Before we (finally) dig into beer and food pairing, here’s another tasting principles post to prepare us for the adventure. We started this series talking about tasting beer by examining its appearance and aromas. Both can give you hints about how a beer will taste. Take a look and see what the color tell you about the malts used and the flavors they may bring to your glass. Then, take a few sniffs and let your nose get a sneak-preview of the flavors to follow.
Ok, it’s finally time to taste the beer. Take a sip and let it warm a bit. Let it flow over your tongue and around your mouth to sense all the flavors. Taste buds are throughout your mouth and even in your throat, not just the tongue. You’ve probably seen charts that show where the flavors are sensed on your tongue. Ignore them, those old tongue maps are wrong. Taste receptors can sense different flavors and you’re probably familiar with four basic flavors.
- Sweet – One of the most common flavors in beer. Concentrate on the malty flavors like caramel and toffee. Many styles have a lingering sweetness, and a few can be cloying. Is the beer sweet or dry, or somewhere in between?
- Bitter – Hops provide the bitter backbone for beer. Even beers that don’t taste “hoppy” still use hops. Hop bitterness balances the sweetness of the malts. The key is balance, unless you’re in the mood for a West-coas “hop bomb” IPA.
- Salty – Few beers are intentionally salty, like a Gose, but the salty receptors can pick up mineral-rich water used to make the beer. Every traditional brewing city has a unique natural mineral profile in the water, and these salts have a big impact on beer flavors.
- Sour – Sour beers are rapidly growing in popularity in America, even though they’ve been common in Belgium for centuries. Try a Lambic, Gueuze or Flanders Red to see how delightfully sour a beer can be. Of course, sour beer is usually unintentional and means means the beer is infected.
- Umami is a newly establish fifth flavor, it’s Japanese for “delicious taste.” Umami receptors sense glutamate flavors, so it’s different from saltiness. This meaty flavor begins to show in beers that are aged over a long time.
As you’re tasting the beer, think about how it feels in your mouth. This is called mouthfeel, and it’s the sensation of the beer’s fullness, warmth, and effervescence. Mouthfeel is impacted by the beer’s level of unfermentable sugars, carbonation and alcohol. A rich stout can feel full and creamy, while a pilsner may feel very light.
Ok, so you’ve analyzed the flavors and mouthfeel, but you’re not done yet. Beer isn’t wine, people, so swallow it. Aftertaste is important when tasting beer. Often the roastiness, bitterness or astringency don’t fully show themselves until you swallow the beer. Some beers finish smoothly and cleaning, while others linger around, and may be even a bit harsh.
FYI… the picture to the left illustrates poor beer tasting technique. Do not try this at home.
For more info on the science behind and techniques for tasting beer, read Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer.