The idea of dissecting a beer into its component parts might seem intimidating, but once equipped with the right language and tricks, you might be surprised at just how developed your palate is.
The best training can come from tasting with more experienced judges; a discussion about aromas and flavours focuses your mind when trying to identify certain nuances. Sometimes it helps to go back to the basics – do you really know what a lychee or gooseberry smells like? It might be time for you to revisit some of these fruits that often come up as descriptors if not!
When sitting on a brewery sensory panel or as a judge at a beer competition, you’ll be provided with guidelines to prompt you to look, smell and taste. Generally, the elements of a beer that are helpful to consider are:
The colour of the beer is the recommended place to start. Hold the beer up to the light and against a neutral coloured surface to spot any highlights (such as garnet streaks in a dark brown beer). The Standard Reference Method (SRM) is an American scale commonly used to describe the colour of a beer, which ranges from 2-40+, where a Pilsner rates as a 2 and a stout as a 40+. Also consider clarity – is the beer hazy or crystal clear? The head of a beer can also be telling; some Belgian styles produce rocky, long-lasting foam, for instance.
There are a few techniques to detect aroma, but it’s important to note that some aromas are volatile and these might quickly dissipate. The short sniff technique is considered a good approach; longer sniffs can dry out the membranes in your nose. If you need to reset your nostrils, sniff the back of your hand (we’re all accustomed to our own scent and it’s neutral). You’re looking for malts – are they bready, toasted, chocolatey? Then there’s the yeast – are there any apparent esters (fruity characteristics, which can be anything from pear, banana to raisins and dried figs) or phenols (spiciness or cloves). Finally, the hops – are they earthy (common in UK/Noble hops), floral (European hops), citrus (US hops) or tropical fruits (Australia or NZ hops). Occasionally notes of barnyard can be found when wild yeasts are present (such as brettamyces). This takes a lot of practice, but it’s all about identifying aromas that you’re already familiar with.
We also smell with the mouth – that is, we have retro nasal receptors that are triggered when we chew food or drink beer. These are found in the back of the mouth and in the channel between the mouth and the nose. To make sure that you’re using these, try swallowing beer while breathing in. It takes practice, but you should find it helpful when identifying some aromas that are linked to flavour.
Like aroma, the flavour of malt, yeast and hops should be considered. Water is also a factor, as soft water can be crucial to some styles of beer (think an elegant pilsner). Water is a solvent and picks up a number of minerals, which, given that beer is 98% water, can obviously contribute to its aromas and flavour.
Our tongues can detect five established flavours (salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami) and even emerging flavours (we might be able to detect fat, metallic and carbonation, but keep an eye on the developing science here!). Each of these flavours are picked up by the papillae on your tongue, which host your taste buds. The six flavours that you can recognise can be tasted in all areas of the tongue, but some areas are slightly more sensitive to specific flavours. The sides of the tongue are more perceptive of sour flavours, such as a tart lambic, for instance. It’s for this reason that – yes – when tasting beer, you should swallow it.
We can detect other qualities of beer while drinking it, such as how attenuated it is (dryness), how creamy it feels on the palate (if it's a wheat beer, for instance) and how carbonated the beer is (think of a natural carbonated real ale versus a spiky lager served on keg).
This is really an overview of the checklist that should run through your head when you’re tasting beer. By expanding your knowledge of styles, key indicators will leap out at you and help you narrow down a beer’s characteristics. When judging a beer, you’re likely to be using the BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Programme) style guidelines, which are focused on traditional qualities of a style. However, craft beer often breaks these rules and the guidelines might not apply – the current version is from 2015, and beer has evolved since then!
Despite this, try installing the free BJCP guidelines app on your phone and consult it when enjoying a new style of beer. If nothing else, it's a useful way to start thinking about the aromas and flavours that should be present in your glass.