfully? Mmm hmm … ) There’s plenty of good reading available to help you recognize the specific aromas and flavors you’re likely to come across in each style of beer. Check out Craft Beer’s guide to beer styles to start.
Want to see how your tastebuds compare to others? Check out the beer reviews at sites like ratebeer.com and Untappd. And we have lots of great beer info over at kcbeerscouts.com. Prost! —Jim, KC Beer Scouts