These days, for me, beer is more than a drink; it is an experience for all of my senses. That may seem foreign and downright ridiculous to people that just want to chug down a cold one with friends while watching the game, or those who use the line, “I don’t drink for the taste, I drink for the waste.” To that, I usually say, “life is too short to drink bad booze.”
My wife has grown accustomed to me analyzing every beer I crack open. There is a routine I go through when I’m about to drink to see if it has changed since the last time I tried it. It’s always fascinating to witness the transformation of my beer from bottling time, to its peak, to its gradual degradation to oxidation. Although I normally try to drink all the beer in a particular batch before it reaches that point because I’m not a fan of drinking beer that tastes like wet cardboard.
I love cracking open a beer and listening to the satisfying sound of carbon dioxide being released. That sound will tell you a bit about what to expect from your beverage. If it’s quiet with little pressure, it could be a British bitter or Scottish beer or even a high alcohol barley wine. If a lot of pressure is released, it could be a lighter lager or quite possibly a German wheat beer. If there isn’t any noise, then you may have an issue with your drink. Every beer should have some level of carbonation and those that don’t have some serious problems.
Higher carbonation adds a fizzy character to the beer. Drinking a light lager is uneventful enough, but imagine drinking a flat light lager. A beer that tastes oddly like club soda takes a horrible turn when it ends up tasting like flat, yellow water. But too high of carbonation, the beer will end up with a carbonic bite and be a little on the astringent side.
I took a sensory training course last year from David Rudge of Half Pints Brewing to help me recognize different off-flavours in beer. I remember Rudge saying, “bottles are for babies.” Drinking straight from a bottle can definitely hinder the experience. The bottle is a barrier to prevent your other senses from also enjoying the beverage. Pour your beer into a glass to see the colour, the clarity and the head.
A common misnomer is to judge beer by its colour by saying that a straw coloured beer will be a light beverage and if it’s dark, it will be strong and roasty. That is absolutely not the case. If you ever had a Schwarzbier, you will know that it’s appearance is mostly for show and not taste. Brewers will place the dark grains near the end of the mash or cold steep them to prevent the acrid smell and flavour that they are known to add to the beer. Belgian beers have a tendency to be deceiving; they are generally light in colour but often have a strong alcohol presence.
Every beer style has its colour range and clarity profile. Most breweries strive for crystal clarity in their brews but there are exceptions, especially with German wheat beers and Saisons. It is acceptable for those beers to be hazy. Assertively hopped India Pale Ales can be also be cloudy due to all the dry hopping the brewer may engage in. When I first started brewing, I was having a little difficulty getting good clarity from my beer and that was usually the first thing people commented on, “that’s a pretty turbid beer you got there, is it going to give me a headache?” If you drink a hazy IPA and a clear IPA side by side with your eyes closed, you will probably not be able to tell one from the other.
Head retention is another visual that people associate with beer. Every style has its own parameters. Low carbonation and high alcohol could reduce the foam whereas hoppy beers or wheat beers should have an intense rocky head. If they don’t, there may be issues such as improperly cleaned glasses or poor sanitation. If you want head to dissipate quickly, stick your oily fingers or nose into the foam and watch it go. Beer with better head retention will stay carbonated longer because the foam acts like a blanket to keep the CO2 in the glass.
When you are smelling a beer, swirl the beer around in the glass and take a whiff. The swirling creates head that releases the aromas.
The smell is usually the first indicator of a beer gone bad. If you smell lemon drops or there is a sour smell and you’re not drinking a Lambic, then your beer is probably infected due to poor sanitation.
My favourite beers to smell are Russian Imperial Stouts and American IPAs. The stouts are usually very complex with aromas of coffee, chocolate, caramel, and dark fruits such as raisins and plums and prunes. I am even able to pick out licorice and vanilla in some stouts. IPAs are great smelling beers but very different from stouts. They usually have strong citrus and pine aromas that give off very fresh, crisp impression.
Sometimes there is a correlation between smell and taste and sometimes there is not. You can’t smell bitter. I tried a friend’s Pilsner and it had a delicate malt aroma, but when I tried it, there was a bitterness common to German or Bohemian Pilsners. It was a good beer but it took me off guard. It should have had more of a spicy hop aroma to it.
You should be able to detect sweetness, dryness, tartness, how hoppy it is and even the malt flavours. Sometimes, you will get a bottle with off-flavours but that’s mostly with home brew and is not as prevalent in commercial brews, although the odd batch or two of bad beer winds up in the consumers hands.
This is more what your mouth and tongue feel rather than your hands. In beer judge lingo, it’s called mouth feel. How heavy is the beer? Is it light bodied or super heavy? The heavier the body, the more residual sugars it has. Lighter bodied beers, will taste thinner and drier because most of the sugars have been fermented out by the yeast. Higher alcohol beers should be a little sweeter or you will end up with a hot, fusel alcohol beer that may be somewhat harder to drink.
Whether making beer or drinking beer, I always look for good balance between all of the various elements. For me, that balance is what enjoying beer is all about.
Mark Borowski is a home brewer, and a father, and is looking for a job working with beer. Follow him on Twitter @oldblackbrew