How to Taste Beer
We all know how to drink beer. It’s pretty simple: you open the can and pour it into your waiting gullet. We all do it on a regular basis, and it brings us a certain amount of joy.
Okay. It brings us a lot of joy.
But there’s a little more to tasting beer than simply downing a can of Coastal Evacuation. How do the pros do it?
We sat down with two mega-pros — Brewers Mark Graves and Andrew Ewing — and a couple of freshly-canned tall boys of Snag & Drop — to find out what they do differently than the rest of us.
Using our excellent powers of deduction — and the glassware icon on the side of the can of Snag & Drop — we quickly determined that a pint glass was the wrong glass. We wanted a nonic pint — one of those with the little “bubble” close to the top. This allows for more head — and when it comes to beer, more head equals greater aroma.
Nonetheless, neither Mark nor Andrew put too much stock in glassware.
“Eh,” Andrew says. “As long as it’s in a glass, it’s all right.”
Mark agrees. “If a beer drinker’s looking for the next level, then proper glassware’s it.”
There’s no reason to be snobby about it, but if you want to impress your guests, provide the correct glassware.
Once you’ve gathered the proper glassware, you pop open the beer and pour.
“I usually tilt two-thirds of the way up,” Mark tells us, “then the last third right down the middle. It really stirs it up and gets the aromatics going.”
Andrew’s looking for any particles floating in the beer, any “chunks”, any “snowglobe action.” These are things you definitely don’t want.
He’s also checking the color of the brew — is it true-to-style? An American Pale Ale shouldn’t pour black as pitch.
“Is it Instagram-worthy?” Andrew half-jokes.
“Which hashtag should I be using?” Mark quips.
“Give it a good, big whiff,” Andrew says.
Mark is sniffing for “all the work we put into getting the aromatics into the can.”
“I smell a lot of work,” Andrew quipps.
For the rest of us — mere mortals who don’t smell work when we open a can of beer — we’re essentially smelling for the hops. Hops provide the lion’s share of the aromatics in most beers, particularly the hop-forward ones like IPAs. For something like a porter or stout, you’re sniffing for the malts — you can really get a good, coffee-like, roasty aroma off of something like Concrete Ship.
Mark can tell quite a lot from the smell.
“You’re just kind of looking,” he says. “Oxygen in the can will make those aromatics fade a lot quicker. Is it a good can? Or if it’s draft, is it a good keg? Do you smell anything off or weird? You can smell a lot of things wrong with the draft lines that way. Or… is the beer a good beer?”
There are a lot of off-odors that you might be able to pick up with your snout that may say to you, “Hey. Don’t drink this beer.”
Any sulphur-y smell, a stale smell — you can smell that, as well. You may sense a butteriness or cardboard — more or less anything that smells like something you wouldn’t want to taste in a beer is a sure sign that there’s something wrong with what’s inside the glass.
Luckily, the Snag & Drop we were sampling was canned earlier that day, so it was “suuuuper fresh,” according to Andrew.
Essentially, the sniff is to prepare you for what’s coming next….
Andrew likes to fill his mouth up with the first sip.
“I like to saturate my palate with the flavors,” he says.
He’ll do a “nice, gentle swish” around his mouth to sense the carbonation level and the CO2 burn.
With each beer, you’re looking for different flavors. However, with a Triple IPA like Snag & Drop, you’re looking for the correct balance of flavors.
“It’s a strange style,” Mark admits. And it’s true. Triple IPAs are still a little new when it comes to beer styles, and what should be expected of them is relatively up in the air.
Nonetheless, there are three basic stages to tasting a beer:
- Initial sip — what you sense when it first hits your tongue
- Flavor — “what’s really goin’ on,” as Andrew puts it.
- Aftertaste — what you sense after you swallow
Take note of what flavors you experience at each stage. Most of the time, you get something different at each point — sometimes they’re wildly different flavors, but they should combine to create a pleasant drinking experience.
Social Media Manager Courtney Rosenberg was on hand photographing our session, and she made an excellent point:
“When I drink beer,” she says, “I can’t judge it off the first sip. You have to go a few sips in. You can’t take one sip and decide that you don’t like it.”
Mark suggests that sour beers have a three-sip minimum. “Your tongue doesn’t get used to it until three sips, at least.”
This point is particularly salient when you’re sampling several beers of varying styles, say at a brewery on Hornet Road in the Cape May Airport. Some people like to get a flight and bounce between their beers, and that’s fine — there is literally no wrong way to drink beer. However, your palate needs a chance to rebound between beers.
“Sometimes the really good beers, after the first sip, you immediately want to go in for another one,” Mark says. “But it’s like a little dance. You’re just settling in — Is this a good beer? Am I getting what the description says it’s going to be? And… is it delicious?”
“That’s why I like to do the full-mouth swish,” Andrew says. “Really work it in there. The flavor can change up on you as you get more of it in your mouth.”
You’re also looking for mouthfeel.
“Mouthfeel is basically the body of the beer,” Andrew explains. “You hear, ‘Oh, that beer has a whole lot of body,’ it’s gonna have a thicker, more viscous body. If you ever hear something has a very light body, it’s very dry.”
Andrew compares it to wine — a very dry wine is going to roll off your palate and have a very drying effect on your tongue.
Snag & Drop could be considered medium-bodied, mostly thanks to the 300 lbs of oats that we put in each 30-barrel batch.
“Ten pounds per barrel in the mash,” Andrew says. “So, it’s like… it’s oaty.”
“I think on the front and the middle it’s definitely got that smooth, medium-bodied luxuriousness to it,” Mark says, “but then it finishes very dry, and that’s carbonation and the hops. It has that nice, dryness. It leaves your mouth wanting more.”
It’s a good beer to drink with food, Mark says, “because you don’t have a sweet syrupiness coating your mouth and throat and you can’t taste the food. It finishes dry and it compliments whatever you’re eating.”
“Don’t look at the brewery that made the beer and immediately bring it down or up a level,” Mark suggests. “Don’t have a preconceived notion about the brewery.”
It’s a good point — we all do it. You may taste a beer from a particular brewery and not like it, but it could be a one-time thing that they just didn’t do well.
“The whole evaluation of it is ‘take this beer for what it’s worth,’” Mark says, “not from where it came from. You might fall victim to your own stereotype or a stereotype that’s out there when you should let each beer stand on its own merits.”
The same thought could be extended to beer styles. Just because you’ve tasted one IPA and didn’t like it doesn’t mean that you don’t like IPAs. Give them another chance. What’s the worst that could happen? If you don’t like it, order something else. Any good beer bar is going to give you a taste of something before you commit to an entire pint, anyway.
Like your mom always said: “Go. You might meet someone.”
Mark pointed to beer temperature as another common misconception.
“The biggest mistake in enjoying a beer is that you think it has to be enjoyed ice cold,” he says. “For most styles, keep the beer cold, but allow the beer to warm as you enjoy it and you’ll be rewarded in most cases. Cold suppresses flavor as well as CO2. As the beer warms, more CO2 breaks out and flushes further aromas and even some flavors that weren’t there fresh out of the fridge.”
So, now that you know everything there is to know about tasting beer, the last step is to try it for yourself. Swing down to the brewery and put this all into practice.
See you soon!