Before your righteous indignation kicks in and you say, “I know perfectly well how to drink beer, thank you very much; I’ve been doing it well enough for years,” read a little further on. I’m fairly confident that if you’re reading this you are not potably-challenged. There is a difference however, between drinking beer and tasting it, and I mean really tasting it. Tasting it to appreciate all of the nuances of taste, aroma, and mouthfeel that the brewer lovingly imbued within the libation.
The first thing to understand is that taste itself comprises one leg of a bigger category, namely flavor. Flavor is built on three pillars: taste, aroma, and mouthfeel. When you’re tasting beer in a formal capacity, it’s really an exercise in understanding the flavor. Taste refers to how the taste buds in your tongue register. Is it sweet? Salty? Umami? Sour? Bitter? Fatty? Mouthfeel includes alcohol warmth, carbonation, slickness, spice, temperature, all of the more physical mouth sensations. The aroma is comprised of any of the literally tens of thousands of aroma compounds that can be malt-, hop-, yeast-, water-, or adjunct-derived.
Now that we are aware of all the components of flavor, let’s set the stage for implementing our knowledge. To really taste a beer you want an environment free from distractions, primarily other smells. Leave off the perfume or the cologne, and the lotion can wait. You want your nose focused intently on the beer. You also want to trust yourself. People are particularly attuned to different aroma and taste compounds. It’s up to you to learn your preferences, and to trust your senses. Finally, if you’re tasting with a friend or friends, it’s important to develop your own opinion, before conversing with others. Aroma and taste have been shown to be some of the most suggestable senses. If you don’t smell grapefruit, but your partner does, chances are pretty high that you’ll smell it on the second whiff.
Alright, start your noses. Many aroma compounds are very volatile, and so you’ll want to sniff soon after pouring. Also, some aroma compounds bind to your sense receptors and make you blind to them so you’ll only get one shot. Swirl the beer gently to rouse some carbonation and release some of the aromatic compounds. Many of these molecules hitch rides on the CO2, so rousing makes them more visible to your nose. Hold the beer about six inches below your nose and take a quick sniff. This may seem counterintuitive. Don’t you want to stick your nose in the glass? The short answer is no. Your aroma receptors, those numerous, are sensitive, you don’t want to overwhelm them. Once you’ve done the long sniff, you can now put your nose near the edge of the glass and take another short sniff. Then place your hand over the top of the glass and swirl. This concentrates the aroma molecules in the top of the glass so that when you then take a longer sniff, 1 or 2 seconds, you get the full aroma profile of the beer.
Once you feel you’ve grasped the aroma of a beer, note it’s color, clarity, and head color and retention. While these are important to appreciate independently, they also build an expectation of flavor. Is it dark building expectations of roasted chocolate and coffee? Is it hazy suggesting passion- and grapefruit? These can be helpful things to know, but also keep an open mind, they’re not hard and fast rules. Also, what temperature is it? While specific temperature recommendations vary by style, a general rule is to serve between 45 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Colder and the CO2 will stay in suspension, keeping the aromatics and taste to a minimum. Warmer and it will quickly lose most of its nuance, perhaps tasting flat or lightstruck.
Finally, taste that beer! Hold it on your tongue. Forget the old myth about taste buds in certain zones of the tongue. All your buds can pick up all of the flavor. Listen to what your tongue is telling you. Think about how it feels on your tongue. Swish it around between your teeth and force that CO2 out of suspension. Swallow it and think about any lingering flavors or sensations in your mouth. Hold your nose, take another sip, swallow, then breath out through your nose. This retronasal style of tasting will give you a surprising burst of aroma as the compounds are exhaled past your olfactory bulb. Enjoy that beer. You’ve just tasted beer for the first time! Find it exhausting? Well then, put your feet up and have a beer.