A belated Happy New Year to all ye faithful Tempest readers! I hope you had a wonderful holiday season filled with plenty of good cheer.
It’s been a few weeks now, but I’m back at it after my Kentucky adventures tracking the shy and retiring Pappy and the increasingly elusive Weller. For this, my first post of 2015, I’m going to share some tips that have helped me become a better drinker over the years. No, not the “Dude! I just slammed ten tequilas and I’m just getting started” kind of drinker, but a more informed and engaged beer enthusiast.
Tasting beer, wine, saké, and spirits is one of life’s more enjoyable rituals, but it’s also an aptitude you can hone with a bit of practice. True, some people have a keener sense of smell than others, and some people have a more refined palate. But despair not! A modicum of attention to what you’re drinking and how you’re drinking it cannot help but enhance your enjoyment and appreciation of what’s in your glass.
Glasses are as good a place to start as any. A Hefeweizen’s towering foam cap is epic in its proper vessel, and the Chimay chalice adds a certain gravitas to your drinking session. Fortunately, though, you don’t need to go out and buy a whole cabinet-full of glassware, nice as it all looks on display.
If you buy one new glass in 2015, make it the versatile tulip glass. Its bulbous mid-section will contain the most vigourous of Belgian beers, and its tapered rim concentrates the aromas of those IPAs so many of you love to drink. You can also use it as a snifter for your barley wines and imperial stouts. The tulip glass is a far better option than the standard pint glass, which, despite the fond attachment we may feel for this iconic drinking vessel, does a poor job of showcasing the aromas of a well-crafted beer.
Now that you’ve acquired shiny new glassware for your precious elixir, give some thought to the temperature at which you’ll drink your beverage of choice. In North America, it’s been hammered into our heads since birth that beer is to be drunk ice-cold. Warm beer? That’s what the Brits drink. Old cultural habits and stereotypes die hard.
I know it’s difficult with that beer sitting there calling out to you to drink it, but let’s resolve in 2015 to wait for the beer to come up to its ideal temperature. (To get a sense of the temperature ranges over which you can drink your various styles of beer, check out Ratebeer’s extremely useful “Serving Temperature Guide.”) Our patience will be rewarded with more complex hop aromas and a more intense malt character.
Try this experiment with two bottles of Fuller’s ESB. Chill one in the fridge, and store the other bottle as close to cellar temperature (13C/55F, give or take a degree or two) as you can. When you drink them side by side out of your new tulip glasses, I’m betting that you’ll get more out of the bottle that has been resting at cellar temperature. As for all those barley wines, Doppelbocks, imperial stouts, and Belgian quads? It pays to throw to the wind all those inhibitions we may feel about drinking warm beer.
Eat and drink with a catholic embrace
Or, if you prefer, drink promiscuously. Drink every beer style you can get your hands on. Drink wine. Drink rum. Eat chocolate. Order some coffee from a good roaster. Learn more about the art of the cocktail. There’s a whole world to be explored beyond craft beer, and all of it will augment your understanding and appreciation of beer.
Earlier this year, I asked Cornell flavour chemist, Gavin Sacks, about what he does to get the most out of his research and tasting sessions. His advice bears repeating:
Remember that there are no unique flavor compounds or flavors to be found in wine or beer. So, try to smell and taste lots of things, not just wine or beer. Go to a perfume shop or a candle store or an auto parts store and sniff everything. Buy a bunch of obscure fruits from the local Asian market and taste them.
Compare and Contrast
Flights are the way to go. They also make for a great excuse to get your friends together for some postprandial entertainment. Here’s Sacks again:
Never, ever taste a single wine or beer at a time. Humans are lousy at doing sensory evaluation on a single product in a vacuum; we’re much better at doing comparative studies.
If you’re just getting a handle on what kinds of beer you like, flights enable you to sample a wide range of styles. If you’ve been drinking craft beer for some time, you can arrange a flight of, say, stouts to see which iterations of the style you like more than others. It goes without saying that flights also allow you to try a number of beers at a bar or brewery without getting totally hammered. Spend some time with the beers, and take a few notes.
Drink. Write. Repeat.
Whether you’re an Untappd junky or whether you prefer to write your notes in a notebook, take notes on at least a third of the beers you drink this year. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you’ll develop your abilities to describe how your beer smells and tastes.
While you’re at it, pair the BJCP Style Guidelines with your tasting sessions to get a better sense of both what the brewer was trying to achieve and what flavour and aroma characteristics you might encounter in your bière de garde, Altbier, or American pale ale. Then write down your impressions. With a little practice, your sensory memory will grow into a well-stocked repository of aroma and flavour descriptors.
* * *
Should you find the “practice” element of beer appreciation too onerous on occasion, just grab a beer out of your fridge or cellar and kick back. Becoming a better drinker isn’t meant to be hard work, after all.
Cheers to a healthy and prosperous 2015!
Related Tempest Articles
Willett Distillery, Bardstown, KY
Barrels at Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort, KY
Flights of beer at Ithaca Beer Company
All images by F.D. Hofer.
© 2015 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.