The year is no longer so new, and all those well-intended resolutions have long since faded in the rearview mirror. But it’s never too late for resolutions concerning your beer tasting abilities, whether you’re new to this whole craft beer thing or a seasoned veteran. Fortunately for those of us who enjoy good food and drink, tasting is an aptitude that only gets better with practice.While we’re drinking up, here are a few more resolutions aimed at satisfying your inner sybarite: Drink more coffee from different parts of the world. Drink Scotch more often. Learn about the wonderful world of sherry, from the dry Manzanilla with its whiff of the sea to the inky Pedro Ximenez sweet like molasses and redolent of dates, figs, and raisins. Try different kinds of honey, and eat more chocolate. Take time to smell the flowers –– and all those spices, herbs, perfumes, nuts, grains, and fruit. What sets lemon zest apart from lime zest? Tangerines apart from Meyer lemons or blood oranges?
Now that you’ve visited your local farmers’ market, now that you’ve bought a variety of nuts and procured vanilla beans and bags of whole spices, and now that you’ve cut some herbs and flowers from your garden, it’s time to have some fun honing your tasting skills.Targeted Tasting
Pick a beer style or two, and then read up on what characterizes the aromas and flavours of these beers. Now head over to your well-stocked spice cabinet and fridge to find some of the spices, fruits, syrups, coffees, nuts, herbs, balsamic vinegar, honey, baker’s chocolate, cocoa, honey, and the like associated with those beer styles. If it’s a spice, grind it up fresh with your mortar and pestle; if it’s a citrus fruit, zest it or juice it. Add the contents to ramekins, jars, vials, or whatever you have on hand. If you plan far enough ahead, you can even infuse vodka with herbs, spices, fruit, chili peppers –– jalapeno’s a good one –– or flowers like lavender. (Bonus: If you’re a homebrewer, these infusions can yield interesting results. Add to taste at bottling or kegging.)
Say you’ve chosen Belgian-style Witbier. Buy a few different kinds of Witbier, and maybe throw in a Hefeweizen for comparison’s sake. Grind up some cloves and some coriander, and maybe some cinnamon, too. Zest some lemon or perhaps some orange. You could even include chamomile tea, crushed lavender, or honey. Invite a few friends over and pass around your various concoctions so that everyone can get a sense of what they’re about to smell and taste. Crack open the beer, and then see if you can identify particular aromas when they’re mixed in with other aromas. Once you’re all well into enjoying your beer, you can send the containers around again to see who can identify which aromas, this time blind.
Blinded by My Love of …
The reputations of some beers precede them, whether they’re venerable classics or the hyped brands of the moment. Anyone who has been drinking craft beer long enough has encountered the ubiquitous lists of the world’s best beers. Pliny the Elder scores a perfect 100 on Beer Advocate, as does Kentucky Breakfast Stout. But are these beers “perfect”? The absolute “best” example of a style you’ll ever drink? Preconceptions about labels, packaging, and price points have an immense impact on our perceptions, to the point that ratings can become self-fulfilling prophecies.
But when the influence of a label is removed…
It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve heard friends swear that XYZ IPA is their absolute favourite IPA, or that ABC Imperial Stout is the best beer anywhere around, only to see their surprise when those assertions didn’t hold up in a blind tasting. At the same time, I’ve also been part of blind tastings where certain beers turn out to be worth every ounce of hype.
So try it at home. First, you’ll need to invest in enough uniform glassware that your friends can taste three to four beers side-by-side. Next, you’ll need to devise some way of identifying the glasses. I stick a small piece of masking tape on the bottom of each glass, and number them in series of 1 through 4. After that, one person needs to cover all the bottles with paper bags or (clean) socks and pour out the samples. Obviously, that person won’t be tasting that particular flight blind, but you can take turns. When all is said and done, you might find out that an occasionally overlooked but otherwise solid and reasonably priced beer is among your favourite of the lot.
Stump the Chump
If you’re a fan of the late, great Tom Magliozzi and his brother Ray, better known as “Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers” on NPR’s Car Talk, you know about “Stump the Chumps.” One way to introduce an extra element of intrigue into your tastings is to play the craft beer version of “Stump the Chump.” All you need to do is ask each of your friends to find a beer that’s easily confused with another beer style –– or a style that you and your friends might not drink much of. We’ve already touched on the influence that labels can have, but without any initial cues beyond the colour of the beer, you’ll be surprised how hard it is to guess a style “blind.” Is it a porter or a stout? A Tripel or a Belgian golden strong ale? A British ESB or a strong ale? A Scotch ale? A Doppelbock? Bonus points if you can guess the brewery.
Note: Needless to say, some of your craft beer-drinking friends may not react too kindly when you punk them with BMC. I once had a friend praise the merits of what he thought was a delicate Kölsch. Not Kölsch, I said. Coors. He wasn’t amused. Lest I come across as some sort of all-knowing beer sage in this post, I hasten to add that I’ve been hung out to dry on more than a few occasions myself.
Style of the Week
It’s time to reward yourself for all that hard work tasting beer blind and trying to identify the differences between coriander and cardamom. And what better way is there to find out what kinds of porters you like than sharing several of them with friends? The BJCP Style Guidelines aren’t the most thrilling read in the world, but if you dip in from time to time while drinking, say, a series of Bocks and Doppelbocks, or the entire gamut of IPAs, you’ll get a better sense of what the brewer was trying to achieve, and what flavour and aroma characteristics you might encounter. You’ll also start to get a feel for the often subtle and sometimes radical differences within a particular style. If you’re a homebrewer, this is an excellent way to find out what makes a style tick.
You’ll be surprised at how much you actually learn when studying for the entry-level online BJCP or Cicerone exams. These tests are far from impossible (you can do it!), and they give you an excuse to hit the books (and beers) a few nights a week. Who knows? You might find that you enjoy the judging side of drinking beer … and beer competitions around the country could always use more judges.
Remember, though, it’s all about enhancing your enjoyment of what’s in the glass. If you find that the “practice” element of beer appreciation is eclipsing your enjoyment, just grab a beer out of your fridge or cellar and kick back. Now that I have finished writing this, I’m going to do the same.
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All images by F.D. Hofer.
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