In the traditional beer-drinking cultures of northern and central Europe and North America, beer rather suffers in comparison with wine’s ooh-la-la image. Of course, the boot’s on the other foot in the traditional wine belt, where a chilled bottle of imported lager, perhaps with gothic script, seems impossibly exotic beside a plastic flagon of fermented grape juice. But in beer’s homelands, ale is seen as an honest drink to be drunk after an honest day’s work, a blue-collar beverage not afraid to roll up its sleeves and get stuck in. We quaff it when we have a genuine thirst to quench, not when we’re seeking the perfect match for goat’s cheese roulade with a raspberry coulis.
Unreconstructed lager louts still view wine nerds with deep suspicion, looking on disdainfully as they splash around in their ocean of adjectives. But you, beer bluffer par excellence, sitting atop your ivory pump handle, know better.
With your ‘hard-earned’ knowledge of beer’s rich diversity, you know it’s high time that beer drinkers jumped in too, and that the water’s lovely once you’re in. Of course, there’s a world of difference between quaffing a few ales with your mates down the pub (drinking) and full-blown organoleptic analysis (tasting).
Most of us can cope with the former, but struggle with the latter, so here are some tips:
- The golden rule of beer tasting – and you’re probably going to like this – is always swallow. Do not, on any account, spit it out like wine tasters. This obviously limits the number of beers you can – ahem – ‘taste’ with a clear head, but your excuse is cast iron. Hop character, bitterness and dryness are accentuated by swallowing, due to the positioning of bitterness receptors at the back of the throat and tongue. (‘It was the bitterness receptors that made me do it, Your Honour.’)
- Never try to taste beer from a can, a bottle or a full pint glass. You won’t be able to appreciate the subtle hue of your brew in a can or bottle, and if you swirl a pint glass to release your beer’s aromas (an essential part of the tasting process), you’re likely to drench everyone within a five-foot radius, winning you no friends and making the pub floor stickier than it already is.
- No, the best vessel for swirling and tasting beer – oh, the irony – is a decent-sized wine glass, or a chalice/ goblet-shaped beer glass, as favoured by the civilised Belgians. And speaking of civilised, any decent real ale pub should happily give you a small taster of any beer that whets your curiosity. There are, of course, sensible limits; don’t push your luck looking for second opinions.
See, sniff, swallow
Having established tasting etiquette and the right tools for the job, let’s get to work:
- The first assessment of beer should be visual because, it’s true, we do eat and drink ‘with our eyes’. And a beer’s colour should give you a good indication of its style. At the very least, it should appear clear and bright, unless it’s a wheat beer, in which case cloudy is cool. Is your Pilsner sufficiently golden and sparkling, your stout sufficiently dark and opaque? Does your barley wine or bitter light up the room with its amber, come-hither glow? Does the head retain its structure, leaving a delicate ‘lace’ down the side of your glass? You get the picture. Hold your glass against a white wall or up to the light for best results – and maximum dramatic effect.
- Next up, perform the aforementioned swirl to aerate your beer, awakening the aromas from their slumber. Take a deep, self-satisfied sniff, making sure you are being observed. Here, you can pontificate on the relative merits of nose and tongue as instruments of analysis. Berate the tongue as a dim-witted charlatan, capable of detecting only four basic sensations – sweetness, bitterness, sourness and saltiness. Extol the virtues of your nasal cavities, especially the olfactory bulb perched at the top, which is capable of detecting thousands of tiny nuances. This is why a blocked nose robs us of our sense of taste. Can you smell the calling-card clove and bubble-gum of wheat beer? Are you getting the tangy, bittersweet marmalade aromas of a cheeky ale? The espresso coffee and bitter chocolate of burly stout and porter? Or the floral delicacy of a Pilsner, skittish as a startled fawn? If, as Robert Louis Stevenson once remarked, ‘Wine is bottled poetry’, then beer is bottled prose, and it’s long overdue a purple patch.
- You’re probably getting pretty thirsty by now and your friends have likely moved on to the next pub, so it’s time you actually put some beer in your mouth. Not too much, as you want to be able to suck in some air, as if whistling backwards, without actually choking. Don’t forget to swallow. Obviously, you’ll pick up on some basic flavours, but here you’re assessing bitterness, texture (‘mouthfeel’) and finish. To really impress your friends (if any of them are still left), ask the barman for a spoon so you can sample a little of the froth on top your beer. Hop oils concentrate here, allowing you to gauge hop flavours and bitterness quite separately from the rest of the beer.
- In terms of texture and finish, is your beer creamy or thin, full-, medium- or light-bodied, sparkling, gassy or flat? Is it warming or refreshing? Does it glide over your tongue like a silk scarf, or is it a tad ‘chewy’? When it comes to the finish, does your beer reveal its character in tantalising layers, like a dance of the seven veils? Do the flavours vanish as quickly as a Premier League footballer from a poetry reading? Or do they linger on, stretching towards a hoppy, hazy horizon with soft, fluffy clouds of malt?
Let’s talk flavour
This brings us to ‘malty’ and ‘hoppy’, unquestionably the most overused yet utterly useless descriptors for the flavours of beer. Right up there with ‘grapey’ for wine or ‘beefy’, as used in connection with beef, their use on beer labels is shamefully lazy; about as helpful as ‘traditionally brewed’ or ‘the true taste of Olde England’.
Apologists argue that the language of beer is in its infancy, and it’s true that back labels are becoming much more informative, but ‘malty’ and ‘hoppy’ show all the linguistic development of ‘goo-goo’ and ‘ga-ga’. Yes, wine labels can be absurdly flowery, but why should beer drinkers be confronted by labels as enlightening as the Enigma code?
All of this gives the aspiring beer bluffer the opportunity to shine. Malt and hops are, indeed, the dominant factors in beer’s flavour profile, but there are so many shades of malt and different hop varieties that it is a cop-out to describe beers simply as ‘malty’ and ‘hoppy’. Even the most diehard real-ale fanatics will admit that it requires practice, but try to be more specific about the malt and hop characteristics you encounter. What kind of malt characteristics does your beer have? Does it remind you of caramel, honey, treacle, molasses, chocolate, coffee, smoke, liquorice or raisins? If hops are the defining characteristic of your beer, describe it as ‘hop forward’, then cast around for specific hop aromas. Is it floral, grassy or earthy? Can you smell geranium, nettles, pine resin or citrus fruit? And if citrus fruit is to the fore, is it orange, lemon or grapefruit?
If you need a steer, many British pubs have adopted the ‘Cyclops system’ for describing their real ales. Launched in 2006 by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) and a host of participating breweries, it’s called Cyclops after its logo depicting a nose (for smell), mouth (taste) and a single eye (sight). You might have seen it on various pump handles.
Each beer submitted to the Cyclops tasting panel is awarded points out of five for sweetness and bitterness (think malt and hops), and is then described with no more than three words each for ‘appearance’, ‘smell’ and ‘taste’. Thus, Sunchaser Blonde from Everards has a sweetness rating of three, and bitterness of one and a half. Appearance is ‘gold straw’; smell is ‘delicate, citrus fruit’; and taste is ‘subtle, zesty, sweet’. Check out Cyclopsbeer for its database of real-ale tasting notes. It’s a useful tool with simple vocabulary.
Your motives for wanting to describe your beer might arise from a genuine desire to record your favourite brands and styles for future reference, or from a more primeval urge to show off. We’re not here to judge you. Whatever the reason, if you want the crash course, read The Bluffer’s Guide to Beer.