An introduction to tasting beer
Story by Teege Braune • Photography by Tina Sargeant
The monolithic craft-beer bar is a relatively new phenomenon made possible by this nation’s current beer renaissance. Never in the history of the United States has there been such a diverse selection of small-batch brewers producing amazing, fermented, malt beverages.
Only a niche market a decade ago, craft beer is now a booming industry, and somebody’s got to be able to store all this stuff. Fortunately for the Orlando area, we have Redlight Redlight
Beer Parlour, a converted air conditioning factory with twenty-six draft lines and over three hundred bottles of imported and American-brewed craft ales and lagers. Though the diverse menu has earned the bar national recognition, she who has not kept up with this cultural zeitgeist is likely to go doe-eyed and weak in the knees gazing into the brimming, glass-door cooler.
As a bartender at Redlight Redlight, one of my jobs is to help you wade through this admittedly intimidating selection. After all, drinking beer should be fun, not an anxiety-inducing experience. My colleagues and I have tasted all of these beers, and we know a thing or two about them. With little prompting we are usually successful at picking the perfect beverage for any palate. Nevertheless, it’s helpful to your bartender and useful for your own enjoyment if you have a basic awareness of the ins and outs of tasting beer before your next visit to any of Florida’s delightful craft breweries, bars, pubs, and taverns.
Before your glass of beer ever approaches your lips, there are a couple of preparatory steps every beer enthusiast should follow. First, give that glass of beer a good, long stare. Sizing up your beverage will tell you a lot about it. The color, head retention, and even the glass in which it’s presented will all give clues to a beer’s style and quality. While a thick, four-inch head of foam may be the sign of lousy pour in the case of a pilsner or amber ale, it’s the perfect presentation for a good saison or hefeweizen. Beers range in color from bright gold to opaque black and all different hues of amber and brown in between, each with a significantly different flavor from the next. There’s no reason to get freaked out if you see something floating in your glass; it’s customary to find cloudy sediment if your beer is unfiltered.
Any true beer connoisseur knows that her nose is more important to tasting beer than her mouth, but before you snort an uncomfortable stream of suds into your nostrils, hear me out.
Your tongue’s ability to taste is limited to only a few fundamental flavors, though these may vary substantially in combination and emphasis. Your nose, on the other hand, is capable of picking up an almost endless array of scents and subtleties within them. Descriptions of a beer’s scent can vary greatly and may invoke flowers and citrus, cocoa and coffee beans, or a wide array of other aromas. Some beers are even described as smelling like basements, diapers, and old leather boots. As unappealing as this may sound to a drinker who has just discovered the more unusual styles that beer has to offer, seasoned drinkers tend to assume a direct correlation between a beer’s prestige and an unconventional or even unflattering comparison. After all, the more bizarre your beer smells, the more exotic it’s likely to be.
I don’t know anyone who’s had any fun sitting around smelling beer all day, so take a drink. Take two. Never judge a beer after only one sip. The first swallow of a new beer will merely acquaint your palate to the flavors you’ve introduced to it.
As a bartender I hand out a lot of samples, and I’m happy to do this, but truth be told, beer’s complicated flavors may continue to shock or confuse your palate by the end of a whole pint. Any drinker seeking to understand and appreciate beer should try multiple brands within any given style before drawing conclusions. You will meet those who claim to have loved bitter IPAs and sour lambics after the very first sip, but these people are rare and often liars. Most people, including myself, found these styles nearly undrinkable after the first try. Nevertheless, the truly curious drinker is drawn back and will continue sampling until it clicks. I was intrigued by the complexities the first time I popped open a bottle of Bell’s Two Hearted Ale, my first IPA. I could perceive how delightful it was, even if my palate had not yet learned to appreciate something so bitter. Palates have a tendency to learn and grow. If
you discover that a high-quality beer isn’t as quaffable as you would like, don’t give up on it. Challenge yourself to finish your beer no matter how unusual the flavor seems. It can only help to broaden your appreciation and stretch your palate in new directions.
This is not to say that all beer is created equal. Far from it. Outside of the many tasteless lagers that macro-brewing has made available in the United States, much can go wrong in the craft-beer world as well. Just because a brewery is small does not necessarily mean their product is of the highest caliber. That being said, much of the time, a truly bad beer is more
the result of shoddy storage than poor craftsmanship. Many beers come with an expiration date on the bottle or the can, but it’s impossible to know just how long any given keg has been sitting on the line. The vinyl tubing through which draft beer arrives in your glass can pick up the flavors of every beer that travels within it. If it’s not cleaned on a regular basis, it can make your beer taste stale or muddle it with flavors that were never intended. While a buttery quality might be ideal for a chardonnay, it typically means your beer has gone bad. Likewise, the taste of wet cardboard is a strong indication that your beer was stored in temperatures that were too warm. While some of the most prestigious, highest-rated beers in
the world were designed to be sour, the same funky and pungent bacteria strains that impart this flavor will wreak havoc if introduced to a beer that was never meant to contain them. Oxygen and light are two of beers worst enemies. Overexposure to either will make any beer nearly undrinkable.
Your palate is a beautiful and individual butterfly. While there are no wrong answers when it comes to tasting beer, it’s also important to know why different styles taste the way they do. A strong stout and an IPA may both taste bitter but not for the same reasons. The stout’s rich, bitter coffeelike flavor comes from the malts, which are roasted prior to brewing.
On the other hand, malts tend to take the backseat in IPAs. These ales will be bitter because of the emphasized present of hops, a conical bud related to cannabis that can make beer taste grassy, piney, or citrusy depending on the varietal. Understanding the difference between the two is important in recognizing why your palate gravitates in one direction or the
The only way anyone can begin to truly understand beer is to drink it, lots of it. Fortunately, craft-beer drinkers tend to be a pretty friendly bunch who love to tell passing strangers all they know about their favorite pastime, so the next time you find yourself in any craft-beer bar, overwhelmed by the selection, don’t hesitate to ask the guy sitting next to you what he’s drinking. Simply popping open bottles with a handful of seasoned beer geeks is the best education any novice consumer could hope to receive.