We don’t know about you but that first month of the year just flew right by! After a cold January, we get to get those warm fuzzy feelings with the month of Valentine’s Day and Family Day! If you are looking for a fun activity for these occasions how about a beer tasting!
It seems simple, right? You take a beer, sip, and enjoy. However, have you ever come across a beer that really excites you? One that makes you want to pay just a little bit more attention. For my mom’s birthday last month, we gave her the beer judging guidelines that are used in evaluating beers during competitions. There are many resources like that, and beer flavour wheels, that are easily accessible online. These resources provide a some great prompts to put your finger on those elusive aromas and help to decribe what you are tasting. See if you can pick out the tasting notes most brewers put on the side of their bottles/cans or on their websites. You can find the notes of our Saison de la Meuse here. But to keep things a little simple, here is a crash course on beer evaluation.
We’ve all seen a wine glass held up to have its colour appreciated. The same can be done with beer. Rather than calling a beer yellow, we can get much more particular. The colour spectrum of beer is just that, a huge spectrum from pale straw to ruby red to black. What about the beer’s clarity? Can you see through the beer or is it hazy? Similarly, observe the foam. Does it form a large frothy head on the beer, or does it dissipate rather quickly; are the bubbles big or small?
Why does appearance matter? First and foremost, a beer should look appetizing. A beer’s appearance is usually also its first impression and sets an expectation of what you’ll be drinking. You expect a crystal clear light coloured beer to be crisp and light and a darker beer to have a more malt forward and fuller flavour. As with all things in life, there are exceptions to this, e.g. white stouts. Sour beers tend to not have strong head retention while an IPA can produce a big fluffy white head. A fruited beer can even have a coloured foam! If a beer’s appearance is not as expected it can be an indication that there is something off about the beer. As an example, a beer that is oxidized will often have darkened slightly and can look less lively than expected.
Did you know that more nuanced aspects of food or drink are picked up through the olfactory system or the scents that come off what you are having? Take a purposeful first sniff of that beer and pay attention. You’ll be hard pressed to find a brewer who takes a sip of beer without first sticking their nose in it. I find it easiest to start with a colour association. If you smell something fresh and ‘green’ it can be its hop profile. From there go a little deeper, is it floral, fruity, or spicy? The same goes for the malt profile, I tend to associate this with light browns and yellows, like toast, or fresh bread. It gets a little tricky when certain ingredients have overlapping characteristics. Yeast profiles can be spicy or fruity, but some of these characteristics can be given off by hops as well. An aroma wheel really helps with putting your finger on some of those elusive notes.
Who can name all the flavour categories? This takes me back to elementary school every time! Sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami (also referred to as savoury). Everyone is pretty familiar with these categories so I will just touch on them briefly. Sweetness is indicated by sugary or substances that come across similar to sugar. Sourness is indicated by acidity. Saltiness indicates salt or sodium. Bitterness can often be unpleasant, but we’ve grown accustomed to it, like with coffee and hops in beer. Lastly, umami flavours are associated with meats, nuts and cheese.
When evaluating your beer in regards to these five categories, it is useful to use a scaling mechanism. A beer can have a few or all of these characteristics, but how they are balanced with respect to each other is what makes the beer unique. In that sense a well-balanced beer is not generally more of one characteristic, but has more of these playing well together.
We aren’t done yet on our journey of beer appreciation. Mouthfeel just what it sounds like. How does the beer feel in your mouth? Note the carbonation; is it like fireworks in your mouth, is it a mild fizzing, or is it somewhere in between those? Carbonation in this sense can also act almost as if it is a sixth flavour, in that it can help enhance or clear the palate. Sour beers can be mouth puckering, like when eating sour candies. Some beers are light or even watery, whereas others are full or creamy and can even leave a slick mouth coating feeling.
We could do a whole separate discussion on these… undesirables… that can occur in beer. But it is important to note that beers can have off flavours in them. They can occur through a wide variety of reasons. If the beer is too young, or not fully finished in its process, you can taste that. If during the brewing process the temperature or timing is off, that will affect the quality of the final product. During fermentation the yeast could be unhappy and produce flavours other than those the brewer wants. During packaging oxygen might be introduced to the beer causing the beer to taste stale. Learning to identify these will help in truly evaluating the quality of a beer; the beer judging sheets are a great resource for cues to identify off flavours.
Most importantly, there is no correct way to enjoy a beer. If you want to learn more about this, look up the book “Tasting Beer: An Insider’s Guide to the World’s Greatest Drink” by Randy Mosher. Have you ever done a tasting night where you try to identify the characterics of a beer? Let us know!