DESPITE THEIR DIFFERENT REPUTATIONS, wine and beer share plenty in common; they’re complex, there are countless types, they can be paired with food with amazing results, and they’re always good for lowering inhibitions.
Wine tasting is a highly refined skill – so why shouldn’t the malted arts be taken just as seriously? Here’s a few tips that’ll have you looking like a beer expert. (At least until you’re slow dancing with a potted plant in the corner.)
Before taking part in a beer tasting, get a journal and a pencil to jot down your thoughts. If you’re new to tasting, beer journals can be seriously helpful, as it’s usually a challenge to come up with the right adjectives to describe taste.
33 Beers offers a really cool beer journal with a “flavor wheel” on each page to help you document various levels of sweet, spicy, hoppy, and bitter. If you don’t want to pay the $4, try printing out a free beer log.
1. The smoldering gaze
Stare at your beer like it’s been sitting across the bar giving you The Eye for the last half hour. Check out the color – is it yellow, amber, copper, brown? Is it cloudy? Check out the head, which should be fairly thick – use fingers to measure width (two fingers, etc). As the head subsides, examine the lace left clinging to the sides. Describe it in your journal.
2. The anticipatory whirl
You’ve seen wine snobs swirling the stuff around in their glasses, holding them up to the light, and squinting at the residual legs. The point of this is to help release more of the scents from the drink – and beer is a drink. Glare at the cork dorks, stick your nose in the air, and swish your beer in its glass. Examine the lace again. Don a monocle if at all possible.
3. The seductive aroma
Actually, it’s called a “bouquet.” Isn’t the rule that 80% of what we taste is really smell? Stick your nose in and inhale, then surreptitiously wipe the foam from your nostrils. Breathe it in again, this time through your mouth. Does it smell fruity? Nutty? Malty? This is when that beer journal really starts to come in handy – you can’t say “grainy” to describe every beer you drink.
The more practiced you get, the more detailed and specific your descriptions should become, until you’re irritating everyone with your insistence that Bud Light tastes like “a piney Christmas tree with a hint of nutmeg.”
4. The inevitable taste
In addition to flavor, you should also be aware of mouthfeel and finish. Take a sip, let the beer cover your entire tongue, and breathe out before swallowing (try not to dribble). Do the flavors match with the scents you noted? What’s the mouthfeel, or texture? Generally, this is described as light, medium, or full – pay attention to how the beer coats your mouth, if at all.
And the finish – after you swallow, what do you taste? With some beers, the flavors may stay fairly consistent; with others, you might find the aftertaste wildly different than what you experienced with the initial sip.
Describe more than seems necessary, particularly if you plan on writing about the beer later. For reasons which are obvious, it’s a bad idea to rely on your memory when it comes to beer tastings.
1. Get a palate cleanser. Water is best, but you can also use plain crackers.
2. Check the temperatures. Pale lagers should be served between 45 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit, amber and dark lagers between 50 and 55, pale ales between 50 and 55, and the darks should be between 55 and 60.
3. Use clean glasses. Don’t use oily soap with an animal fat base, which leaves a residue that changes the head of the beer. When in doubt, go with baking soda and hot water, and let the glasses air dry.
4. Use the right glasses. The different shapes – flute, mug, tumbler – are designed to most effectively present all aspects of the beer, from appearance to taste. Check out Beer Advocate for an extensive list of beer glassware and when to use which.
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Michelle is a musician, writer, and teacher just trying to see the world while doing what she loves for a living. She's taught ESL in Salvador, Brazil and kindergarten in Suwon, Korea, and now she's a full-time freelance writer living in Seattle (just to keep the city alliteration going). She'll try pretty much any food once and believes coffee is its own food group.
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