There are different ways to approach beer flavour language, whether written or spoken, and ranging from direct, analytical and objective, to creative, emotive and subjective. In this article we’re looking at different ways of describing the same hypothetical beer –a dry-hopped Pilsner, like an Italian Pils – and considering what’s good (or not so good) about them.
A few thoughts on tasting notes before we begin. I’ve written thousands of these, from countless scribbles in notebooks to numerous books and publications, and there are many different ways to describe beer, but it’s always important to know who we’re trying to engage: if it’s just for yourself in a notebook then you can use whatever words make sense to you, and you can be as subjective as you like, but if it’s aimed at someone else then the most successful ways of communicating use language which speaks specifically to the audience, using language they’re comfortable with. There’s no single correct way to do this, but there are ways which are less effective than others.
The ultimate goal with flavour language is to convey something about what it’s like the drink the beer and help someone make a decision about whether or not they want to buy it.
10 DIFFERENT APPROACHES TO BEER TASTING NOTES
THE PROFESSIONAL ONE
“Straw colour. Persistent foam. Prominent German hop aroma – dried citrus, lemongrass, subtle floral, grapefruit pith, grassy, woody herbs. Light body, high and fine carbonation. Some Pilsner malt depth (dough, light toast). Clean – no esters, no DMS, no diacetyl. Well attenuated and dry. Lasting herbal hop bitterness in the finish.”
This is language that a beer judge or brewer might use when formally evaluating a beer. It’s straight, objective, and achieves its intention of accurately describing a beer without attempting to be creative. It takes in all aspects of the beer from its appearance and aroma, to finish to overall quality. It uses qualifying terms (subtle, high), finds specific qualities in the aromas (dried, pith), and uses technical language (DMS, attenuated). Although successful in describing the beer, meaning another beer expert could read it and imagine how it’d taste, it doesn’t resonate with any feelings – why might someone want to drink this and how would they feel when they taste it.
THE SHOW OFF
“Lemon verbena, ylang ylang, clementine peel and pineapple sage, with a toasted challah bread depth and carbonation as crisp as a Crémant.”
Here the taster is telling us they know lots of flavours and that they can identify them in the beer. These aromas could seem pretentious or alienating to some beer drinkers, though to others it may read as an interesting and appealing mix of different qualities, perhaps elevating the perceived status of the beer. The flavours may be accurate to the drinker’s palate, but we have to consider whether these are too specific and whether another drinker might have the same experience of it. We also only get a suggestion of the quality of the beer: does the drinker like it? The time when a note like this can be most effective is with an extra special beer, perhaps a one-off barrel-aged beer, or something which will be sold in limited amounts to a beer geek audience who might be receptive of this detailed description.
THE ONE WITH PERSONALITY
“Crack open a cold one and gulp down this sunny golden lager which is bursting with delicious citrus aromas. The ultimate summer beer to share with mates.”
Here the taster is conveying personality as much as flavour, and this is a common approach taken by breweries who can project their voice to their beers. There are bursts, not hints. The fruits are delicious, not subtle. You gulp it in the garden, not sip it in restaurants. It’s a simple way to evoke flavour as well as what it’s like to drink it.
THE ONE WITH A STORY
“When we travelled to Italy a few summers ago we were blown away by the Pilsners we drank there. Crisp like a German Pilsner but dry-hopped with varieties like Spalter Select and Hallertau Mittelfrüh, giving beautiful aromas of fresh cut grass, herbs, dried citrus, and the sort of bitterness that makes you never want to stop drinking them. Ever since then we’ve been thinking about that beer, and we’ve finally made our own.”
This is a really nice approach because we get some story alongside specific information about the beer (ingredients, flavours), and that adds something personal which drinkers can relate to. It has something evocative about the language, and shows that this is a beer the brewer cares about.
THE (WANNABE) POET
“Spring white flower blossom, dew on just-cut grass, a wisp of warm hay and a sprinkling of fresh herbs. With an 18-carat sparkle, it’s crisp like fresh linen and refined with a Martini’s twist of lemon.”
