How to Taste and Savor Beer
Here's a fun experience that will expand your knowledge of and appreciation for a a cold one.
For a beverage that's made from only four main ingredients—grains, hops, yeast, and water—beer has a dizzying range of styles. Experts will tell you there are hundreds (if not thousands) of types available to consumers. But if that sounds overwhelming, don't worry: Experts also promise that tasting beer is fun, and they say that there's no wrong way to do it. In fact, even if you don't think of yourself as a beer person right now, the experts agree that with a little exploring, you're guaranteed to find something you like.
"Stylistically and flavor nuance-wise, beers have a much much wider range than any other beverage. People are often so surprised," says Ting Su, co-founder of Eagle Rock Brewery in Los Angeles. So, where do you start? Julia Herz, craft beer program director at Brewers Association, suggests using a classic six-pack as a framework. Six or so beers makes sense (in small, four-ounce quantities), because you want variety, but too much variety can lead to palate fatigue. As to which six beers to taste, you can go for one region (e.g., Belgian, where you can sample a bock, a lambic, a trappist, etc.); one brewery (try their IPA, their seasonal offerings, etc.); or keep it broad and use the tasting as an opportunity to acquaint yourself with six different styles (e.g., a wheat beer, a pale ale, a pilsner, etc.).
How to Taste Beer
Plan to taste the beers in order from least to most alcoholic—and don't necessarily equate depth of color with ABV (alcohol by volume), because some dark beers are less alcoholic than lighter-colored ones. A low alcohol beer is about 4 to 4.5 percent ABV, and percentages increase with heavier styles. Tasting in this order will help ensure "your senses don't get bombarded right out the gate," says Herz.
Next, grab a glass—a good hybrid one is a traditional tulip-style vessel. It allows carbonation to dispel, Hertz says, which gives you a better sense of aromatics, and also prevents you from feeling too full from ingesting all those bubbles. Plus, she notes, "They're fun to hold." As for pouring, Su says you shouldn't be afraid of some foam, or what's known as the beer's "head." She says about an inch of head is good; it helps develop the beer's aromas. Take a look at it, noticing how long it lingers—it could be a matter of seconds, or as long as a minute. Is it thick and creamy, or thin and sudsy? Hertz even likes to dip her pinky in and taste it to get a quick sense of some of the flavors in the beer. Also observe the color, which can be anywhere from light yellow or straw, to gold, amber, copper, various shades of brown or even black. Note the beer's clarity: is it clear, hazy, somewhere in between? And also check out the bubbles. Some beers have almost none; others have bubbles continually rising up.
Moving on, you'll want to check out the beer's aroma. You can swirl the glass gently, as you would for wine, then take a little sniff. Some things to notice are the aroma of alcohol (anywhere from mild to harsh) and hops (which may be floral, fruity, piney, citrus-y or grassy). You may also be able to detect the malt aroma, which can come across as something akin to bread, caramel, chocolate, or coffee. The last two categories of aroma are esters and phenols—which are organic compounds that contribute to a beer's general aroma. Esters are usually fruity (think: apple, apricot, banana), while phenols are usually spicy (e.g., cloves, cinnamon, white pepper, vanilla).
Finally, it's time to taste! Take a sip and let the beer wash over your palate. As with the smell, notice how alcoholic it tastes. Can you discern the flavor of the hops? It may be citrus, herbal, pine, spruce, tropical or woody. It also will range in bitterness, from restrained to aggressive. The other flavor note relates to the malt—which, as we mentioned with aroma, can be bread-y or more like caramel or chocolate. Aside from those flavors, see if you can put a finger on the tactile senses you get from the beer. Is it soft? Sticky? How's the carbonation tingle? Does it make you burp?
Whatever You Do, Don't Overthink It
If this all sounds like a lot to remember, don't stress—just enjoy the ride. Herz thinks of tasting "as a movie, or an event—it's not just one moment in time. When you're tasting, notice what happens at the beginning, the middle, the end and the aftertaste. You'll notice different things at different times." Between beers, you can nibble on an unsalted cracker or have a few sips of water to reset your palate. And then, move on to the next beer. Above all, keep an open mind, say the pros. As Su points out: "It''s beer—it's meant to be enjoyed!"
Six Beers to Try
Looking for a way in? Here are a few ideas, which highlight some excellent regional craft breweries and are a nice intro for newbies. Bonus: Even though they're regional, they're widely available. If you're interested in a blended sour ale, Herz says to give Ommegang Rosetta (from $7.99 for four, drizly.com)—which she calls "a great opening beer for any tasting and will blow many people's minds on where beer can go"—a try. If you're thinking about sipping a Belgian witbier, you can't go wrong with Eagle Rock Manifesto ($3.49, klwines.com). You'll taste hints of coriander and citrus in this brew, which tasters say is light and refreshing.
For a German-style pilsner, consider Victory Prima Pils (from $10.99 for six, drizly.com), a crisp brew with vivid notes of floral and spice with citrus and lemon. It's a smooth beer that goes down easy. But if you want something bolder, a robust porter is what you're after, and Black Butte Porter (from $9.99 for six, drizly.com) is the beer to try. Rich and creamy with coffee and chocolate notes, this beer is a great example of what a robust porter (which is known for their more bitter, big malt flavor) should taste like.
IPA: Two Hearted Ale
Then there's the India Pale Ale (or IPA) category. A great example is Two Hearted Ale (from $9.99 for four, drizly.com), which was named Best Beer in America by the readers of Zymurgy, published by the Brewers Association. Last but not least, let us introduce you to the Belgian-style tripel. Allagash Tripel (from $12.79 for four, drizly.com), with its notes of passionfruit and honey aroma, is a complex option that's perfect for rounding out your tasting.