How to: Taste beer

Katie Mather gets down to basics, with a few tips on nosing and tasting beer like the pros.

article-banner

Tasting beer at a professional level is a skilled profession, but every single sommelier at the top of their game began their career trying to tell the difference between NEIPAs and IPAs. This dream job takes a lot of training and a lot of drinking bad beers to get there. You might not have a burning desire to become a professional beer sommelier yourself, but as a beer lover, it pays to know what you’re tasting when you drink what you drink.

Just think of the world of flavours you’ll open up by geeking out just a little bit – and all the different ways you’ll be able to describe the beers you like (and the ones you don’t). Say goodbye to “yeah, that’s alright that” and hello to “I really like the pungent, floral aroma of this, I bet it has Centennial hops in.”

I’m not saying it’s great to be a smartarse, I’m just extolling the virtues of developing your skills in something you genuinely enjoy. It really broadens your experience, and in my personal progression within the beer world, I may still be near the middle of the ladder but I’m learning new terminology and finding out more about my palate every day. It’s created a different level of understanding in my brain that helps me pick out what I like and why – and what I don’t and why – and that makes drinking beer even more of a joy.

If you love beer, why not learn to taste it like the pros? What’ve you got to lose?

Do you like it?

This simple question is the only thing you really need to remember. Even fully qualified beer sommeliers who taste the best brews in the world at international competitions ask themself this. Because what’s the point in a beer you can’t drink?

Nigel Sadler, a senior tutor at the Beer and Cider Academy, judges beers all over the world, and he also knows his wines and ciders too. His advice is to think about why you like a beer – or why you don’t.

“I’m not here to tell you what to drink,” he says. “My role is to teach you how to enjoy it. Is it unbalanced? Is it too sweet? Go open-minded and get rid of your pre-conceptions of the beer you’re drinking, whatever they might be. Think about whether you like it or not, and then try to figure out why that is.”

Lotte Peplow is a Cicerone accredited beer sommelier, and judges beer at some of the world’s biggest competitions. She agrees with Nigel, and adds that your taste is individual and should be nurtured that way too.

“The most important point about beer tasting is to note what you taste and not be swayed by your friends or colleagues,” she insists. “Everyone’s palate is individual. Just because your friend can taste lemon, for example, doesn’t mean to say you can too. This also applies to whether you like the beer. It’s all about personal preference, have confidence in your own judgement and don’t let others influence you.”

Drink more beer!

This is the best part of your “training”. To truly understand beer styles, characteristics and flavours you’re going to need to taste them, which means a lot of reaching for beers you’d never normally go for. A beer judge might sit through 100+ beers in one day’s competition heat, of course these will just be sips… but still. That’s a lot of beer.

You probably won’t need or want to drink beer in these sorts of outlandish quantities, but over time if you make the effort to taste one or two beers outside of your favourite style every week, you’ll develop a mental library of tastes and aromas you can call on in the future. Plus, it gives you plenty of background info to fill in the gaps when you taste a beer you’re not sure of. For example: maybe the IPA you just sipped has a creamier texture than you expected, and a fluffier head. Flipping through the cascading, colour-coded tabs in your brain you’ll be able to find the mental note you made for wheat beer, and correlate it. Bam. This beer most likely has wheat in it. You just Sherlocked the crap out of that beer.

According to Lotte, the best thing you can do is: “Three words: Practice, practice, practice! I found it useful to hone my technique on classic examples of the beer style.”

By “classic” examples, Lotte means beers that are absolute bastions of the style they are brewed to. Think Westmalle or Orval for a classic Trappist beer, Coniston Bluebird or Hook Norton’s Hooky for a classic English bitter. Chat to the people who run your favourite bottleshop – they’ll definitely be able to help you pick out some classics. Think of it like crate digging.

Nigel says you can start your tasting training right away, although it might be best to start at home. “Close your eyes and concentrate on what’s going on in your mouth and nose,” he says. “Isolate the flavour and aroma and figure it out from there. Drink any type of beer and taste as many styles as you can. Styles are becoming blurred, so while it’s useful to understand whether a beer is “to style” at competition level, when you’re drinking at home or in the pub it’s secondary.”

Learn about 'off lavours'

Not all beer is good. Some is very, very bad. Part of a beer judge’s job is to identify faults, especially in competition scenarios, so they need to have the honed senses of a bloodhound – a bloodhound that’s really good at spotting the smell of sweetcorn.

The thing about off flavours though, is that for a judge they’re pretty fascinating. You might sniff your beer and notice a slight whiff of vinegar, or a touch of popcorn. These fragrances aren’t proof that the brewers made a terrible mistake with their shopping bags on brew day – it’s all to do with chemical compounds and the way our brains perceive them. Well, I think that’s fascinating anyway.

