Beer tasting has become a very popular hobby. Similar to those who love wine, the beer enthusiast will learn, over time and tasting what to expect from different types of beer before it even goes into his mouth. In addition, beer tasters develop a palate that can distinguish subtle flavors and nuances between different beers – even of the same style.
Beer tasting is not difficult to learn, and certainly need not be intimidating. In past years, finding beer tastings was somewhat difficult, but they are much more plentiful today. Even many wine shops are adding beer tastings to go along with their wine events.
So, if you’re interested in getting started as a beer taster and enthusiast, this guide will hopefully give you some help. You’ll learn the different types of beer, as well as the proper etiquette of tasting beer and what to look for when you taste. You’ll even learn how to host a beer tasting in your own home. So………let’s drink up!
The Different Styles of Beer
There are primarily four styles of beer: ale, lager, lambic and hybrid.
How to Taste Beer
So, now you may be a little bit overwhelmed by the many different styles of beer, but this is where the fun begins. You’re going to a beer tasting. You have an idea of the characteristics of each type of beer you might taste. Here’s how to handle the actual tasting itself.
First, there’s the pouring. At a “real” beer tasting, the beer will be poured for you. But, nonetheless, you need to know how to pour a beer correctly.
The beer should run gently down the inside of the glass as you pour. Judge the speed of your pour by the head that is forming. You should have a head of about the width of two fingers when you’re finished pouring. Some beers contain visible yeast at the bottom of the bottle that is meant to be drunk with the beer. If this is the case, stop the pour with a bit of beer left in the bottle. Swirl the remaining liquid to lift the yeast sediment and pour it into your glass.
Before you begin drinking, look at the beer. Note whether the head is dense or thin. Heads are sometimes described as rocky if they are especially dense with dips and peaks forming as some of the bubbles pop. The color of the head is also worth noting and can range from pure white on Pilsners to light or medium brown on some stouts and porters.
Next, look at the beer itself. Is it cloudy or clear? What color is it? Try to judge in your head if it looks true to its style, based on the information you have about the style of beer you’re trying.
A beer will typically either smell hoppy or malty. Lighter colored beers usually have a hoppy smell while darker beers usually smell more like malt. But dark beers often have a roasted, chocolate or coffee aroma, too. You should give a beer at least three sniffs before you taste.
It’s important to note your first impression when tasting beer. There will be an initial sensation as the beer touches your tongue. Is it bitter? Sweet?
Feel the beer’s texture in your mouth. It might be silky, thick or thin. It may feel fizzy or flat.
Strength refers, of course, to the amount of alcohol in the beer. It is either measured specifically by the gravity of the beer or by determining the actual percentage of alcohol by volume. When you’re tasting, you are just getting a “feel” for whether it is a very strong beer.
As you hold the beer in your mouth and then swallow, you will note slightly different flavors, and you’ll note the flavor that lingers in your mouth after you swallow. Your mouth may have a bitter taste, or a malty sweetness.
If you’re taking notes, write down all your impressions. If you really liked the beer, make a note of it for purchasing later. Compare your notes to the typical characteristics of the style of beer you tried, and see how it compares. Take a second sip of the beer to see if your second impression is the same as your first.
Other tips on tasting
Do not taste new beers with food until at least the second taste. The flavor affects your impression. Cleanse your palate with water between beers. Though many people have crackers or cheese between beers, even these can affect your impression.
If you taste several beers, taste them in order of color, lightest to darkest, just like wine.
Developing Your Palate as a Beer Taster
Now it’s time to start developing a palate, and learning to detect the subtle differences from beer to beer. As a beginner, it’s likely that all pale ales, for example, taste exactly the same.
Here are some ways to improve your palate.
1. Taste only one kind of beer for a night. All pale ales taste the same? Taste two or three, one after the other, with no other kind of beer for that session. Go back and forth between them, making sure to cleanse your palate in between.
2. Don’t smoke. Smokers have a much less discriminating palate for beer (and wine and food) than non-smokers. The smoking dulls your palate. Cut back on the salt, too. It also dulls your palate.
3. Eat varied foods. This sounds crazy, but it really helps. When you’re describing the taste of the beer, you’re going to need to describe it as reminding you of something. The more varied your diet, the more words in your descriptive vocabulary. For example, that oatmeal stout tastes like chocolate. But is it dark chocolate or milk chocolate?
4. Try all the styles. Don’t limit your tasting to pilsner or pale ale. Try them all. The more you try beer, the more you’ll pick up subtle differences.
Host Your Own Beer Tasting
A great way to spread your enthusiasm about your new hobby is to host a beer tasting in your home. It’s fun, and seems a lot more grown up than just having the guys over for a few cold ones, doesn’t it?
Hosting a beer tasting is really pretty easy, especially now that you know exactly how to taste beer properly.
