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Suds with Sophie: Beer-Tasting Practicum

by Sophie Nelson

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When tasting beer, Nelson likes to use glasses that have an inward taper. Photo by Sophie Nelson.

If you’ve been behaving anything like I have during this time of social isolation – that is, working your way through your beer stash – I’ve got the perfect way to drink your beer and maybe learn to enjoy it a little more. A lot more goes into the beer-drinking experience than the liquid itself: Your mood, location, feelings, the beer’s packaging and the overall outside experience all play a big part in how you perceive a beer. 

For this activity, I recommend selecting a medium-ABV (alcohol by volume) beer that’s well balanced – not too bitter or sweet – and not too light. Also, pour your beer into a glass to enable easier observation of visual, scent and flavor characteristics. My favorite glasses have an inward taper to allow the scent to really reach your nose. Between a shaker pint and a wine glass, always choose the wine glass. 

As we embark on our beer-tasting journey (notice I didn’t say “beer drinking”), we’ll begin with sight. 

Color and Clarity 

Observing a beer’s appearance is the first step to understanding the beer. This is not to say that you can always understand what you’ll be getting yourself into by the color, however. Have you ever tried a white stout, such as the Casper White Stout from Whole Hog Brewery? This beer manages to include a creamy mouthfeel and coffee and chocolate flavors, all while looking like your classic pilsner. 

Most beers, however, will not be so deceptive, and visuals can tell us a lot about the malts used, as well as the sugars and other additives. Malt is a type of grain, so an easy way to start is to align color with the common flavors of bready foods. Very light-colored beer can often be associated with bread dough. Add a little more color, and you get bread, crackers, crust, toast and so on. Certain malts are made in different ways and can give caramel, toffee and roasted flavors, among others. 

Carbonation and Head 

Now we’ll turn our attention to those little bubbles (carbonation) and the layer of foam (head) on top of the beer. Carbonation plays a vital role in your tasting experience. Beer with high carbonation has a crisp snap that makes it lighter and more refreshing – think pilsners and light lagers on a warm day – and low carbonation feels heavier, but it allows for an increased ability to taste deeper flavors. 

Aroma 

Now that we’ve observed our beer with our eyes, we can move on to our sense of smell. Many characteristics of beer are present in the aroma. This includes volatile aromatics from hops that quickly dissipate as a beer sits. These are best captured from the head of a beer. To stir up these aromas, put your glass on the table, place your hand over the top and give it a little swirl. 

When a head forms, quickly take a few sniffs. (Short sniffs work better than big, long ones.) Many of these smells come from hops’ aromatics, so this is a good time to see what you smell on your own and write them down. If the packaging includes a list of hops used, try looking them up on the internet to see which characteristics are common. Compare your list of smells with the smells that are commonly associated with the listed hops. This method can also be used for the tasting section later, so don’t read too far ahead! 

Flavor 

Now for the part you’ve all been waiting for: actually tasting your beer! Flavor is the culmination of taste, aroma, texture and mouthfeel. Mouthfeel includes acidity, warming sensations, spice and other elements. 

There are three stages of flavor during each sip, so slow down to consider each stage. First, be aware of the initial flavors – generally the more dominant flavors – as they reach your mouth. Second, observe any sort of agitation and warming sensations. Also make sure the beer covers your entire tongue during this stage because different parts of your tongue are more sensitive to certain sensations than others (the sides are more sensitive to acidity; the back is more sensitive to bitter). 

This is important for the last stage, or after taste. Unlike wine, beer should be swallowed to get the whole experience. Once swallowed, breathe out and observe the sensation. Wait for up to a minute for hoppier beer because bitterness takes longer to develop. 

Now that you’ve completed these steps, you’ve successfully used four of your senses to better understand your beer. You could also try listening to your beer, but I’m not totally sure what you’d gain from that.