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Beer Tasting – How to Evaluate Beer Like an Expert

Beer Tasting

All of us can enjoy beer without going through any mental and palate gymnastics.  Simply put the glass to your mouth, swallow and enjoy.  But, if you want to learn beer tasting like an expert, there are a few techniques that are helpful.  Somehow in the evolution of craft beer culture, a sea of bearded hipsters found themselves qualified enough to toss around terms like “mouthfeel” and “malty backbone.”  In this Untappd’, beer review culture, where everyone is an expert, we should at least have some basics on how to evaluate.  

Printable Beer Tasting Card

Here is a guide on how to evaluate like an expert, complete with printable beer tasting cards for you to use if you’re hosting a beer tasting party (even a virtual beer tasting) or if you just nerdy enough to want to keep the notes for yourself.  There is plenty of research out there that points out that the number one challenge for consumers walking into a taproom is the difficulty in knowing which beer to choose.  The choices are endless, almost like trying to conquer The Cheese Cake Factory menu. 

Who are the Beer Experts?

Ray Daniels

The cicerone is the official title of the beer expert. His job is strictly about evaluating and educating the public about beer. The idea of cicerones is to help the consumer in choosing a beer that best fits their preferences.  These guideposts have been gleaned from Ray Daniels the founder and director of the cicerone certification program.  A cicerone is beer’s equivalent to a sommelier

The Tools of the Cicerone

Below are some tools to guide you in your tasting journey.  The big trick is to avoid contextual bias.  Recent brain science has shown that our expectations modulate our sensory experience.  Things like price, ratings and presentation play a large role in our taste perception.  The higher the price, the more we are influenced to believe it is good.  Our brain’s anterior pre-frontal cortex plays a key role in correlating expectation with taste pleasantness ratings. So to avoid bias, minimize exposure to these influences when tasting beer.  It will help you know what you like, for you, not what you’ve been conditioned to like.  

The Expert Uses the Right Beer Tasting Glasses

First things first, select the right glass.  Generally speaking, for tasting purposes, use a taster snifter.  The goal is not to slam several ounces, but to get a sense of the beer.  A snifter is designed to glide across our tongue and the different flavor points distributed throughout our lickers.  Old wisdom indicated that sweetness was detected at the tip of the tongue, salty and sour are picked up on the sides and bitter is picked up at the back.  The truth is, flavor receptors are dispersed across all of the tongues and each profile can be detected at any point on the tongue.  Furthermore, each person’s taste receptors are unique to them.  Particular points on your tongue will have a subtle sensitivity to a particular flavor sense.  Take your time and learn where your sensibilities lie.

The Process of Beer Tasting Like an Expert

1. Start by swirling.  This action wakes up the hops, yeast and malts as this motion activates their aromas. 

beer tasting swirl glass

2. Take a distant sniff. 

beer tasting distant sniff

This sniff should occur with the glass just under the chin, circle and start to see what you notice.  Try to do it without looking like an elitist character from a John Hughes movie.  Many of the ingredients in beer are so strong that they can overwhelm the rest of the aromas.  If you’ve ever fried fish in your house, you likely won’t notice the fish smell while you’re frying; however, if you walk out of your house then come back in, you can’t avoid smelling the fish.  The distant sniff helps establish a first impression.

3. Take a 3 short sniffs with your nose in the glass.

sniffing beer

Think of the old cartoon dogs.  When their noses were along the ground trying to pick up the scent, they didn’t take one long sniff, they had short sniffs as they were tracking that rascally rabbit.  This jostles the olfactory nerves with each sniff. 

4. Take a long sniff or a 2 second sniff. 

Beer tasting sniff

Allow the aromas to go deep and perfume your entire nasal cavity.  At this point you can start to notice more tannins and earthier notes such as onion and more umami complexities. 

5. The covered sniff. 

gathering beer aromas like an expert

Allow the aromas to go deep and perfume your entire nasal cavity.  At this point you can start to notice more tannins and earthier notes such as onion and more umami complexities. 

6. Taste. 

how to taste beer like the experts

This is not a drink, it is a taste.  You should get enough to coat your tongue, not float your tongue.  I swish it around until it hits all parts of my tongue.  This initial sip is mainly confirming what I picked up in the aromas.  Notice the malt, the hops and the yeast.  Pay attention to the flavor points you pick up. 

