A Beginner’s Guide to Tasting Notes
It’s no secret that the status quo around beers has changed significantly over the past decade.
Craft beer and other independent brewers have upended the nationwide dominance of Big Beer giants like Molson Coors and Anheuser-Busch, with the side effect of creating an arguably oversaturated industry. Given the current state of the American beer market, brewers have had to become especially creative to stand out among competitors.
In recent years, craft brewers and major beer companies alike have been experimenting with terpenes, a group of aromatic hydrocarbons responsible for the flavor and aroma of most plants. These naturally occurring compounds are safe to use and have no psychoactive effects, unlike compounds in other plant extract markets (e.g. the cannabis industry). Their lack of psychoactivity aside, it’s worth noting that terpenes are quite potent, and can significantly affect the scent and taste profiles of beer with just a few drops.
Since there can be multiple terpenes simultaneously at work in any given beer, it’s a good idea to read up on how to get the most out of your first tasting beforehand. In this post, we’ll go over some of the key aspects that can affect the taste of beer, as well as tips on how to prepare your palate and explain common techniques you can apply to identify various flavor notes beer has to offer — regardless of the type you’re having.
Before Getting Started
When it comes to tasting events, you’ll notice a few consistently prepared items before the actual tasting begins. Here’s a quick explanation as to why the hors d’oeuvres and side beverages on offer might seem “flat,” and why the actual drinks you’re tasting are typically warmer than you might expect:
Centering your Palate
A simple technique to keep your palate centered and taste buds prepped is to keep a glass of cool water (preferably spring water) as well as some unsalted crackers or French bread on hand, to have before and in between beers. These serve to cleanse and refresh your palate so that you can get the most out of each sip.
You should also avoid tasting a beer after eating a particularly greasy or spicy meal; the shock your mouth receives from such food might inhibit your senses. Similarly, if you smoke, you’ll want to wait until after the tasting finishes to light up. Cigarette or cigar smoke is extremely detrimental to the taste of beer.
When it comes to the flavor of most beers, temperature has a significant impact. If your fridge is too cold, those temperatures can chill your taste buds and increase carbonation, dryness, and bitterness in the beer, which inhibits your perception of flavor, body, and aroma.
Tasting any beverage at less than ideal temperatures can reduce body, aromatics, mouthfeel, sweetness, acidity, and flavor. Since even batches of beer can vary slightly, this isn’t an exact science, however there are a few suggested temperature ranges worth keeping in mind:
Lagers should be tasted between 40-45°F, while ales should be served at around 50°F. Strong ales and barleywines are best served at 55-60°F (often referred to as “cellar temperature”). When it comes to your average beer, pull it out of the fridge about 30minutes before tasting. If it’s warmed up a bit too much, leaving it in ice water for about 15minutes should bring it back to ideal temperatures.
Identifying Individual Flavor Notes: A Step-by-Step to Beer Tasting
Everything from appearance to aroma contribute to the experience around what we eat and drink. In this section we’ll discuss the proper steps for thoroughly tasting beer, explaining how they reveal and highlight the particularities of their respective flavors.
A Sniff and a Look
It’s actually necessary to pour a beer into the appropriate glass so its aroma can be fully released. Once poured, quickly bring the glass to your nose and take a breath, as taste and smell are very closely linked with one another. This gives you a preliminary sense of the brew’s flavor profile.
During this process, you should also take the time to appreciate the beer’s clarity and color. Color is a significant indicator of how a beer will taste. For example, pale or light ales look a bit grainy, amber drinks have a slightly “toasted” flavor, brown beers have a roasted nut or chocolatey taste, and black-colored drinks indicate a hint of burnt toast or coffee.
Swirl it Around
Just like with wine, you want to allow oxygen to activate the beer. You do this by holding your hand over your glass and gently swirling it around in the glass. This will release the true aromas, allowing you to get a deeper scent profile. After swirling it a couple of times, inhale slowly and enjoy the bouquet.
Sip and Hold
Sipping allows more air to get introduced to the liquid, and briefly holding it in different parts of the tongue allows you to focus on what those taste buds are specially designed to identify. When you hold the beer in the front part of your tongue for a few seconds, you get a full bodied taste of all the different dimensions of the beer’s flavor. This is when you’ll be most able to identify and isolate more subtle notes like the taste of fruit, cloves, coffee, caramel or oak.
Taking a more generous sip and holding it toward the back of your tongue and throat will give you a more clear impression of how the beer would taste if you were to drink it normally, as you would outside of a tasting. This is when you’re better able to isolate and identify broader flavors like acidity, bitterness, saltiness, or sweetness.
Enjoy and Socialize
Once you’ve spent enough time identifying all the various aromas and flavors you can, it’s time to compare notes with each other. This gives everyone an opportunity to circle back to try to find anything they might have missed and get into lively debates with other enthusiasts and guests. Be sure to enjoy yourself and you just might find a new favorite beer.