Anyone who’s been to a wine tasting is familiar with attention to “nose,” “clarity,” and “finish,” but what is the equivalent nomenclature for beer tasting? And how do you judge a beer? Is there a correct way to drink a beer without succumbing to the comic absurdity of Paul Giamatti nasally sniffing merlot in “Sideways’?
First of all, you need to get over some common beer myths and misconceptions. One of the biggest party fouls when serving good beer is over chilling it. Sure, a really frosty beer dripping with ice looks good on a beer commercial, but chilling a beer too much numbs your taste buds. Cool down your beer too much and you’re more likely to get the flavor of ethanol rather than the rich aromas and nuance of malts and hops.
Of course, this might be good if you’re swigging some cheap two dollar special at the local pub, but for a more nuanced craft beer like Fire Island Beer Company (FIBC) Lighthouse Ale you’ll want to taste what you’re drinking. As a rule of thumb, pale beers should be served at cooler temperatures than dark beers. Aim for around 40-50 F for light beers and 50-60 F for darker ones. FIBC Lighthouse Ale, for instance, should be served between 46-54 F to really bring out some of its more subtle flavors.
Once your beer has been chilled to just the right temperature, you’re ready to pour. When pouring tilt the bottle at a 45 degree angle until the liquid reaches the halfway point, then switch to a 90 degree angle. This will cause the beer to foam up at the top, producing delightfully perfect head (which, without dwelling on the subject too much, is generally a preferable in many aspects of life).
With your beer now poured, raise it up and look at it. As the bubbles slowly rise up from the bottom and moisture gathers around the glass, take a moment to appreciate the beer and evaluate its color. Is it dark or light? A golden amber or a stout so thick you can barely see through it? The color of a beer is important, and it’s one of the first things that brewers use to describe a beer. While you examine your brew, be sure to note how the beer fizzes, or sits sad and lifeless. Little things like this can profoundly affect the taste of a beer.
Now that you’ve evaluated the beer’s color, notice the aroma, or “nose,” rising up from the glass. Just don’t be a snob about it! There’s no need to go swishing your beer about, poking your nose in the foam. With time and practice you’ll be able to distinguish the aromatic layers built into a beer as you pour it. These include a wide variety of smells, from lighter caramel finishes like the one in FIBC Lighthouse Ale to floral bouquets, malty infusions, and even subtle roasted scents.
Just remember that it’s what you smell, not what some expert says you should smell, or what the label on the beer says. So don’t go around pawning off some so-called expert’s description of a beer’s “nose” if you don’t actually detect anything. After all, would you repeat an expert’s opinion that praised a steakhouse that actually produced stuff that tasted like donkey meat? Of course not! Beer tasting is a decadently selfish venture: it’s all about how it tastes to you.
Ok, so you’ve poured the beer, you’ve looked at the beer, and you’ve smelled the beer-- there’s only one thing left to do. It’s time to taste the beer! Because taste and smell each contribute to the sensory experience of the other, many adjectives used to describe flavor are very similar to smell. A beer can have fruity flavors, be sharp, malty, sour, sweet, stout, bitter or anything in-between.
Think of a beer as having a personality. Is the beer you’re meeting a bitter old man? Soft and sweet like a young lover? Harsh like a demanding boss? Or coy and mysterious with hidden layers of flavor like...well you get the idea. Just don’t be shy about describing your beer, because the best description is the one that conveys the essence of what you’re tasting. If you describe a beer to a friend and they snap their finger’s in an epiphany of understanding, you’re on to something. If not, keep trying and tasting. You’ll find the right words.
It’s also important to try a beer more than once before you giving it a full evaluation. Beers are like people: sometimes the ones that seem bad at first may reveal more positive aspects on a second or third meeting, while others that seem sweet and alluring are doctored concoctions that turn out to be just plain nasty. Sure, there’s always love at first sip, but sometimes the best beers need time to grow on you.
Now, before I get to the last component of a proper beer evaluation, everyone who used to be one of those kids that made snide remarks in the back of the class needs to leave. Really. Just leave the room. Because we’re adults, right? And if you’re not, what are you doing on a beer site? Get out of here kid, before I tell your parents! So, this next one’s called “mouth feel”… and it’s, well, kinda like it sounds. How does the beer feel in your mouth? Light, smooth, and slightly bubbly, or thick like flat soda pop and hard to swallow? Hey! I told some of you to leave the room! We’re talking about beer here. God, the deer on Fire Island are more mature. Honestly… So yeah. Mouth feel. How it feels in your mouth. Got it?
So that’s it. You’re equipped with the basic things to focus on when evaluating and describing a beer: color, nose, flavor, and mouth feel. Yet no matter how many words, similes or metaphors you use, or how poetic you wax on barley and malts, there will always be something missing in your description of a beer for someone who’s never tried it. It’s just a fact of life. It’s like sitting on a dock in the Pines at sunset, or walking along the soft surf of Ocean Beach at dawn-- no amount of words can ever really substitute for the real experience.
Come to think of it, all of this talk about beer has gotten me thirsty, and I think it’s about time for me to head off and get a Fire Island Beer Company Lighthouse Ale. It’s a beautiful craft beer with a light golden color, a toasty round body, and a gently carbonated caramel finish that— wait. What am I saying? You shouldn’t be listening to me! Get off your computer and try it yourself!