There is an old mythology that you can taste sweetness at the tip of the tongue, saltiness and sour along the sides and bitterness at the back, but the truth is you have flavor receptors all over your tongue and they can pick up any of these flavor profiles.  Each person’s palate has different sensitivity points that are unique to them, so pay attention to how yours in organized.  Notice what you’re less sensitive to.  Just discover how your organism works.  Do you notice any sweetness, sour, bitterness, saltiness or savory qualities? 

7. The finish. 

the final impression for the beer expert

Take a good swallow, then exhale.  This activates the retro-nasal accentuation.  By matter of biology, when you swallow, you also exhale. As the breath comes out you will notice some of the aromas that were present on your first few sniffs being activated in concert with the swallow, opening a more comprehensive experience.  Pay attention to that swallow and what you are noticing.  This is called the finish.  The last impression if you will. 

8. Taste with memory. 

This may be the most important step. It is the trait that will make you unique as you endeavor to evaluate beer like an expert. Taste is a bundle of different sensations that include smell, texture, temperature, etc.  Coloring happens through the nose.  Taste and smell are linked to the involuntary nervous system and emotions.  I remember cooking with my grandma from the time I was 7 years old.  I would stand on a stack of phone books so I could reach the stove and my grandmother, her hand over my hand, would guide the wooden spoon through a pot of stew or sauce.  She would give me little tastes at different intervals of the cook and I would take note of the varying textures and scents and flavors. 

How the Brain Remembers Beer Taste

The best cicerones allow the flavors to take them to a familiar flavor memory. Taste senses are connected to the emotional part of the brain, allowing us the opportunity to take a trip down memory lane via the taste-bud train.  I like connecting memories to the senses I’m experiencing.  Think of your grandma’s house on Christmas morning, the scent of fresh made biscuits and a freshly brewed pot of coffee and the percolating sense of excitement as you wait to tear into your presents. 

What started out as an exercise to fit in became an unlocking of moments that I choose to savor.  When I approach a beer, I allow it to remind me, because it has a wonderful grounding effect.  So I made a commitment to sit and be present with what memory may be coming up.  While “terroir” may be a buzz word, this is what it genuinely means.  Flavors lift us back to a particular place and a particular time.  By using your sense of taste to remind you, you can have a wider vocabulary of what you are experiencing. 

Beer Tasting Case and Point

using memory like an expert

The first time I tried Barrel-Aged Abraxas, I was transported back to the 3rd grade when I helped my mom make homemade cinnamon rolls.  I remember her throwing in a pinch of cayenne into the mix of cinnamon and sugar.  Years later, when I was making cinnamon rolls with my son, I adapted the recipe by putting a pinch of ancho chili powder into the cream cheese mixture.  The joy I felt watching my son lick the icing bowl with it smeared across his toothless face.  All of this snapped into focus as I sipped on Abraxas.  This is the absolute best way to taste the beer.  When tasting, ask yourself, what does this remind me of? 

Now You’re Ready to Evaluate Like and Expert:

There you have it.  8 tools that will help you evaluate beer like an expert, plus it has the added advantage of helping you know what you’re talking about.  The world has enough experts, it doesn’t really need to enlist more ‘Karens’ into the mix, but these tools can help you think for yourself without being sucked in to the hype tornado.  I would challenge you to evaluate, before you check into Untappd’ or Beer Advocate, this helps you avoid context bias and simply enjoy the glass in front of you.  Cheers.

Beer Tasting Like a Pro

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. […] What’s in your beer? What are the 4 ingredients of beer? Earth, wind, fire, and time, baby. Imagine giving 4 ingredients to an Iron Chef and giving those same ingredients to a home cook, one will produce something special due to his mastery of technique and extensive vocabulary of cuisine options, while the other will make something tasty but not fine dining worthy.  These four essential ingredients are the building blocks of every beer. And each ingredient has its role during the brewing process.  It is the master brewer who knows how to wring out every ounce of flavor from these ingredients to produce some of the best suds to hit your palate.  We hope this article illuminates you on the ingredients in your beer and the infinite taste possibilities available with these beautifully simple pillars.  We hope you gain perspective on their value and importance. If you are interested in learning more about beer tasting, check out our How to Evaluate Beer Like an Expert post. […]

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