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Ten tips to tasting beer like a pro

 “While you don’t need the expertise of SAB’s tasters, who are rigorously trained to identify distinctive flavour profiles; you will need to have an unquenchable passion for a great tasting beer,” says Dehrmann. 

Dehrmann has prepared this guide to help any rookie become a beer connoisseur.

1. Cleanse your palate

Before you can taste a new beer, you need to cleanse your palate. Sure, this may smack of beer snobbery, but rest assured, it’s not.

Lingering tastes in your mouth such strong food flavours will have an impact on your first impression of a beer. You can cleanse your palate with crackers or cheese but they can also affect your sensitivity to some of the flavours of the beer so the recommended palate cleanser is simply water.

2. Check the colour

Look at how your beer presents in the glass, paying attention to the colour and carbonation. In most cases (not always) a light golden colour indicates a honey, biscuit, caramel, or baked bread flavoured beer, while amber to brown coloured beer might have more hints of toffee, nuttiness or toast. Dark brown to black beers are likely to have flavours ranging from coffee or dark chocolate to molasses, liquorice or even charcoal.

Look also at how the bubbles form; this is called “beading”. Are they big or small? Then see how the foam presents; does it have a good foam head?

Extra Tip: If you are going to taste a number of different beers; it is better to taste from light to dark.

3. Take a big whiff

Right after pouring your beer, move the glass past your nose once or twice – this action is known as “the drive by”. Your nostrils and taste buds work together, so your sense of smell will give you vital clues about the type of beer your are tasting.

This is the part of the process where you should be able to pick up the roast notes typical of malts; or pine, citrus, pepper, and fresh cut grass from the hops; or perhaps even hints of yeast and any extra ingredients that were used in the brewing process which include spices, herbs, fruits, vegetables, and not unheard of, even algae or bacon!

Generally speaking light coloured beers will smell more of hops; darker beers tend to have pronounced malt, roasted, chocolate or coffee aroma, whilst many types of ale have a spiciness or fruitiness from their yeasts.

It’s in the whiffing step that you often detect undesirable aromas or off flavours. The most common one is a sulphur-type flavour called “light struck” which is common in green or flint glass beers and is a result of being exposed to light. This off flavour is somewhat like percolating coffee with some people likening its aroma to the smell of a skunk or tinned tuna! Other off flavours are aromas like vinegar and butterscotch toffee, which are undesirable in beer styles such as lagers.

Note once you swallow a sip of beer, your ability to smell it will be slightly diminished so do the sniffing before you take the first sip.

4. Taste…don’t guzzle

It’s a strange thought, but taste buds get intoxicated. If your intention is to formally review a number of beers, don’t drink too much as your taste buds will not be able to distinguish different beers or detect flavours as well as they would have if they were still “sober”.

The really good news is that there is no need to waste any of your precious brew by spitting it out once you have tasted it. An important part of tasting a beer is to swirl the liquid around your tongue, then swallow the liquid and then breathe out once swallowed. It’s important to do this because you pick up so many subtle and interesting flavours, which are only perceptible in the retronasal cavity when breathing out.

5. Savour the sips…make mental notes

Take note of everything. Note the mouth-feel, an important characteristic of a beer, which points to the texture of the beer or how it physically feels in your mouth. Beer ranges from silky dry stouts, to thick and chewy Scotch ales to thin and fizzy Berliner weisses.

It’s important to drink the beer slowly to note the subtleties about it and also because many beers transform in flavour throughout each sip. Some will start out sweet and finish with a dry bitter taste; others will have bright hoppy flavours that are mellowed out by a smooth sweetness.

Also think about whether your initial observations about the beer were correct: For example, does the malty toffee sweetness match the smell and amber brown colour; what about the roast aroma and dark colour to the coffee-like taste?

6. Find the final flavours

Note how the beer goes down your throat as well as any aftertaste. Are there any lingering flavours after you swallow? The aftertaste can be bitter from the hops, have a lingering malty sweetness, or a pleasant sour character.

7. Compare and contrast

Taste two different beers of the same style (for example, two different pilsners) back to back. The trick is to drink both beers at the same time, going back and forth between them. You should be able to notice the slight flavour variations that you otherwise would not be able to pick up.

8. Chew your greens… and your jelly beans

A huge part of developing your beer palate is being able to tie beer flavours to a specific food which is why it is important to try a variety of foods.

We are designed to be able to detect hundreds of thousands of different aromas, and paying attention to the smells and flavours around us is a critical part of being in touch with our senses. In our modern fast paced lifestyle we forget to stop and smell the roses, but this is an important part of balancing our physiology.

The next time you go on a tour of your nearest brewery or microbrewery, ask to nibble on some raw hops or to chew on malt. You’ll be able to recognise them a lot better the next time you sip your brew.

9. Try, test and repeat

With more than 100 beers available in South Africa alone, be bold and try out as many varieties you can get your hands on, as this is key to building your beer palate and to being generally knowledgeable about beer.

In the process, learn what marks the difference between ale and lager, or what IPAs or Hefeweizens are; what the key ingredients of the different types of beers are; or what their distinguishing characteristics are.

There are great beer journals out there that enable you to capture all your experiences and to keep a record of the beers you like best; they may come in handy as there are many more beers in the world than there are days in the year.

10. Be cool…

Finessing your beer tasting skill should be fun, not stressful. Enjoy the learning journey; but do it responsibly and legally (no beer sommeliers under the age 18 please).

“In time, you will become the envy of your social circles with your champion-like knowledge of beer; but this will not happen overnight. Like any other skill, this is one that will need to be honed,” encourages Dehrmann.

As they say, practice makes perfect, and until then, Cheers!

Source: SAB