If there is any one particular question I’m consistently asked during a beer tasting, it’s inevitably the dreaded “Which one is lightest?” I silently cringe because I know customers want a simple answer or just want me to choose the beer for them. Sure, it would be easier for me to just say, “Here, try this one” without any other information exchanged between the customer and me. However, the beer samples I provide are wonderfully complex handcrafted ales, and I would be doing a disservice both to the brewery and the customer if I were to take the lazy way out. The truth is that this is a tough question to answer because the word “light” when it comes to beer could refer to color, taste, calories, alcohol content, etc. When I try to get a little more information, I get just as many different answers – “something that isn’t heavy,” “I don’t like bitter,” “a beer that doesn’t taste like beer,” “not one of those dark beers,” to name a few. Taste, like opinions, is subjective. While the ability to taste sweet, bitter, savory (or umami), sour, and salty is a shared trait most of us possess, the range of flavors we enjoy differs from person to person.
When I first started wine tasting I was surprised to see people spit out samples and throw them into a bucket. Some people made faces because they didn’t like a particular taste, and others used the buckets because they simply wanted to taste the wine on their tongues and analyze the flavor. To swallow many samples would end up in inevitable intoxication, which defeats the purpose of the act of tasting. The same is true for beer tasting. I’ve learned the hard way that attending a beer festival has its pros and cons for a beer enthusiast such as myself. During my first few, I was excited to try craft beers from all over and as such would equip myself with a pad of paper and pen to take notes about the breweries, beers and flavors. Since most brew fests are one admission, all you can drink, my excitement would get the better of me, I would quickly get drunk, forget to take notes, and my taste buds couldn’t distinguish an ESB from a pale ale. While I might have had a great time and not remembered it, I was unable to really taste any kind of beer. I now understood the spit buckets from the wineries. Now that I’ve had a few years of volunteer and work experience with craft beer under my belt, the excitement to try everything all at once has subsided and has been replaced with the eagerness to learn about the different styles through tasting in moderation. While I’m never one to waste beer, it is sometimes necessary for me to ask for a small sample instead so that I may taste it and move on to the next one without gulping and not appreciating what’s in front of me.
As I learn more about flavors and tasting, I realize that there is no wrong or right and nobody’s taste or interpretation of a beer is superior to another’s. However, there is an art to tasting beer, just as there is with wine. Beer lovers drink beer because it tastes refreshingly good, and we appreciate the marriage of art and science produced by craft brewers around the world. We don’t drink beer because of the alcohol content; we drink it because we like it. If high alcohol content were the only factor, we would go for something much stronger, like vodka. When we pick up on a beer’s flavor, our sense of smell and taste work together as well as the way our mouth senses a beer’s texture and temperature (known as ‘mouthfeel’). What are some things we smell when we take short sniffs of beer? Some scents that we capture could be fruity, floral, spicy, piney, etc. Taking that first sip should be just that, a sip. Let the beer stay in your mouth for a brief moment. How does it taste? Sweet, bitter, salty, sour? How does it feel? Thin, like water or thick and syrupy like a milkshake? Do you like how it tastes? Why or why not? Once you get a feel for tasting beer and making your own conclusions, you’ll get a better idea of which styles best suit you. While there are no firm rules for tasting beer, I would suggest trying them in order from less to more intense in terms of alcohol content (ABV) and bitterness (IBU). This way you’ll be able to pick up on the more subtle aromas and flavors if you taste in this direction. The most important factor of all when it comes to tasting beer is to have fun and to not take yourself too seriously. If you can’t quite describe what it is you taste, keep trying. Just remember to remember what it is you’re tasting! Cheers!