Are you enjoying the craft beer scene? Do you like all the exciting styles, the variety of flavors and range of mouthfeel? But maybe you want to take your beer game to the next level and get serious about what you’re actually tasting.
How do you do it? To start, you’ll need a room without distractions. You may want to opt for a wine glass instead of the standard pint glass. And goat cheese – let there be goat cheese.
These are just a few of the things I learned during a recent lunch with Sue Langstaff, a sensory scientist whose master’s thesis was on the “Sensory and Instrumental Evaluation of the Mouthfeel of Beer.” Among the many things she does is teach students enrolled in the Professional Brewers Certificate Program at UC Davis how to taste beer. The owner of Applied Sensory also works in the wine and olive oil industries. I met her when I served on a honey-tasting panel at UCD.
Langstaff developed “The Defects Wheel for Beer” ($24.95) to identify common problems and point to possible solutions. If you’re a brewer or beer aficionado, this wheel is a must-have item. It’s also available as an app, “Beer Defects” ($1.99) for iPhone and Android. If you’re drinking mostly for pleasure, there is a handy (and free) app from the Beer Judge Certification Program called “BJCP Styles” that includes a functioning flavor wheel, a list of off flavors (cheesy, buttery, soapy, etc.) and a guide for assessing color.
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With all the talk about the communal experience of taprooms, it may surprise you that that’s not where you want to do serious tasting.
“They shouldn’t go somewhere like a taproom and do this because you have distractions. You have music in the background. You have talking. You have food,” Langstaff said.
OK, so you’re at home with beer, have relative silence without any wonderful aromas wafting through the kitchen, and you’ve lined up your pint glasses. Uh, no.
“I recommend a wine glass. You want the tulip shape. Pint glasses are the worst for tasting. You have a large surface area for the CO2 to evolve. It might be good for smelling, but as the beer warms up, the CO2 will evolve and go flat faster,” said our sensory expert.
The beer is poured. Check out color. Does it fit the style you’re tasting? Then you smell. Try to come up with some descriptors. Don’t be intimidated. If it’s nutty, piney, citrusy or rife with coffee or cocoa, make note of it.
Langstaff suggests working backward by first deciding if you like the beer. Then figure out what it is you like. Is it the clean finish? The mouthfeel? The hoppy punch? The sense of balance?
I would add that it’s best to keep an open mind. Don’t be intimidated by people telling you something is good or bad. Listen to feedback you trust, but work through it yourself.
Don’t stop after a quick decision whether you like it. Instead, try to figure out what the style is suppose to express and then decide if this particular beer is expressing it to your liking.
I asked Langstaff about the world of India pale ales because that is the hottest category in craft beer, though we’re starting to see broader appreciation of styles, including low-alcohol session beers, lagers and beer aged in barrels.
Don’t feel bad if you’re not getting the hoppy bitterness phenomenon with IPAs. You’re not alone.
“We’re genetically programmed not to like bitterness because a lot of poisonous plant alkaloids are bitter,” Langstaff told me. That’s why people start out drinking coffee with cream and sugar (and many continue to enjoy it that way). We learn to like bitter flavors because they can give our food and drinks added complexity. But not always.
“Any fool can make a bitter beer,” Langstaff said, referring to the characteristic bitter note from hops in most IPAs. “What you should be looking for is balance. You want a balance between the bitterness, astringency and whatever fruit is there. It takes no skill to make a super-bitter beer. You just throw in hops.”
I asked the expert about pairing beer with food. She has done tests with eight beers and eight foods, with an emphasis on how the food makes the beer taste. She says seafood can be challenging to pair with beer, bacon goes with nearly everything, and goat cheese is a winner with IPAs. (It can cut the bitterness and soothe the palate.)
She also emphasized that there are different palates and that many of us bring different life experiences (i.e. good and bad food memories) that make us taste things differently. In other words, there’s more than one right answer.