Everyone knows how to taste beer, right? Pop the cap and sucker back. Don't get me wrong, that's OK. But if you want to appreciate the flavours that make up our favourite brew, there are finer points to keep in mind.
The first point is that we drink beer because we enjoy it. Many people will tell you they don't like beer, or they only like their brand. But with the range of flavours in the world of beer, there is a beer that almost everyone will enjoy. Not everyone enjoys every beer, but every beer is brewed because someone enjoys it. By learning to appreciate more beers, we appreciate beer more.
Secondly, taste is a subjective experience. Like any sensory stimulus, it is experienced differently by different people. What tastes refreshingly crisp to one person may be mouth-puckering bitter to another. Other factors affect perception, as well. Depending on circumstances, an individual will perceive the same stimulus differently- a stout that is rich and creamy on a cold winters' evening may seem thick and cloying on a summer afternoon.
Finally, taste is not a single sense, but a complex interaction of various sensations including sights, sounds, odours and flavours. Most people think of flavour as the same as taste, but that is just one component. All of these should be considered when tasting beer. Flavours are made up of four basic flavours, just as colours are made up of primary colours. These four basic flavours (sour, sweet, salt and bitter) are experienced on different parts of the tongue. Sweet is tasted at the tip of the tongue, salt is on the sides toward the front, sour on the rear sides and bitterness from the back of the tongue and the roof of the mouth. This is why tasters swish the beer around their mouths before swallowing, to let all the parts of the tongue come in contact with the beer.
How a beer is served will affect your perception of the beer. The glass should be clean and well rinsed, with no oil or soap residue. The temperature should be suitable for the particular style you're tasting. North Americans generally drink beer too cold to experience all the flavours and aromas. This is an effective strategy when drinking most big-brewery beers, but diminishes the enjoyment of beers that are actually flavourful. Lagers, wheat beers and lighter beers in general are best served at cooler temperatures, between 3°C and 10°C (35°F-45°F). Ales, particularly English ales, are best appreciated somewhat warmer, at what is known as cellar temperature (10°C-15°C, 40°F-50°F).
Now lets taste some beer. First, pour it in a glass and have a look at it. Colour and clarity are the two first impressions, and both are dependent on the style of beer being tasted. Darker beers are often, though not always, stronger flavoured and heavier but some brewers use dark malts in light-tasting beers, and some even use food colouring to make beers look darker. Most beers are intended to be clear, but some wheat beers or unfiltered beers should have a cloudiness to them. Chill haze looks like yeast in suspension, but disappears when the beer warms.
Before the head disappears, smell the beer. It is largely the head that releases the odours of the beer.The amount of head is dependent on the pourer, but different beers call for different amounts of head. Generally, ales require less head than lagers, as they have more pronounced bouquet. Listen to the head after pouring. A fizzy, popping head which quickly disappears indicates less malt and more sugars in the brew, and excessive carbonation, which leads to a sour-tasting beer.
You have been very patient so far, and now you'll get your reward. Take a sip of the beer, holding it in your mouth and swishing it around your tongue before swallowing. Are the flavours in balance? Is the sweetness of the malt matched by bitterness from the hops? What taste sensations make up the flavour? Does the first impression change as you savour the beer, and does it leave a pleasant aftertaste or finish? Take another sip and do the same again. Some beers take a couple swallows to fully experience all the flavours. How does the beer feel in your mouth? Thick or thin, creamy or cloying? Fizzy, flat, or zestfully effervescent?
Now take another sip. Lean back in your chair as you swallow. Put your feet up, fix your gaze on the middle distance, have another sip and reflect that you're not just drinking beer, you're TASTING beer. Enjoy.