Gone, are the days of single beer patronage. Consumers are thinking with their palates and brewers are keen to deliver. Flavour is king. For those keen to get on board and earn a little beer cred along the way, it’s a good idea to start developing your palate, understanding and vocabulary. Here is a five-level cheat sheet to get you started on your beer tasting trajectory.
Crisp and clear, with a fluffy white head you could float a coin on. Let’s face it, when it comes to beer, appearance is important. The two things you should be thinking about when giving your brew the once-over are colour and clarity.
Think about appearance in relation to style. From honey gold Aussie lagers to jet black stouts, crystal clear pilsners and distinctly hazy European wheat beers, appearance is often a good initial clue as to what you should expect on the palate.
But looks aren’t everything, right? An interesting newcomer to the circuit, and definite wild card when it comes to the clarity debate, is the infamous New England IPA. Often as hazy as swamp sludge, these unsightly numbers have clarity purists scratching their heads. They taste good though, often flaunting a colossal dose of fruit-forward hop character. Line one up next to a crisp lager for the ultimate visual comparison.
Hold up. Before taking a sip, get your nose right up in there. We know that taste and smell are closely related, so take this step seriously and form an initial impression before diving in. There are plenty of smaller factors affecting the aroma of beer, but a lot of what is going on in the glass comes down to the influence of hops and yeast.
Hops have been having their day in the sun since the IPA was revived to legend status during the American craft beer revolution. To make things tricky, there are a multitude of aromatic characteristics to look out for. These vary anywhere from ripe tropical fruit and subtle floral notes to woody, herbal, dank, resinous or even ‘wine-like’. But don’t be put-off, grab yourself one of the hop aroma charts floating around the internet and before long you’ll know your Citra from your Simcoe.
When brewers throw around words like esters and phenols, they’re describing aromas produced during fermentation. Characteristics differ dramatically depending on the yeast used and its treatment during fermentation. Lager yeast (saccharomyces pastorianus) is known for clean fermentation and restrained aromatic character, while its ale producing cousin, saccharomyces cerevisiae, is a different story all together. Some ale strains are solely responsible for the powerful aromatic characteristics that define certain styles, think German Hefeweizen or Belgian Trappist ales. Aromas may vary from subtly spicy or fruity notes to pronounced banana, clove and bubblegum.
Alright, you’ve put in the hard yards and now the time has come. Take a sip.
British beer aficionado Oz Clarke advocates the technique of burping the beer to effectively judge its character, but at the risk of looking like a fully-fledged slob you might want to opt for the more restrained method of letting it linger on your tongue for a short time before swallowing.
Work with general descriptors and associations. Bread, cereal and biscuity flavours are commonly found in paler brews while roasty, smoky, and caramelised flavours often characterise the specialty grains used in darker beers and heavier ales. Flavours of tropical fruit, citrus, spice and resin are common in hop-forward beers, but at the end of the day, personal interpretation is the key. If a flavour reminds you of something in particular, don’t be bashful, get it out there.
Body and mouthfeel
Consider the beer’s texture when you sip. Is it thick, thin, silky or oily? Does it finish crisp or linger on the palate? Is it astringent and harsh, or sweet and cloying? While body and mouthfeel are often associated with a beer’s colour, this can be misleading. It’s important to think with your palate and not be disorientated by appearance.
Alcohol and residual sugar play a key role here. Complex sugars that are less fermentable remain in the finished beer and impart sweetness, as well as a heavier body, while simple, highly fermentable sugars lighten the mouthfeel of the brew with higher alcohol production and less residual sweetness. The brewer has an arsenal of tricks up their sleeve when it comes to controlling these factors, including mash temperature variation, the addition of adjunct sugars and the selection of specialty grains. It may be hard to get your head around, but using a proportion of plain old white table sugar can result in a drier beer with a noticeably leaner body than an all-grain brew – a trick used in some of the world’s benchmark IPAs.
Beer’s bitterness comes from the alpha acids in hops which impart their distinctive bite when isomerised during the boil. Bitterness is measured in IBUs (international bitterness units) and varies enormously depending on style.
While some European styles limit bitterness to just a few IBUs, it is quite common these days to see American IPAs cross the 100 IBU mark, at times testing the upper limits of palatability. American brewery Dogfish Head famously released a brew that clocked in at 658 IBUs – surely more of a test of will than a pleasurable drinking experience.
With that said, a well-crafted beer can easily suppress assertive bitterness levels when balanced with malt sweetness. It’s helpful to consider aftertaste in this case, as bitterness tends to linger on the palate.
With all these things in mind, don’t forget that the key to good beer is enjoyment. Line a few beverages up in good company and get the conversation started. It’s all good fun.