The homebrewing forum I’m a member on, Mrbeerfans.com, seems to get an influx of new members after Christmas. It seems that, like me, lots of guys are unwrapping brand new Mr. Beer kits on Christmas morning, then searching the web for help making their first few batches. On the forum, we do a good job trying to help and guide the new brewers through their first few batches of Mr. Beer homebrew, but it seems like the bulk of the new members lose interest and don’t fully immerse themselves in the great hobby of homebrewing once the ingredients kits run out. Opening a can of pre-hopped extract and adding it to hot water is super easy… maybe a little too easy… and while we try to guide the new brewer to make their own recipes once their ingredient kits run out, most “I’m out of Mr. Beer cans, help me!” threads devolve into “well I don’t know what kind of beer I like, so how do I know what to make?” and inevitably their interest fades into the homebrew sunset.
The root of the problem is more than likely the fact that most of our beer journeys start in college with Bud or Miller Lite and don’t make any strides to any beers beyond those light American lagers we’ve all come to love and trust to be drinkable. Nonetheless, there are literally hundreds of beer styles in the world. And to just stick with Miller Lite because that’s what you’re comfortable with is a disservice to your taste buds… it’s like when you were five and said to your Mom , “hey, I like bologna sandwiches, so that’s all I want for dinner” That’s fine when you’re five and your Mom is looking to avoid a temperamental confrontation at dinner time, but as we grow, we expand beyond the world of bologna sandwiches. You taste different foods and expanded your tastes. Some foods you’ve tried and haven’t liked… some you’ve tried and loved… some seem a bit to exotic to tempt you to taste in the first place. And that’s perfectly fine. That’s how we grow and realize we like more than bologna sandwiches. The same is true for beer. You come to like something because it’s all you know, how do you know what you actually like? Regardless if you’re new to homebrewing, bellying up to the bar at brew pub, or window shopping at the six pack shop. The world won’t end if you try something different… what, are you afraid you’ll actually like it?
It’s important to understand that tasting beer is a process. We’re stepping beyond the realm of thinking of beer in terms of “hey, look how many of these brewskies I can pound, bro!” and actually tasting beer to for the sake of tasting of beer. We’re heading to the world where the word “light” actually describes the color of the beer, not the fact that it has fewer calories. Beer tasting is slow. It’s relaxing. It involves all of the senses… making it sort of sensual, in it’s own way. It’s social. It’s descriptive. It makes you think. It’s wonderful. So let’s get the process started…
Oh yeah, if you’re doing a sampler flight (which is a FANTASTIC way to taste different styles of beer), arrange the beers from lightest and least-hoppy to darkest and most-hoppy. If you’re at a brew pub, typically the beer menu will have a description of the beer you’re drinking… or there will be a little description of the bottle somewhere to help guide you in ordering (I typically order from lowest IBU to highest IBU… more on that later). Hops impart their bitterness in beer through hop oil, which can coat your tongue and make you taste nothing but hops. The hoppier the beer, the more hop oil, which can wreck your tasting palate. When in doubt, order the beers from “yellowest” to “darkest” when you taste.
Ok, now on to the beer!
Step 1: Appearance
The first part of the process is easy… it is literally nothing more than looking at the beer in the glass. If you’re enjoying a craft beer, some brewer somewhere has put in a lot of effort to make that beer what it is. So take a second to marvel at the goodness in front of you. Pick up the glass and ask yourself, what is the color of the beer? Is it a straw yellow? A coppery amber red? A maroonish-brown? Black? Beer color is measured in degrees of SRM… the darker color the beer, the more SRM the beer has.
Next, look at the clarity. Can you see right through it? If it’s a lighter beer, you could probably read through it if it’s clear. If it’s a stout, it can still be clear, but it’ll be so dark that you’ll only see shapes or light through the beer. Or, is it cloudy> A lot of styles, espeiclaly wheat beers, are supposed to be cloudy. Now, look at the head of the beer. Is it white? Tan? Beige? (Typically darker beers will have more tan heads) Is it pillowy? Are the bubbles large and “granular”? Or are they fine bubbles? Be descriptive and take a look.
Step 2: Swirl and sniff
Pick up the glass (or you should have it in your hands after visual inspection), and swirl the beer. You’re not spinning so hard that you’re sloshing beer everywhere, but get the beer swirled and agitated… this allows the aroma in the liquid to be lifted out by the carbonation. Now, get your nose in the glass and sniff. As you get more experienced, you’ll be able to pick up a lot of aromas and become increasingly descriptive with what you’re smelling, but for now enjoy the aroma. Is the aroma like a pine tree? A lot of hops are described as being “piney”, so you can sometimes pick that up. Some hops are citrusy, so you might pick up a hint of grapefruit peel. Maybe you’re smelling something that is sweet, like caramel. Are you smelling bread? Some dark beers will have a sort of rasty note to the smell… or a chocolate note. Get your nose in there and smell. The longer and slower you sniff, the more you’ll be able to pick out. A huge percentage of our “tasting” experience comes from what we smell, so taker a good whiff!
Step 3: Taste
Ok, now it’s time to take a sip… but resist the urge to swallow immediately. Let the beer linger on your tongue and engage all parts of your palate. And, as you swallow, note the taste difference as the beer actually goes down your throat. A lot of the flavor notes you’ll pick up were also what you smelled in the aroma, but think about how what tastes you’re picking up. Again… maybe it’s piney, or citrusy… bready… like wheat bread or crackers or a biscuit. You’re tasting the grains used to make the beer. Yes, that is actual grains, not rice or corn like the mega-brews. Herbal and earthy, maybe as well. Is it bitter? One of the main ingredients in beer is hops, which provide bitterness. Hop bitterness is measured in terms of IBU (International Bitterness Units). Some beer styles are more bitter than others by design, so they’ll have a higher IBU number than beers with less hops. So, if you don’t like hoppy beers, shoot for a beer (or a style of beers) that has a low IBU number.
Take another sip and note the way the beer actually feels in your mouth. Is it thin feeling? Creamy? Thick and syrupy? Also, pause for a moment and experience the aftertaste. Is it resiny? Are you picking up a raw alcohol aftertaste? Most high ABV beers have a slightly “boozy” taste.
Step 4: The experience
Repeat the process until the beer is gone while looking for new smells and tastes with each sip. Start over and repeat the process for each beer in your sampler flight, or for each beer you’re going to try.
Remember that beer is social, so talk about what you’re tasting with the people at your table. Talk it out with your friends. If their tasting the same beer you are, maybe their picking up a smell or taste that you’re not. And that’s ok… that’s what makes it fun. People have beer tasting parties because it’s supposed to be social and relaxing and something your enjoy. Out on a first date and want to avoid awkward silence? Go to a brew pub for dinner, taste beers, and talk about what your experiencing. Or, just have an inner monologue and enjoy the solitude of getting lost in a good beer.
You don’t have to be intimidated. You can get as in-depth as you want… some people are so geeky about tasting, they bring a little notebook with them so they can jot down a note on the smells and tastes. But, that’s an extreme case. Most importantly, you should just try different beers. Taste the beers… not just drink a beer. Figure out what you like in a beer. Have fun. Slow down and smell the roses… err, taste the beer.