A lesson in beer tasting

Posted on: 30 July 2010 by Mark O'haire

It's your chance to learn the art of beer tasting.

Beer is the oldest and most widely consumed alcoholic beverage and the third most popular drink in the world after water and tea.

Produced by the brewing and fermentation of starches, mainly derived from cereals, the most common of which is malted barley, although wheat, corn and rice are also widely used.

Most beer is flavoured with hops, which add bitterness and act as a nature preservative, though other flavourings such as herbs or fruit may occasionally be included.

Beer is best drunk in the company of others, whether in a pub or beer café.  Take this sense of conviviality further and invite friends to a tasting session - a joyful celebration of the best of John Barleycorn.

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Tasting beer involves all the senses.  After all, beer has a rich variety of colours, flavours and aromas.  There are few rules, but think about the beers that you are sampling.

Either choose a variety of styles, showcasing the diversity of beer, or serve different variations on a theme - a selection of American IPAs, for example, Czech pilsners perhaps, or British bitters.

Whichever course you choose, begin with the most delicate beers and end with the most intensely flavoured or strongest beers.  Between 6-10 beers is best.  Too many and the palate becomes dulled.

Use large wine or brandy glasses for beer tasting if you can - the shape of these helps to concentrate aromas.  Lay out water and crackers, or plain salted crisps, which help to dry the palate between beers.  Then enjoy!

1) Pouring


Use a clean tasting glass for each beer. 

Hold the glass at an angle of about 45 degrees at first, straightening it towards the end of the pour to let the beer acquire a head then leave to settle for a few seconds.

2) Appearance


Look at the beer.  It should have a clarity and sparkle to it.  Judge the colour and condition: does it dance and shimmer in the glass?  A tired beer lacks life and actually looks dull. 

As you drink the beer, a lacework-like trace of foam should be left adhering to the side of the glass-again, a sign of good condition.

3) Aroma

Nosing Swirl the beer in the glass to help release the aromas. 

Malty aromas include cereal, dried fruit, coffee beans, biscuit, Ovaltine, chocolate, toffee, and caramel. 

Hops produce fruity, fragrant, perfumy, spicy, resiny, peppery, citrusy, herbal, and floral notes redolent of tropical fruit, bananas, and ripe apricot skin. 

Lambic and gueuze have powerfully earthy, sweet-and-sour aromas thanks to the presence of wild yeast.

4) Flavour

Taste the beer. The tongue detects sweetness at the tip, salt and sour on the sides, and bitterness at the back. Some beers come bearing lots of fruity gifts, while others - especially dark porters and stouts - produce roast, coffee, caramel and chocolate flavours. 

Let the beer roll about the tongue, and work out the order of flavours. How does the beer feel in the mouth: smooth, thin, grainy, acidic (lambics again), oily, or chewy. 

A great beer is about balance and harmony. The malt and hops should be working with each other. 

Wine tasters always spit, but beer needs to be swallowed for the finish to be noted. Is it bitter? That’s the hops. Dry? That’s often the effect of the malt. It might be a long, lingering finish, or it might be short and abrupt.

The Beer Book by Tim Hampson is available at all good bookshops for £16.99 or online at Amazon for £9.19.

Are you a beer or wine taster? What's your favourite beer?

Let us know and leave a comment in the box below or share your thoughts with other readers in the 50connect forums.

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