The taster is trying to evoke something here, but by using mixed up metaphors and references, going from pastoral to posh, it reads as if it’s trying too hard to be poetic rather than accurate. Again it lacks a sense of what the beer is really like, and doesn’t help the reader decide if it’s something they’d like to drink, making it sound fancy (or fanciful) rather than delicious. These notes can work, but they need to be coherent. If this is the approach, then a better second sentence would perhaps talk about its brilliant appearance, refined crisp carbonation, and twist of lemon at the end.
“Crispy and crushable, with banging aromas of your favourite Bavarian hops.”
Using slang directs the tasting note at a certain market of drinker who identifies with the tone. It’s more about a drinking experience than how it actually tastes, but often that’s just as effective as listing fruits and flowers. Slang language evolves over time, and by the beer style, where if this was a Hazy IPA then it’d be juicy and smooth.
THE GENERIC ONE
“This classic Pilsner is brewed using the finest hops and barley, matured for longer for a smoother taste, filtered for a crisp finish, and dry-hopped to perfection.”
I hate seeing “the finest hops and barley” in flavour language. No brewer would write “brewed using whatever hops we had leftover” and if they have particularly fine malt or hops then they can tell a much better story about them, like the farm they came from, or what’s actually special about them. This tasting note unfortunately reads like it was written by someone from a PR department based miles away from the brewery and who has never tasted the beer.
THE THREE WORDER
“Crisp, citrus, bitter.”
There’s a trend for using three words or terms to describe a beer. It’s helpful on menus where space is limited, and it helps those serving the beers. It’s difficult to know the right three words to pick to get across both the important drinking qualities of the beer (often specific to the style), and how it tastes. Ultimately these guide the drinker to where they want to be and often they work best as a comparison to other beers, so this may sit next to a Helles-style lager with the words “malty, bready, smooth” and that helps the drinker decide which is their preference. Similarly with IPAs: “pine, grapefruit, bitter” and “mango, pineapple, juicy” are useful in distinguishing beers of a similar style.
THE SITUATIONAL ONE
Version 1: “Lawnmower beer.”
Version 2: “You know that feeling when you just want a beer. You’ve been mowing the lawn, or out for a run, or you’re just thirsty for a cold one on a hot day. Well, this is the beer for you.”
In two words––lawnmower beer––the taster conveys that this is the beer we drink when we’re thirsty and just want something refreshing. It doesn’t tell us about specific flavours, but flavour is more than just what we smell, and it evokes feelings of a familiar drinking situation (other situational notes might be ‘beach beer’ or, with a richer strong beer, ‘fireside beer’). Depending on the brewer’s intention, this might undersell the quality of the beer, but for other beers it’s all that’s needed to describe what this beer is like to drink.
THE CLASSIC ONE
“Bright gold with a thick crown of white foam, this Pilsner has been dry-hopped with Spalter Select and Hallertau Mittelfrüh to give a light citrus peel and fresh floral aroma leading to a crisp herbal bitterness. It’s great on its own, or try this one alongside grilled veg kebabs.”
It’s not the most exciting or engaging tasting note but this language attempts to accurately convey the way the beer looks, smells and tastes, plus something about the brewing process, ingredients, the overall drinking experience you might have with the beer, and a serving suggestion (where even the food can be instructive: grilled veg is a different insinuation of character than saying grilled scallops, for example). It uses familiar and recognisable language, especially related to lagers (like refreshing and crisp), and informs that there’s more hop aroma and where it’s come from – good for people who know what that means, but also helpful for those still learning beer terms who can then use this as a way to help identify specific hop varieties and their aromas.
There are numerous ways of describing the same beer, depending on who we’re talking to. And where good flavour language uses terms taken from tools like Beer Flavour Wheels, it also goes beyond them and into the broader contexts of life, applying information like processes, ingredients and story – great tasting notes can teach us things beyond just what we might smell.