Tasting beer

As the 2011 edition of the Beer Lover’s Guide is released, publishers Scribal Publishing have given Australian Brews News the chance to publish a couple of the articles from last year’s edition. This first article looks at whether Australia is indeed experiencing a craft beer revolution, or whether it’s just a good beer movement for now…

The 2011 edition, with all new essays on beer, brewing and travel, is out now.

Tasting beer

To a reader of this book it will be quite obvious that beer is a wonderful thing. It can offer us so much if we give it a chance and the respect it deserves. And it is in the very act of preparation for and tasting of the beer itself that we as the beer drinkers can perhaps best go about showing this respect. If we show care and respect to the beer that we are about to consume there is a greater chance that it will reward us with a pleasant experience, than if we show it a complete disregard and contempt in its journey to our palate. It must be remembered that no matter how wonderful a beer is in the tank at the brewery it is how we experience it in the end that matters.


Perhaps the first thing that should be addressed when experiencing any beer is our expectation of that beer. What we might reasonably expect from a Witbier will be very different from what we would expect a glass of Barleywine to provide us. Style considerations are very important and it is no use diving into that glass of barley wine expecting a thirst quenching aperitif when what you may instead have is a wonderful digestif. Having said that though, we must also allow the modern brewer room for creative expansion and realise that not all beers are made to be historically true recreations of styles but perhaps might be a new twist on a classic style or even the first step in the evolution of a new style. This is where it pays to absorb as much information about that beer as you reasonably can. Read the bottle, read the menu, read the internet and read the beer as you drink it. Knowing a beer’s background and its brewer’s intentions can go a long way into garnering an appreciation for it.


When our beer selection has been made we must of course have a vessel from which to consume it. The best vessel is a glass. Any glass is better than no glass but there are some forms of glassware that seem to have the ability to help us better perceive certain flavour profiles in some beer styles. As an all rounder for tasting a wide range of beer styles I am a fan of tulip shaped glasses or even the ISO Taster glass that is popular at many wineries and beverage tasting events. Both of these standard glass shapes are useful as a reference point in tasting. Unlike a bottle or can, a glass allows us to fully appreciate the beer’s appearance and has the means to let the beer best express its main form of flavour release – aroma. All our beer glasses should be clean and free from detergent residue and stored at room temperature to ensure the best result from pouring.


All beers have an ideal serving temperature range, and if we are going to get the most out of the beer in front of us, it is desirable to serve it within this range. Temperature has a strong effect on how we taste and identify many aspects of beer. It limits or encourages aroma, changes the awareness of mouthfeel and body and can also enhance or detract from areas such bitterness and malt sweetness. Now this doesn’t mean we need 6 or 7 different storage areas for our beer but maybe a quick thought before serving as to how long it might need in or out of the fridge prior to pouring in order to fall more closely to the recommended temperature range.


We must then turn our attention to getting our beer in the glass. There are many different methods of pouring beer but the most important thing to remember is that it is the end result that matters more than the method. Considerations for this may include things such as residual yeast from bottle conditioning (to pour or not to pour – style dependent, generally don’t pour unless it is a German style Weizen beer or Belgian Wit but there are exceptions) and foam/head size (I use 2 fingers worth as a base point – style dependent). And the result? A beer in the glass with appropriate foam for style served as soon as possible to those that wish to consume it. Now the fun begins.


The first sense we use when drinking anything is our sight. We drink with our eyes. We note the colour and clarity (is it red, brown, yellow, golden, black? Is it bright, hazy, cloudy, murky?) We watch the level of carbonation, we look at the size of the foam and we assess the way that the foam might cling to the glass (the lacing). The appearance of a beer can tell us many things, but our eyes are also very capable of deception. A drop or two of a natural colourant such as annatto or sinimar can soon lead the mind to believe in flavours that do not exist….. Let your eyes guide you but don’t let them tell the whole story.


Our nose is our most important sensory organ when it comes to tasting beer. Whilst our mouth/tongue might be capable of giving us some basic feedback on taste and flavour it is our nose that is doing the majority of the work, even when the beer is in our mouth. Aroma is a powerful tool for any beer and the aroma of a beer is capable of bringing about a wide range of responses in the beer drinker from delight to disgust to memories of childhood days at Grandma’s house. Whenever we eat or drink it is our nose that gives us the first and perhaps most important indication of the quality, freshness and type of food about to hit our mouth. This is very important in a survival sense as a food that is rotten is best discarded before it hits our mouth and potentially makes us ill.

There is an extraordinary array of aromas that can be found in beer. For the most part these aroma profiles are described in terms of aroma metaphors: literally a straight description of what it reminds you of. In some cases this is because it is actually the same chemical compound making that flavor/smell. So if a beer reminds you of banana (as in the case of German style wheat beer) then banana is the correct term to describe it. There is no right or wrong way to describe what you taste in a beer although there are some generally accepted terms for some flavor compounds and their source of origin. A quick swirl can be useful for encouraging the release of aroma from the glass, and letting your mind wander to other food and drink experiences is very helpful in locating the words and language in which you wish to express the nose that you encounter.


After the aroma of the beer has been experienced the next step is to take the beer in the mouth in order to gauge its flavour, body and mouthfeel. Whilst our tongue and mouth are not as good as our nose at identifying flavour compounds they are capable of detecting sensations that our nose never will, as well as showing further flavours that the nose has yet to pick up due to masking by more prominent aromas. Some of these sensations could be described as flavours, some as mouthfeel and some are a bit of both. Bitterness is perhaps both a flavour and a mouthfeel sensation, and is something that holds a lot of importance in many beer styles. Bitterness is measured in IBU (International Bittering Units) and in modern beer ranges from 4 to over 100 IBU. The average domestic lager is somewhere in the low 20’s and a very aggressive American style IPA might be closer to the 100 mark. These raw numbers tell us very little though of the actual bitterness that we will perceive in the beer. It is widely believed that bitterness has a threshold taste of about 4 IBU and an upper limit of perception somewhere around 80 IBU. The body and sweetness of the beer or inversely its dryness will swing the balance of how prominent that bitterness seems.

We also experience in our mouth other sensations such as astringency (best described as a prickly, puckering effect on the palate), alcohol heat (also detected in different ways by the nose) and importantly the body of the beer and the degree of carbonation.

The body of the beer is made up of residual sugars/dextrins left behind by the yeast, and proteins from the malt and is the familiar fullness or dryness that we experience whilst the beer is in the mouth and after we swallow. The degree of carbonation that the beer possesses will also have an influence on how the body of the beer feels (higher carbonation levels seemingly lower the perceived body) as well as contributing varying degrees of a prickling acidity that is felt on the palate.

In general, when tasting/drinking beer we swallow rather than spit. We are after all civilised people, no need for spitting or wasting beer.

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