“There are myriad reasons why a beer can taste bad,” says Lotte. “Some of them are to do with the brewing side and some are the fault of the pub or bar. If a beer contains off flavours from the brewing process and is dispensed through dirty lines it will taste doubly bad!”

There are courses you can take to learn more about off flavours such as Cicerone and the Beer and Cider Academy, and local CAMRA groups offer them too. But Nigel advises that if you’re just starting out you can quite happily create your own tester kits at home – which is great, because they can be quite expensive.

“To learn about off flavours and taints, read a little about what to expect from the fault and then do a little DIY. For acetaldehyde, you can get an emulsion paint tester pot and that’ll smell exactly the same as this off aroma at low concentrations (do not drink this!). It’s only at high concentrations that you start getting that ‘green apple’ aroma and flavour. Acetic is a vinegary off flavour that’s very easily noticed. Get a teaspoon of vinegar and add it to a glass of water. Now you’ll be able to identify the taste and smell of that fault.”

He also advises that smelling good things helps you to understand more about the beers you drink too.

“Next time you’re in the kitchen, open the spice cupboard and sniff the dried coriander. Now you’ll see what the spicy notes are in witbeer.”

If all that sounds a little out of your depth, don’t worry. There are plenty of videos and articles online explaining the most common faults in beer, and once you’ve learned how to identify them, you’re golden. However, it may make you a little fussier about what you drink once you know what’s good and what’s bad…

How to drink

Imagining a serious-faced person swirling a glass of dark, viscose liquid around the bowl of a long-stemmed glass before taking a big ole sniff is probably the last thing you’d think of when you think about beer, but that’s exactly what a beer sommelier does (sometimes). Beer has complex flavours and aromas just as wine does, and there are special tricks you can employ to help bring them all out of hiding. Lotte gives us the lowdown on her best methods.

“We can only taste five flavours: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savoury (or umami). Everything else is an aroma,” she says – in other words, if you’re going to do this right, you need to smell the beer properly.

“Firstly, cover the glass with your hand then swirl vigorously to release the flavour aromatics. Take two or three short, sharp sniffs like a dog. This helps stimulate your olfactory senses. Then cover, swirl again and take one long deep sniff. Your nose will give you more information about the beer than your mouth. If your nasal senses are becoming fatigued smell your hand or the back of your wrist to reset your olfactory apparatus.”

“Then, and only then, take a big swig. Make sure the beer moves across your tongue and along the sides of your mouth, and always swallow beer to appreciate the aftertaste. The beer needs to hit your ortho nasal receptors (back of your nose) and retro nasal receptors (back of your throat) for you to register the maximum sensory information.”

“Then note the aftertaste, for example, what are you tasting in your mouth for at least 15 seconds after you swallow the beer? What do you register? Does the beer smell fruity but taste sour? Or maybe it smells of chocolate and coffee but tastes bitter? Does it have a long, dry, astringent aftertaste or a super-clean finish?”

While swirling your glass vigorously may look slightly out of place down the Goose and Feather, these tried and tested methods really will help you to pinpoint every specific aspect of the beer you’re drinking. So next time you pull a decent bottle to drink at home, why not give it a try?


Keep enjoying beer

It’s very easy to start diagnosing every beer you drink as faulty when you start really tasting it. Where once you’d have happily sunk three pints of Becks, now you’re finding only the finest milk stouts will do. Hey, that’s fine, you do you. Just remember that beer is to be enjoyed, so try not to give in to the temptation of over-analysing everything you drink.

Tasting takes practice to accomplish, and it can take over. If you’re struggling to enjoy a pint of craft lager in the sunshine because you’re flapping over whether there’s an ungracious level of DMS there or if it’s just true to Helles style, well done, you’re identifying things correctly – but it might be time to step back a bit and remember why you were drinking it in the first place.

Tasting beer is a skill – no really! – and you won’t get it right at first. Persevere, keep on learning and trying new things, and you’ll get there. And last of all remember that what the pros look for isn’t tastes that knock you sideways or unusual, pricey ingredients.

“I’m looking for balance,” says Lotte. “The malts and the hops need to balance in perfect harmony with just the right amount of bitterness, sweetness and sourness for the style.

The beer should be free from faults, display the correct level of carbonation for the style and be served in a clean, style-appropriate glass.”

They want a good beer that tastes great. They want it to be treated well, and served properly. They want to enjoy themselves while they’re enjoying it. Isn’t that what we all want?

Share this article