by Kent Taylor

Beer is one of the oldest beverages and dates back between 5,000 and 7,000 years. Some historians have postulated that beer was the reason that mankind gave up their hunter-gatherer lifestyle in favor of forming communities and growing crops year after year.

In years past, beer was consumed, in part, as the safety of water supplies was often questionable. Today we consume beer for very different reasons. One of the reasons is for the taste, which is the inspiration for this column. In the coming issues, we will explore the many varieties of beers and beer flavors; learning which flavors and aromas are appropriate and which are not.

We first need to learn the proper way to taste beer. Your olfactory system is extremely important when tasting beer. Therefore, to properly evaluate a beer it should be sampled from a glass. Choose a glass that is comfortable in your hand, is wide enough at the top to allow for aromas to get to your nose and be sure to leave enough room in the glass to allow for swirling before sampling. There are a variety of techniques for sampling but the basics are: swirl the beer, and as you bring the glass to your lips, notice the aroma; then notice what happens when it hits the tip of your tongue; then what happens in the middle; also how it lays on your tongue (that is the body); finally how the beer finishes.

The illustration shows the areas of your tongue where the different taste buds are grouped. While each type of taste bud appears everywhere on your tongue, certain taste buds are more concentrated in certain areas. The chart shows the areas where the different taste buds are located.  Focusing on the particular area of the tongue will help with evaluating a beer. For instance astringency (off-flavor) can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from bitterness. All beer has bitter components and proper evaluation of bitterness is important for evaluating the particular style of beer. Knowing where each flavor component will show up on your tongue helps to differentiate the off-flavor from an expected flavor.

Let’s put this approach to the test and evaluate a beer. A good beer to start with is the classic American Pale Ale made by Sierra Nevada. Their Pale Ale is readily available and this style covers many of the tasting points all wrapped up in one beer experience.

Be sure to check the date and find one that was recently packaged. Choose a clean, dry glass; be sure to smell the glass to check for any carryover aromas. Pour the beer in the glass, being sure to leave plenty of room; then immediately smell it and take in all of the aromas.

You will notice flora notes from the hops; you may also notice a bit of fruitiness from the ale yeast although that will be very faint. Next take a swig; noticing again the aromas; lightly swish it around noticing how it lays on your tongue. This beer has medium body. Detecting body will take some practice with other beers; for example a Craft Pilsner will have a lighter body and an Oatmeal Stout will have a heavier body. Also, at this point you should be tasting some malt and plenty of grapefruit from Cascade hops.

By this time you should have swallowed and again notice the malt, body and grapefruit, all of which will quickly dissipate. Next you should concentrate on the very back of your tongue. This is where you will sense bitterness. Be patient; after about 20 seconds the bitterness will really start to come through. This sensation will last for a another 30 – 45 seconds then will slowly trail off over several minutes.

Hoppiness and bitterness are two different sensations. Hoppiness sensation is when the beer is in your mouth; you sense bitterness long after you swallow. You have now had your first sampling experience. Remember, the more you sample the better you will be at tasting beer.

Cheers! KT

Kent Taylor is the Co-Founder of Blackstone Brewery in 1994; along with late partner Stephanie Weins. Kent has been brewing award winning Craft beer in Nashville for almost 25 years. In addition to his duties at Blackstone, he serves as Vice-Chairman on the Engineering Subcommittee at the Brewers Association in Denver; is on the Board of Directors and Treasurer of the Tennessee Craft Brewers Guild; was an award winning home brewer; and was recently recognized by the Nashville Business Journal as one of the most admired CEOs in Nashville.

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