What’s Brewing? Tips for how to taste beer
Interested in learning more about what beer tastes like? If so, you can start today with a flight or a couple of 5-ounce taster glasses next time you’re at a brewery. I’ve always enjoyed trying to detect the various flavors in a craft beer I’m drinking. Sometimes it’s obvious while other times it’s like searching for Waldo in which there is serious satisfaction to the eventual discovery.
I’m still fascinated by the fact that so many tastes can be achieved from a combination of just the four main ingredients in craft beer including water, malt, hops and yeast. But the real advantage of taking the time to think about what you’re tasting in a craft beer can help you make a decision as to what to look for in more beers, styles or brands that you might enjoy.
Here are a few tips that will help your palate pick up what your beer is puttin’ down.
Do not eat food prior to tasting a beer because the flavor will change. An awesome thing if you’re pairing food with beer but for the sake of tasting to get to know more about the beer, not so much. You can clean your palate with water. In my experience, crackers seem to change the taste of the beer so I’d suggest water. For those with more beer experience, please comment if you know of another way to cleanse one’s palate prior to tasting. Last, it is always best to taste from light-colored beers to dark.
Pour a beer by tilting the glass at a 45-degree angle. Doing this will cut down on the size of the head minimizing the foam although you want some. Many beers are unfiltered and bottle aged so if there is sediment or yeast at the bottom of the bottle, that’s OK. It’s your preference on whether you drink this or not.
How does the beer look? It can range from straw-colored yellow to black. Would you describe the head as light and fluffy, dense and rocky, or hardly there at all? Pilsners have a white color head. The heads on porters and stouts will appear cream color to dark brown. Hold the beer up to the light. Can you see through the beer or is it hazy and opaque?
Aromas and flavors are closely connected although don’t be surprised if you find a beer that tastes very different from what you just smelled. Immediately after pouring the beer give it a smell and take note as some aromas fade quickly. Swirl the glass and smell again. Doing this will stimulate carbonation and those little bubbles will help loosen up the aromas. Depending on the beer you’re about to drink, be prepared to smell the obvious ingredients of hops and malts. You may also detect chocolate, coffee, raisins, molasses, banana, citrus and tropical fruits just to name a few. Some of these come from the malts used in the brewing process while others will come from the yeast or additional ingredients used to flavor the beer. Taking actual notes either physically or mentally is important as the combination of lingering aromas mixed with those that dissipate and new ones revealing themselves can be distracting.
How does the beer feel in your mouth? The characteristics can feel silky or creamy, chewy, dry, light and effervescent with lots of tiny bubbles popping in your mouth, etc. The sensation can be light or heavy. Some are almost watery compared to others that might feel like thick whipping cream in your mouth. The finish can be very different from what initially enters your mouth so don’t confuse the two. Note that typically, ales are more complex in flavor and aroma than lagers.
When you take your first sip, notice whether it’s bitter or sweet, salty or sour. Let it linger on your tongue for a second or two. Breathe out while it’s still in your mouth. Taste any fruit? This could be from the yeast or maybe actual fruit was added to the brew. Tasting anything bready, roasty, coffee-like or chocolatey is most likely the malt. Citrus, tropical fruit flavors and bitter tastes come from hops. Gose beer can taste salty due to the nature of actual salt added in the brewing process which creates a refreshing style beer. Do these flavors match any of the aromas you noticed earlier? As the beer warms up a bit you’ll taste more. You can cup the glass in your hands to speed up this process or just let it happen naturally as you’re enjoying a conversation and good company.
Notice the lingering flavors after you swallow. How long does it last in your mouth? This is my most favorite part of the experience. I once enjoyed a chocolate raspberry stout and wondered where the raspberry was. The beer did not smell like raspberries nor initially taste like raspberries. And then the most beautiful thing happened. Way on the back end of the finish, maybe three or four seconds after swallowing, the slight flavor of the fruit emerged. It lingered gently and was noticeable without ever being overpowering. Beautiful! Like many of the bourbon barrel stouts with their signature lingering taste of the spirit itself mixed with a bit of that oak barrel. Of course, this is my preference and yours may be different which is why it’s worth it to take a moment or two more to pick up what your beer puts down.
Here are a few of the craft brews in our area that I enjoy. Cheers!
Eleventh Hour Brewing (Pittsburgh)
Burning Phoenix Jalapeno, Pale Ale (5.6% ABV). Simple American Pale Ale hopped with Cascade. Aged with 150 pounds of jalapenos. Nose like fresh cut jalapenos and a spicy burn as it goes down with an even finish as the heat hits a plateau.
Yellow Bridge Brewing (Delmont)
Little Dude, Pale Ale (5.9% ABV). A multi-sensory experience. Pours with a light straw color, and heavy haze. Aroma of pear, stone fruit, and grapefruit. Smooth mouthfeel with some bitterness and a juicy finish.
Enix Brewing (Homestead)
Unavoidable Brown Ale (6.6% ABV). Aroma of toast and malt. Lightly sweet, toasty, malty, with hints of tobacco flavor too.
Aurochs Brewing (Emsworth)
Aurochs Porter (5.7% ABV). Dark and dry roasted with espresso coffee flavors. A slight nuttiness. Brewed with millet, quinoa buckwheat. An awesome gluten-free beer from a one of a kind brewery in the Pittsburgh area!
Mark Brewer is a Tribune-Review contributing writer. He’s the author and illustrator of “Brewology, An Illustrated Dictionary for Beer Lovers.”