Jan 7 2011

You want to improve your beer tasting skills? Go try something else.

“The misconception is you need to learn how to taste. It’s more a sense of recognition than a sense of taste.”Jerald O’Kennard of the Beverage Testing Institute in Chicago on tasting beer

I saw this tweeted some time ago, and it stuck in the back of my head. It did so because it cut though the mysterious fog around tasting beer with a clean blade.

Rewind: I had probably been homebrewing for 10 years, and obviously loving beer for much longer than that, before I figured out that I should get some expertise in tasting beer.  This was sensible move since I needed to be able to diagnose my beers to make tweaks in dialing in my process and recipes, but also to identify what characteristics I enjoyed in commercial brews that I wanted to replicate in my homebrews.

Back to now: I can’t tell you that in the passing years that I’ve developed an amazing palate, or that I’ve become some sort of super taster. My questionable taste buds are just the same, but I think I have a better library of memories to compare them to.

Anyone who really, really enjoys beer is also a foodie and likely into other spirits. There is a hedonistic streak that runs through the craft beer lover. We know that pleasure is intrinsically good, within reason, and that we should enjoy the best of what this world can offer us. Those tendencies, to try artisan food and potables, can create quite a catalog to compare to the flavors and aromas we get from beers.

You want to improve your beer tasting skills? Go out and try new things.

Smell and taste everything. Try the things you already know. Figure out why you can tell the difference between a peach and an apricot.

Also seek out what is beyond your experience. Step into that ethic market where you can’t read a single sign or package. The stranger, to you, the better. What do this unusual smells remind you of? Could you work them into the right style of beer?

It might sound like “wet dog in a phone booth”, or “ash”, or “buttered popcorn”, or “new car”, or “summer sweat” would be terrible in a beer. And if that was the single note that you got out of it, then it is likely a poorly made or handled beer. But insert that single note inside of three or four bars of a song, it can be quite interesting and add quite a bit of complexity. Or that flat note could be the thing you want to identify and surgically remove in your next brew session.

You want to improve your beer tasting skills? Go try something else.

What crazy flavors and aromas have you found in good beers?