When I first began to dabble in tasting, first with Vodkas, and now with beers, I was admittedly a little intimidated by all the lingo thrown around to describe what people were tasting. Many connoisseurs (in their attempts to outshine the next guy’s review use over top descriptions with superfluous adjectives) sometimes forget they may be taking the fun out of things and leaving some of their core base of people behind. I was one of those people, though I did not get discouraged. I searched out techniques to figure out how they were tasting these flavors. Quite surprisingly, what I realized is that I needed to train my own palate. At first I thought this was some kind of mind game played by the reviewer crowd. So I pushed on and kept researching. I attempted these “trainings” and tasting techniques on my own. Quite surprisingly they worked. (Who would have thought!?)
So in an effort to give your palate a little bit of training, I decided it would be helpful to share some of what I learned and places you can check out for more techniques. I know, I can sense some of your reservation.”I am not sophisticated. I can’t taste details like that.”, you say. Yes, this is something you can do! It just takes practice.
While we may not be sophisticates, here is a little test to confirm if you can indeed taste things you did not think you could! Don’t worry it is not hard.
Do you have a mouth? – Check
Do you have a tongue? – Check
Does your tongue have taste buds? – Check
Do you have a nose? – Check (hopefully not plugged, but more about that later)
Can you smell? – Check
Guess what, you have all of the required components needed to taste these things in your beverages and food!! Hooray for you!
Now that we know you have the required hardware for tasting, let’s talk about “how” to taste. Or as I would put it, the tech manual for your hardware. (Don;t worry it is not boring). Believe it or not, there is a method beyond pouring a liquid into your mouth and swallowing. You also should have the necessary high tech software built in and on board (your brain!).
Something you may or may not know about your sense of taste is that your sense of smell is critical. In fact it makes up for around 80% of what you taste! Your sense of smell is also the strongest of senses tied to your memory. Quick tip – Keep your nose free of obstructions so you can easily smell.
OK back to tasting, so the first thing to do is smell. Let your beer (or other beverages, it works for those too) get some air after pouring. Depending upon the style you will want your beer at the right temperature too (I prefer around 55 degrees for Stouts and a bit cooler for IPAs and lighter fair). You may even want to swirl it a bit. Then smell it. Obviously the first aroma you will get is “it’s beer”, but what else do you smell? Take a couple of sniffs. Chocolate, vanilla, coffee, dried fruits? Or on the lighter side of things, citrus fruits, floral aromas, resinous or piney notes? When we take a little bit of time to actually analyze what we are smelling we can amaze ourselves.
After we have gotten some quick analysis done of what we are smelling, next we can taste it! (Finally right!) I recommend taking a medium sip, just enough to gently flow over all the parts of your tongue and developing palate. What is the first thing you notice? What is it you taste? Sweet? Bitter? Roasty? Apricot? Chocolate? Vanilla? As it flows over the different flavor receptors of your tongue what else are you picking up? Then gently swallow your flavorful beverage.
Key point – **Trade Secret alert** As you swallow and/or just after, slowly exhale through your nose only. Now, what else do you taste? This step is amazingly critical. It is typically where you get flavor notes on the “finish” in reviews along with the small nuances in flavors. Now, wait a for a little while and take a few more sips following the same process. Did the flavor change at all? Are you picking something else out on the second or third sip? Try to think of describing words (adjectives, if you don’t recall from primary school) that fit with what you taste and smell.
From my experience tasting with friends helps a lot. Others may have ways of describing what we are tasting that are more illustrative or in some cases more simple that just fit better. Below are some descriptive words to use or think about when you taste some beverages next time around.
Many places I looked at for references during this article listed scents and flavors separately. Because both are so closely tied together I lumped them all together to save you some time. Not to mention we are trying not to be pretentious here. I like great tasting beer and you likely do too. Let’s not over complicate things right?
Give the above suggestions a try and let me know if you start tasting beer in a new way!
Flavors and aromas:
roasted, bready, bitter, sweet, spicy, fruity, chocolate, caramel, toffee, coffee, malty, tart, subtle, woodsy, earthy, sulfuric, grainy, sweet, corn-like, graham cracker, bicuity, caramel, toast, coffee, espresso, burnt, alcohol, tobacco, gunpowder, leather, pine, fresh cut grass
raisins, currant, plum, dates, prunes, figs, blackberry, blueberry
banana, pineapple, apricot, pear, apple, nectarine, peach, mango, prickly pear, lemon, lime, orange, tangerine, clementine, grapefruit
Other less common notes:
metallic, vinegar, copper, cidery, champagne-like, astringent, chlorine
Yeast and spice notes:
white pepper, clove, anise, licorice, smoked bacon, fatty, nutty, butterscotch, fresh bread, saddle, musty, barnyard (some funky Sours)