Learning to taste beer – Part 1

For many people, beer tastes like beer and they like what they like. However, part of the journey of becoming a great homebrewer and potentially moving into the commercial sector is learning how to identify and evaluate the flavours and aroma in a beer and compare these to what the brewer wanted to achieve.  By doing this, you can learn to combine, manipulate and balance the flavours and aromas in your beer to make outstanding beers.

Identification of flavours

Identification is the first step and is the beginning of building a flavour and aroma library in your mind. Some people have a natural affinity for this and others don’t. I myself fall into the latter category and will talk about how I develop and maintain my library.  When I first decided to take beer seriously and started talking with people in the industry, I quickly realised that I had a limited idea of how to taste, identify and relate the flavours and aromas in beer.

Exercise your taste and smell

Taste and smell everything you can. I started smelling many of the fruits and herbs in the supermarket and thinking about how the smell differs from something similar. For example, the aroma of an orange; is it a blood orange or a naval orange and how does the aroma compare to a lemon? Is the orange sweeter smelling, the level of citrus aroma and is there a level of acidity.

The same principle can be done while cooking with food. How does the flavour of a roasted almond differ from roasted cashew? Is the cashew more buttery and how does the skin on the almond affect the taste and mouthfeel? By making this differentiation, you can learn to spot and think about the subtle difference in flavours. The rest is practice!

Another trick is to use memories to solidify the association between aromas and flavours. Like associating the horsey barnyard flavours and aroma of a Belgian Lambic with the aromas on the grandparent’s farm.

Explore ingredients with all senses

Now we can look to the ingredients used in beer, and again taste and smell these as much as possible. Tasting fresh malted grains, you can see how the flavour from crystal malt differs from biscuit and how Vienna is different from Munich malt. By smelling the hops as you use them or making hop teas and single hop beers, you can showcase the flavours and aroma contributed by a particular hop variety. Yeast, well you can taste this, but it’s not overly pleasant. However, it does help identify overly yeasty and autolysis in beer.

Using this mental ‘library’ of beer flavours and real-world flavours we can apply this to the tasting of beer.