First, pick your beers
If you’ve been tasting for a while, you may already know some beers that you’re ready to share with your friends. Or, you may want to taste new ones yourself. Either way is fine. You might also consider having a tasting theme, such as doing all German beers or Octoberfest Beers in the fall, or all wheat beers for a summertime tasting.
You’ll need six to twelve beers at your tasting. Allow three ounces per person per taste. Of course, get extras for people to drink when the official tasting part is over. The best part of a tasting, after all, is having a full bottle of your favorite (or two).
Choose Your Guests
Four to six guests is a good number for a beer tasting. Any more than six and it can get crowded at the tasting table, and some people will get bored if you aren’t moving on to the next pour fast enough.
Set Up Your Tasting Spot
You’ll need the following for your beer tasting • A table
• A beer glass and water glass for each participant
• A pitcher of water
• A swill bucket
• Pen and Paper for each participant – it’s helpful if you go ahead and list the beers you’ll be tasting on the sheet, in order, with room after each beer’s name for the taster’s notes. You might also list where you bought the beer and its price, in case your guests want to go and buy some for themselves.
It’s a good idea to serve some food at your beer tasting. It will help soak up some of the alcohol, and it just makes for a better party. Try having one appetizer per beer or per two beers, with each appetizer being chosen for the fact that it pairs well with those one or two beers.
In general, cheese, bread, fruits and deli meats all pair well with beer. But, if you can find a couple of food items that specifically complement at least one of the beers you’re tasting; so much the better.
Here’s How it Works
• Each participant starts with a clean glass. You’ll pour about three ounces of beer into the glass. At this point, if you have compiled tasting notes on the beer; give your guests an overview. Remember to start the tasting with your lightest beer and work up to the darkest.
• Allow them to sniff, taste, discuss and taste again. You always swallow beer at a tasting because you can’t taste the hop bitterness until the beer reaches the back of your tongue for swallowing. So, you won’t pass the swill bucket just yet.
• Guests will want to take a sip or two of water from their water glasses before going on to the next beer. And, they may want to use some water from the pitcher to rinse their beer glasses, too. This is what the swill bucket is for.
• If you’d like, pass the appetizer that you’ve chosen to go with a particular beer between their first and second tastes of it. They should get a clear impression of the taste of the beer alone before they taste it with food.
• Have fun! A beer tasting isn’t designed to be a stuffy affair. It’s designed to be fun and educational. As long as you and your guests have a good time and drink some good beer, the tasting is a success.
When it comes to beer tasting, nothing takes the place of experience. However, there are plenty of good resources on beer that you should have at your fingertips. Here are some suggestions.
1. Have a good beer store. You’re not going to be able to get much variety by shopping for beer at the grocery. (Though it will likely have better prices on the beers it does carry.) You need to find a local store that carries a wide variety of beers and that gets in new varieties regularly. It may very well be that your best resource for beer is your local wine shop. Many wine shops have jumped on the beer bandwagon and offer tastings and selections of both.
2. Read. You need a few good beer books on hand to help increase your knowledge. Here are some good ones.
• Tasting Beer: An Insider’s Guide to the World’s Greatest Drink by Randy Mosher
• The Beer Lover’s Rating Guide- by Bob Klein – This is a great portable rating guide you can use to help you choose good beers.
• The Beer Taster’s Log: A World Guide to More Than 6000 Beers – by James Robertson – This guide lists beers from all over the world.
3. Use the Internet. There are tons of great beer resources on the internet. Some of the best beer websites include:
• Beertutor - A list of beers and their ratings and reviews
• Malted Barley Appreciation Society Home Page – One of the best places for beer news.
• Foam on the Range- Beer news, information and fun.
• Rate Beer- An beer rating site. This site rates beers from all over the world.
• Beer Hunter – Michael Jackson’s (the beer expert) web site. Lots of great information from one of the world’s foremost authorities on beer. Jackson has passed on, but his site lives on authored by other beer experts, but still retaining much of Jackson’s wisdom.
4. Get a Phone App – It might sound crazy, but having a beer app on your phone is a great way to help you buy properly, record tasting notes and increase knowledge.
• For the Iphone, try Beer Match, which helps you pair beer and food and IBeers Pro, which lists and rates 2700 varieties of beers.
• For the Android, try Beer Cloud Mobile, which helps you track down particular beers in your area stores and which helps you pair beer with food, and Beer Journal, which lets you record and edit breweries, as well as take notes on the beers you taste.
5. Join a beer club or get on a beer panel. Many specialty beer and wine stores offer beer clubs or tasting panels. With a beer club membership, you get one or two new beers each month to try, and often a discount on further purchases for that month. It’s a great way to expand your palate, as the beers are professionally chosen. Beer panels are simply tasting committees for beer shops that help them choose which new beers to add to their stock.
Beer tasting is such a fun hobby, and it’s gaining popularity every year. The drink that was once the “poor man’s wine” has fast become the trendiest drink around. And, with so many new beers arriving each year; it’s easy to see why.