Most of us know you're supposed to swirl and sniff a big California Cabernet in a giant wine glass, or linger over a smoky Scotch in a snifter. But when it comes to our beer, we're clueless: We chug our bottles ice cold and let our suds sit around in a plastic pitcher. "With beer it's often drinking without thinking," bemoans Ray Daniels, a former Chicago home-brewer expert who runs Cicerone, one of the country's only beer sommelier certification programs. "We turn our analytical minds off when we drink it. But every beer tells a story," he adds. "It has a beginning and a middle and an end."
Daniels is not talking about cheap six-packs, of course, but craft beer, the modern term for brews designed to be delicious. Daniels' job is training beer professionals how to taste those suds, and how to tell their stories. And step No. 1 for us amateurs, he'd likely tell you, is to take that bottle or can out of the ice-crammed cooler, and pour it into a glass.
What's That Smell
That's because 85 percent of what we describe as "flavor" is actually aroma, says Daniels, and if your beer is too cold or trapped inside a bottle, most of what you perceive as taste isn't free to float into your nose. That all-important organ can process hundreds of chemical compounds in beer from the malt, hops, yeast and spices, he says, while our mouths can handle just five: sour, sweet, salty, bitter and the newly discovered umami. (Or maybe it's actually eight: Modern scientists, says Daniels, are starting to think fat, carbonation and metallic should get added to that list one day, too.)
Smelling is so important to beer professionals that Daniels can define different approaches to the technique. One colleague does the Drive-By, swirling her beer to first release aromatic properties like piney or toasty or nutty, then waving it under her nose in one swift move. Daniels sticks his nose deep into the glass and take many short sniffs, an approach he's christened the Bloodhound. "Beer judges," he admits, "always have little specks of foam on their noses."
As an ordinary drinker, you might not end up with foam on your face if you sit through one of Greg Engert's tasting dinners, but you will be encouraged to sniff and think, if only because it forces you to enjoy your beer more fully.
Engert is the beer sommelier at the two-story Birch & Barley in Washington, D.C., which has a 120-page manual for staff, stocks 50 draught lines and 500 bottles, including some aged in-house. (Yep, they do that for beer, too.)
At Birch & Barley beers are held at three distinct temperatures designed on what works best for enjoying the beer, all of which are served in glassware designed to accentuate their charms. The crisper, lighter and less aromatic in general -- e.g., an-all American lager like Budweiser -- the colder you should serve it, and in a tall straight-sided glass. (You can find a list of proper glassware at BeerAdvocate.com and a discussion of beer temperatures are RateBeer.com.)
At Engert's tastings, budding beer aficionados are taught to swirl, sniff, sip and swish the brews around their mouths, breathing back in as they swallow. That's to get what Engert and Daniels call retronasal smelling, the technical term for the aromas that you can only pick up at the back of your nose and throat.
But beyond all that facial exercise, what Engert really wants you to do is pay attention to what you're smelling and tasting and feeling. To help you parse your palate, he hands out scorecards and talks you through characteristics from beer color ("is it brick or tawny brown?"); to flavor ("is it tart and crisp?"); to characteristics of malt (toasty, caramelly) and hops (pine, oregano) to mouthfeel (silky, oily, airy, hollow).
Go Back to Grade School
Of course it's one thing for a beer sommelier to prompt you with a cheat sheet of possibilities; learning how to describe what you're experiencing on your own is ultimately the hardest part of tasting. That's why one of the key components of the sensory training program at Colorado's New Belgium Brewing Co. is building vocabulary
Designed by head brewer Lauren Salazar, the program consists of a 45-minute session each week that in part teaches staffers how to talk about beer from a professional standpoint. When they start out, says Salazar, invariably they just want to say a beer is "good," or "yummy." But what she needs to know is does that mean caramel-toasted malt, black jellybean or green apple?
"I'm not your mother," jokes Salazar. "I don't care if you like it. I want you to tell me what it tastes like."
One way Salazar helps trainees do just that is to isolate one flavor characteristic at a time. Trainees taste it over and over again, while simultaneously talking about what compound -- freshly cut grass, resin or orange peel -- they are experiencing, just like when you were memorizing colors and letters as a grade schooler.
"Aroma is on one side of your brain, and lingual is on the other side," she says, "and we're just not really wired to talk about these attributes, so you have to learn them, talk about them, say them again and again and make these long-term memories. It sounds like you're in second grade," Salazar admits, "cause you kind of are."
(Note that for professionals, not all of these flavors are good ones. Some are downright awful, like sulfur or wet cardboard. In the beer geek world, these are known as defects, and they're critical to detect before a beer is served; in fact the majority of Ray Daniels' coursework is training tasters how to spot them.)
Drink Beer, a Lot
Tasting and talking and talking and tasting is pretty much how Mary Izett, a member of the New York City Homebrewers Guild, mastered her own certification through the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), except she did it mostly by talking to herself.
Similar to Cicerone, BJCP is focused on training judges for home brew competitions. When Izett started out in the program in 2002, she went out for beers nearly every day, toting around the 50-page BJCP complete guide to the beverage. That mammoth printout listed beer styles from IPA to Pale Ale, to Belgian to English brown and Baltic porter, as well as how to describe the characteristics of hops, malt and yeast you'd find in each one.
"I carried that thing around with me every day," sighs Izett, "and I compared every beer I drank to it for months."
These days, not surprisingly, she has a version on her iPhone available for free from bjcp.org. So yes, when it comes to learning how to taste beer, there is now an app for that.