Tasting Beer: There’s More Than Meets the Eye

Tasting beer requires more than simply drinking beer.

There is a ritual to tasting beer that involves each of your senses. Bringing this practice to light may tack on a few extra minutes to your sampling session but what you learn by participating in a friendly (and somewhat organized) tasting session could last a lifetime!

PRO TIP: “What I tell people is to use all of your senses when tasting beer.  You eat with your eyes why not drink with them too.” – Melissa Osborne, Brewer

The Structured Analysis Process
Screen Shot 2015-09-03 at 11.50.54 AM
Melissa leads a tasting session with craft beer team leaders for Total Wine.

Melissa Osborne is a member of the Four Peaks Brewing team and an experienced judge. Melissa leads monthly tasting and sensory panels for the staff and specialty tasting sessions for partners. She knows a thing or two about sampling and judging beers.

During organized and formal tasting sessions, the group is given samples of each of the Four Peaks mainstay beers – Hop Knot IPA, Raj IPA, 8th Street Pale Ale, White Ale, Arizona Peach Ale, Sunbru Kolsch, Kilt Lifter Scotch Ale and Oatmeal Stout. Each participant is given a sheet of paper that outlines each style. There is a quick overview of what the style is and the ingredients of that specific brew to give participants some background and education about the style at hand.

For each style, some sections can be checked that offer several descriptors. Using all senses – appearance, aroma, taste, and mouth-feel, participants take their time to identify precisely what they see (color, clarity, head), what they smell, (dark fruit, light fruit, citrus, spices, bread), what they taste (flavors, intensity, transitions, finish) and mouth-feel (carbonation, body, smooth, silky).

Sampling notes from a recent staff tasting session.
Sampling notes

Participants are urged to take notes on their findings and encouraged to consider food pairings for each style. After taking notes on each style, participants share their findings with each other and compare notes. This is a crucial step! Many times different folks have different sensory thresholds. This means they can pick up on a particular attribute much easier than someone else in the group. Once discussed, other participants may be able to pull through a similar attribute and VOILÀ! Palates have been expanded. Similar characteristics can be detected in future tastings of that same style (or other related styles).

PRO TIP: “At a judge table, we taste and make our notes independantly then talk about it afterward so we don’t influence each other.” -Melissa Osborne

Why so serious? Tasting beer is supposed to be fun!

Screen Shot 2015-09-03 at 2.16.25 PMTasting and learning about your beer should be fun! Let’s break down the process into four easy steps that will take your beer sampling (and palate!) to the next level:

  1. Hold your sample up to the light (Hint: put a piece of white paper or a white napkin behind it.)
    • What do you see? Take note of the color (honey, russet brown, inky black), the clarity (brilliant, hazy, cloudy, bright), and the head (persistent, rocky, frothy)
  2. Bring the beer up to your nose and inhale. (Hint: open your mouth slightly and inhale with your nose and mouth.)
    • What do you smell? Is it bready or biscuity? Can you smell raisins or bananas? Maybe a hint of grapefruit? Possibility pepper, licorice? Reach deep into the old memory bank for scents of your youth – grass, a cellar, a fresh lilac, Sunday breakfast (bacon!).
  3. Now, take that first sip.
    • What do you taste? What is it? Is that vanilla? A hint of dark chocolate? Maybe caramel? Is it all bread? What’s the intensity of the flavors? Subtle or over the top? Maybe one taste transitions into another? How’s that finish? Dry or lingering?
  4. Once that sip of beer has passed, let’s think about how the mouth feels.
    • How did that beer feel in your mouth? Was the beer smooth and silky? Or was it hot and astringent? Did it bounce over your tongue or did it glide over it? Was it dense and chewy or delicate and light?
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Staff sensory tasting at Four Peaks Tasting Room in Tempe.

For these exercises, you don’t have to be taking in-depth notes. Using a free app, like Untappd, can help you organize and document the beers you have tried. This is an exercise about expanding your palate and understanding what you are drinking. It gets you talking about beer and increases your appreciation for the craft. You can tell your friends why you liked (or disliked) a particular brew.

Don’t worry, you won’t be tested. There aren’t any right or wrong answers to tasting beer. While it can be intimidating at first, I encourage you to get out there and taste with friends. Hosting a bottle exchange party or getting together with a group to enjoy a round of taster flights is the perfect opportunity to put this ritual to good use!

PRO TIP: “Go with your gut instinct when tasting a beer.  Trust your palate.” – Melissa Osborne

Do you have a tasting ritual you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments below or share with us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram!

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