How to taste beer
11 September 2015, By Jonny
Beer is meant to be enjoyed. Sometimes you want to sit down, stop thinking, and just enjoy a few pints with friends. But what’s to say it’s not enjoyable to sit down and analyse a beer – to work out why it’s so damned delicious. Some beers deserve to be savoured, and doing so can help you learn about beer and what styles you like the most.
So here are our tips on tasting beer like a professional and enjoying every last sip like it’s your last. First tip, don't do it like the guy in the photo*.
Let’s get one thing straight from the off. Put down the pint glass. The key to getting the aroma is to have a glass with a rim no wider than 2.5 inches. Otherwise all the aroma escapes without you getting a good sniff, and the aroma is around 70% of what you taste. Hence why food tastes of nothing when you have a cold.
Stemmed tulip glasses are the best generic glasses for beer tasting because their bowl shape traps the aroma. We use these for our tastings when picking beers for Beer Merchants, and the Craft Beer Channel use them for tastings and in their boxes.
If you want to get really technical, tekku glasses are fantastic for high aroma beers like saisons, brandy glasses are perfect for high ABV beers, and the unique Spiegl IPA glasses are untouchable for hoppy beers. As a side note, for simple enjoyment, we prefer 2/3 or schooner glasses.
Pouring a beer isn’t as simple as you might think. There are two vital things to think about – the amount of head and the sediment. In the UK we rarely give our beers enough head – at least 2 fingers’ worth is about right. Head protects the liquid from oxidation, helps keep the beer stay carbonated for longer, and releases the most aroma.
When it comes to the sediment however, you usually want as little as possible. Always check if the beer is bottle conditioned – it will say on the bottle or you’ll see the sediment at the bottom of the beer. If it is, you need to pour carefully to keep the funky, bitter yeast sediment at the bottom of the bottle and not in your glass. You’ll lose a few millilitres of beer, but then it won’t taint the good stuff.
There are exceptions to the rule however. German weissbiers should be poured yeast and all, and often unfiltered IPAs taste better with the sediment in, as a lot of it is hop proteins that add to the flavour. You’re best reading the bottle or asking the brewer on twitter.
It is important that you serve your beer at the right temperature to get the best from it. The warmer something is, the more you can taste it, which explains Super Chilled Foster’s.
That said, a lot of beers can come straight out of the fridge – lagers and highly hopped IPAs can hold flavour well at very chilled temperatures. However, a good English bitter, imperial stout or a Belgian strong needs to be more of an ambient temperature, so take it out of the fridge 15 minutes or so before tasting to get the most from them. About 12 degrees is best if you have a thermometer to hand…
Now to the aroma
If you really want to get all the nuances out of your favourite brew you should start by smelling it. The bubbles in the head and the body of a beer all carry the particles that give the beer its aroma, so give the beer a swirl to burst them, then give the beer a sniff. We use the bloodhound technique, giving three quick inhales in between exhales to the side of the glass.
To get more aroma, place your hand over the top of the glass when you swill to fill the glass with aroma. You really should be able to get a lot out of it, from the piney, tropical hops to yeasty esters and alcohol hits. Remember what you smell will be unique to yourself so don’t get hung up if your friend gets oranges and you get bananas – it’s just the different tastes and what you are most alert to.
Finally, how to actually taste beer
Finally the best bit, and the moment to take your time over.
You don’t want to just take a little sip as this can let the alcohol dominate a lot of flavours, and don’t swallow straightaway. Let it wash over you. You want to coat your mouth so you can taste all the elements of the beer over time. The initial taste you get will be influenced hugely by the tongue, and the aftertaste is more by the smell as it travels back through your nose. So never, ever, EVER use a spittoon.
We aren’t talking about swilling it round like a wine here or pulling air through it. Just let it rest for a couple of seconds before swallowing. Firstly you’ll get the initial hops of the beer, tropical fruits or pine. While it’s in your mouth the flavours of the malts will start to come out, rich caramel or light biscuit, tempered by the yeast the brewer used. When you swallow, the beer passes over the soft palate and you get a hit of the bitterness. Depending on how bitter the beer is, this flavour could go on for several seconds. You'll also get a second wave of aromatics as you breath out, so don’t judge the beer until it’s completely faded.
All that’s left to do after that is log in to untappd, get out your notebook, speak to the camera, or just take another sip and enjoy. And remember, beers aren’t stuffy so once you’ve analysed it, get over it and get stuck in!
*Beautiful image by Matt Curtis of totalales.co.uk