Think of beer tasting as if it’s a sport or creative pastime: the more you practice, and practice specific exercises, the better you can get at doing it.
What we’re trying to do when we drink beer is to approach it thoughtfully, building up a base of beer knowledge, flavour and drinking qualities, and then applying critical judgments and comparisons to other beers.
Here’s 10 top tips on improving as a beer taster.
DRINK MORE BEER
The best way to get better at tasting beer is simple: drink more beer. Taste a broad range of styles, thinking about what the core flavours and drinking characteristics are, and where the flavours are coming from (for example, is that fruitiness from hops or yeast). Always try to find beers which are considered classics of their style, and regularly return to those classics as you drink more widely – those classics are benchmarks of flavour.
TASTE & SMELL MORE THINGS
Eat and drink more varied ingredient to increase the flavours that you know, because we can only taste or smell things in beer that we’re already familiar with. Buy different fresh fruits (and smell and taste them at different levels of ripeness, tasting the different parts of the fruit, like its flesh and skin), smell more spices, try different dried fruit, eat more breads and baked goods, smell more flowers. Next time you’re in an airport, go to the perfume section as some have displays which present single ingredients which you can smell. We often focus on finding negative flavours in beer, but we should also train to learn positive ones.
Start writing notes on the beers you drink. It’s often difficult to connect a flavour experience with words, and writing things down can help strengthen that ability to think about beers and describe them, training our brain to make connections easier and quicker. Notes might be basic to begin, but they’ll quickly develop (here’s some Beer Flavour Wheel notebooks). Here's a blog on how to write great beer tasting notes.
LEARN THE LANGUAGE & GET SPECIFIC
Knowing the common words to describe beer––aromas, flavours and drinking characteristics––helps to ensure you’re tasting in the same language as others. Using a Beer Flavour Wheel can help guide you towards the aromas and flavours you’re smelling, and to understand what those words mean in context of beer tasting. Get more accurate with how you describe flavours: you might smell citrus, but what actually is it? Lemon zest, fresh orange flesh, dried grapefruit peel. Find ways to refine flavours to be more specific, then also to apply scale to descriptions: a low sweetness, medium body, high bitterness, an intense aroma, low carbonation.
KNOW THE RAW INGREDIENTS
Taste and smell the raw ingredients of beer: chew different types of malt, rub different hops and give them a sniff, seek out beers using specific ingredients, like single-hop beers, character malts, or beers with an expressive yeast (like Hefeweizen or a Hazy IPA). Once we can identify single ingredients, they become much easier to taste elsewhere: it’s like knowing what a certain spice tastes like and then being able to taste it in a dish, which also means we can smell around those flavours which are obvious to us and try and find those which are harder to pick out.
DO SIDE-BY-SIDE TASTINGS
To better understand the breadth of qualities of a style, open two or three of the same style side-by-side and note the similarities and differences. Always include a classic example in this kind of tasting. It’s a great way to really highlight differences between beers. Another approach is to open similar styles side-by-side––Kölsch and Pilsner, Belgian Tripel and Strong Golden Ale, Stout and Porter––to be able to define their differences.
TRAVEL TO DRINK BEERS ON DRAFT
Certain beer styles are so tied to their place and a draft drinking experience that having them at home doesn’t fully match the characteristics we find in them when we drink them locally. There’s no better way to properly understand classic styles like Best Bitter, Dunkel or Kölsch than having them where they originate. Then we can better compare versions brewed elsewhere in the world.
BE MORE CRITICAL
Not every beer is excellent. Sometimes a beer is close to great, but not quite, so what is it that stops it being as good as it could be. Often it’s out of balance, lacks clarity of flavour, or has a slight off-character, and being able to identify any issues helps us differentiate between poor, adequate, good and great versions of a style.
DRINK BAD BEERS
Try and find bad or faulty beers to understand what negative characteristics and flavours are. If you can, do a specific off-flavour training which will present common faults, like buttery diacetyl or the smell of sulphur. If you can’t do that, then buy green bottled beer and leave it on the windowsill for a few days before tasting how lightstruck it is; find the oldest bottle at the back of the cupboard to see what oxidised beer is like. The most common flavours to look out for include: diacetyl, acetaldehyde, sour/infected beer and oxidised beer.
Do some of the things listed here blind: get someone to pour you a random beer and try to describe the flavour without looking at it, or have someone pass you different fruits or ingredients (perhaps inside a beer glass so you only get the aromas) and see if you can identify them without having seen them – it’s much harder than you think.
And one bonus tip…
WATCH OUT FOR CONFIRMATION BIAS
If we expect to find a certain flavour in a beer, like clove in a Witbier, then a ‘confirmation bias’ means we’ll likely smell it even if it’s not there, and with that bias we might also miss some of the other characteristics which are in the beer. Similarly, if we’re focusing on trying to find off flavours in beer, then we might be missing out on the great ones.