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How to drink beer, and really taste it!

'A fine beer may be judged with only one sip, but it's better to be thoroughly sure' – Czech Proverb.  

Tasting beer – as opposed to simply drinking it – requires quite a lot of focus.

The first thing you want to do is smell the wonderful aromas coming out of the glass. Well, there’s a rule for you, use a glass as it’s very difficult to get aroma out of the bottle neck!

The thing is, these aromas are quite volatile and fleeting – they can be there one minute and gone the next – so the first whiff is usually the most profound.

The aromas will vary depending on what style of beer you’re tasting.

  • Lager will have just the slightest tang of citrus hops and maybe some bready malt.
  • Whereas an IPA will give you a nasal assault featuring a range of hop characters from the easily identifiable citrus, pine, passionfuit, cut grass, cat pee and sweaty socks aromas to the more subtle notes of sea spray, flowers and even cream cheese (which is a trademark of the Japanese hop Sorachi Ace).
  • More malt-driven beers will caress, rather than assault, your senses with aromas ranging from fresh biscuits, to toast, raisins, chocolate and coffee. There may be hints of smoke, tobacco and leather.
  • A yeast-driven beer will offer you banana, cloves, bubblegum, orange zest, coriander.

Next sip the beer and swirl it around in your mouth. The different taste buds on different parts of your tongue will pick up the sweet and bitter notes that tend to dominate beer. You will also get sour, or tart, maybe a saltiness (especially if drinking a gose) and umami.

In a good beer the flavours shouldn’t jangle and clash, but be well-integrated and work seamlessly. While all parts of the tongue are adept at identifying flavours, the back of the tongue is better at picking up bitterness and a well-balanced beer should provide a dry, lingering bitterness at the back of the throat.

Sipping the beer also gives you a sense of mouth-feel – or weight of the beer – which is determined by a combination of alcohol, residual sugar that has been left deliberately unfermented, and hop oils.

The trick now is to appreciate how the flavours and aromas change as the foam dissipates and the beer warms up. A warmer beer releases more hop compounds which affect the aroma, while warmth brings out deeper, richer malt flavours.

As the Czech proverb says – one sip can tell you if it’s good but you really need more than that to fully appreciate a beer’s qualities.

Building appreciation…starting a beer tasting club

I started a neighbourhood tasting club by putting out a call to arms on a community Facebook page. I was deluged with responses – almost entirely from women on behalf of their husbands or partners!

People have come and gone but we’ve been going strong for about three years now and try to meet once a month to sample around six to eight beers. By my reckoning we’ve worked our way through more than 250 different beers.

There are plenty of ways to organise a club but keeping a limit on the numbers, the beers and the time frame, will help make it more enjoyable. You can probably start a club with three or four people … and I wouldn’t recommend any more than 12 to 15 unless you have a lot of space.

I work on pouring around 100ml serves per person and – because it’s not always an exact science – aim to supply around 100ml of each beer per person. If there were 10 people coming we’d have a litre of beer – 3 x 330ml, 2 x 500ml or 1 x 1 litre fill your own. You could equally have fewer beers and larger pours – whatever suits you or your budget. In our club, I purchase all the beer based on each person chipping in $15 each. I find this is enough for six to eight samples depending on price.

Working out what to drink and which order isn’t always easy, but a general rule of thumb is to start with lower alcohol beers and move through the range. Also factor in the hoppier beers – it’s better to have them later so they don’t overwhelm your palate.

That said, it’s also good to mix up styles – perhaps have a tart farmhouse ale, sour or wheat beer mid-flight to refresh the palate.

Other suggestions for making a great beer club:
  • Pick a theme: March-April is good to try fresh-hop beers; mid-winter for porters and stouts; celebrate all-things American on July 4; October is a time to try German beers.
  • Try a regional tasting or work through a brewery’s range.
  • Always have some water and food on hand – beer loves cheese (they were BFF's before wine tried to cut in). Experiment and try different flavours with different beer styles to find the perfect partner, like trying spicy food with sour beer.
  • Take the group trip to a favourite brewery or a beer festival.
  • Explore different styles outside your normal repertoire – you might be surprised to find you actually like sour beer!
  • Try to stick to a two-hour tasting window – it’s about enjoying the taste.
  • Document your beers by creating a Facebook page and sharing pics and tasting notes, or check-in on Untappd to keep track of what you’ve tried.
  • Ensure everyone has safe transport home at the end of the evening.