Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Five Attitudes of Beer Tasting: Part Three - Taste

Okay, it's been a while since I've done a new entry, but I was on vacation in Arizona. Once I've completed The Five Attitudes of Beer Tasting I'll do an entry on the beer scene I discovered in Arizona. It is not to be overlooked...the beer scene in Arizona; you are certainly free to ignore my blog entry on it.

So on to taste. Like smell, I've covered off on a lot of this but there is always much to talk about when it comes to tasting beer. The first and foremost thing to always remember is that everyone's taste differs. Sure, all our taste buds work the same way, but the concentration of taste buds on one person's tongue will differ from the next. That's why some people prefer some beers and others prefer another.

TASTE REGIONS - When you taste a beer you need to be cognizant of those taste buds and where they exist in your mouth. They're not just on your tongue but on your palate as well. Segment your tongue and your palate and explore how what you taste in one region differs from what you taste elsewhere and how they work together to create one overall impression of taste. For instance, when you drink a stout you can get an overall taste impression of coffee, even if the beer is not brewed with coffee. How? Well, you taste roasted malts on the tip of your tongue. You then taste the bitterness created by those malts or the use of hops at the back of your palate. You can taste them separately if you concentrate on each region separately, but together they create the overall impression of coffee. But we've covered this...sort of.

TASTING TECHNIQUE - Let's talk about technique. Technique you say? Yes, it's not just a simple matter of pouring beer down your gullet and telling people how you like it. Funnels will not do in this exercise. The key here is to take it slow even though some beers make that difficult by being so damn yummy.

GLASSWARE - As mentioned a few posts ago, you should be drinking out of some sort of drinking vessel and not the bottle. Your nose is a big player in the overall taste impression and the act of drinking from a bottle takes your nose out of play.

SIPPING - Now that you've selected an appropriate drinking vessel, you should take an initial sip, trying not to get too much of the head. Taking in a small amount will help you separate the tasting regions of the tongue and allow you concentrate. Explore each region and what you find there. Don't buy into the traditional taste mapping, even though it's usually pretty accurate. There are some beers that will go outside the norm and display flavors where they are not expected.

THE QUAFF - After that you can continue to sip to make sure you understood everything you experienced or you can go for a full quaff and fill your mouth, bringing the palate more into play. Taste buds do exist on the roof of your mouth. Alcohol and bitterness usually assert themselves in the front of the palate and at the rear, respectively. A sip may hit these regions, but a full quaff will definitely do so.

WORDS - The hardest part of reviewing taste then becomes the words you use. Some flavor wheels for beer tasting have been developed. Here's one that I found on-line. It's not easy to read so click on it and you'll find it's still pretty hard to read.

When drinking stouts I get tired of describing them as having taste elements of roast, toast, coffee, chocolate and smoke. With some styles this is unavoidable, but you can be creative within the structure of a well-known and accepted flavor profile. Ask yourself, "What kind of coffee? Roasted or toasted what? Milk or dark chocolate? Is the toast burnt? From where do these flavors arise? Do they taste like something else you've had? Do they work well with one another?"

BALANCE - That last question can be important. If you're not particularly liking a beer, but the flavor elements seem to be fine when taken separately it might be that the beer is not in balance. Individual flavors can be nice, but if they're clashing and not working well together it can make for an unpleasant experience. Mention that! I've seen reviews that have referred to a beer as a muddled mess...and they were right! The flavors individually were good but they worked so counter to one another that the overall impression was horrible. One example for me is some chili beers. I love beer (duh) and I also love hot chilies. In many chili beers the chilies are not in balance with the rest of the beer because the heat overwhelms every other flavor rendering the beer undrinkable. Just as a side note, I have had some chili beers where the taste of the chilies is balanced by the sweetness of the malts, the hops used are mild and bring just some bitterness and the heat of the chilies is all but gone. That was a well-balanced and great chili beer!

BRAVERY - Finally, be not afraid! Your impressions are your opinions and are not and cannot be wrong. If you post a beer review and someone tells you that you're wrong then they just don't get it. Okay yes, there are some flavors that almost everyone can pull out and there can be objectivity to a taste. We should all be getting the same flavor profiles when tasting the same beer. However, not everyone will sense everything and some flavors will appear a little different, but will remain close to others. For example, some people may describe a phenolic beer as astringent, others will describe a spice that it tastes like and someone else may call it medicinal. None are wrong; they just chose different ways to express the same taste.

So go forth and taste, review what you taste! But most importantly enjoy what you taste. If writing out what you tasted in a review becomes a chore and no longer enjoyable, stop doing it! You're not doing anyone a favor. We all have to read a review that has no pleasure in it and you're ruining your beer-drinking experience. Only review if you enjoy it. Do not let it ruin your enjoyment of your beer.

Next Time: The Five Attitudes of Beer Tasting: Parts 4 and 5 - Mouthfeel and Drinkability

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