Recreational Beer Tasting

 by Mike Retzlaff

There are those who expend the time and effort to earn a BJCP ranking or even to achieve professional Cicerone certification.  Both are laudable undertakings but most of us don’t have the time, money, or necessity to learn and maintain these ratings.  If we did, how often might we use these skills?  There really aren’t enough BJCP sanctioned competitions in this area to make it worthwhile.  The alternative involves lots of travelling to participate in such competitions.  In contrast, it is usually by those in the trade who seek a Cicerone certification.  There are four rankings from Certified Beer Server up to Master Cicerone.  Persons with these credentials can work as expert trainers and beer professionals in the hospitality industry, for a large brewer, distributor, or other beer outlet.  They can design, calculate, and maintain draft beer systems.  They are also qualified to suggest food and beer pairings.  The critical skills attained for these ratings must be used or they will atrophy; consistent use seems to be required.

The far more common path is for beer drinkers to cultivate their palette for tasting beer at a less structured and skillful level.  They try to learn all the right descriptors and how to apply the nuance terms but in the end, it all depends on whether you like or dislike a particular beer.  It is quite valuable to learn to recognize DMS, diacetyl, various aldehydes, and the other dozen or so unwanted chemical compounds that are regularly, occasionally, or even seldom found in beer.  The simple recognition of flaws can help to eliminate the unwanted from your own creations.

On occasion, I’ve tasted a new batch of my own beer and thought I’d really hit a home run and then two days later, couldn’t understand why I thought it was something special.  In another two or three days, it was back to being a source of pride.  I came to realize that the beer didn’t change, I did!  What we have for lunch, the Azaleas are blooming, there’s been a major change in the weather, or any number of things can make a big difference in how any of us perceive aromas and flavors.  Even medication taken for whatever ails you can do it.  You don’t need to grease your nostrils with Vick’s VapoRub or suck on a Ricola lozenge to temporarily destroy your ability to smell and taste.

Adapted from the world of wine is horizontal tasting.  Wines of a similar style, made from the same variety of grapes, and perhaps from a similar region, are grouped in a flight.  The only obvious difference is the producer of each wine.  The taster discerns the terroir of the contents of the glass along with the skills of the winemaker.  Even though malt and hops are agricultural products and are subject to annual variances due to weather and climate, it becomes far less of a critical factor when made into beer as compared to wine production. These days you’ll generally find beer tastings more common than those for wine; even in areas where wine is big business.  That is a testament to the complexity and popularity of craft beer.  This horizontal or side by side tasting, when adapted to beer, is an excellent method of determining minute differences in similar beers.  This is especially true if you are encumbered by outside influences which always seem to be the norm for one reason or another.  All of your samples will be subject to the same sensory ability or inability.  I’ve used this head to head method to compare Boston and Brooklyn Lagers which are extremely similar across all parameters.  I find these beers so close that using tasting notes to compare them is virtually worthless.  The BJCP guidelines attempt to limit a flight to one dozen samples but I tend to believe that, in reality, this may be excessive; especially as the abv rises.

It doesn’t take long before you think of so many other examples for which such a formatted tasting would be enlightening to just about anyone.  Wouldn’t it be interesting to compare Oktoberfest Lagers or the variety of West Coast Pale Ales this way?  Imagine 5 or 6 people showing up with a different six-pack of a certain style for a tasting.  Everyone could get a 2 oz. sample of each beer and that would only cost the participants one beer each!  The following hour or so could be used in verifying the initial impressions and in comparing notes with the other tasters. 

Comparison flights might include:

  • American Stout
  • English / Irish Stout
  • Oatmeal Stout
  • Foreign Extra / Tropical Stout
  • Helles Lager
  • Pilsner
  • Amber Ale
  • English IPA
  • West Coast IPA
  • East Coast IPA
  • Brown / Black IPA
  • Belgian Wit
  • German Weissbier
  • American Wheat
  • Kölsch
  • Altbier
  • Cream Ale
  • Blonde Ale
  • Oktoberfest Lager
  • West Coast Pale Ale

These tastings can be as formal or as casual as your group of friends & tasters decide.  You can provide scoring sheets or not; do a blind tasting or not.  You can estimate the bitterness of each entry; use a color comparator strip to estimate SRM, etc.  Because each taster is a different person, it should not be surprising to find a disagreement as to which beer of the flight is the “favorite.”  Remember that homebrew can be inserted into the mix.  If you or circumstances decide, you could conduct the tasting as the only one at the table.  The tasting simply becomes a flight of beers and the other 10 oz. or so of each of the appraised beers can be consumed at your leisure.  Recap the bottles and return them to the fridge until later.  If the beer is in cans, you may be doomed to finish them off without help. Toughen up Buckey or invite some company over for the tasting.

Such a solo tasting works fine, especially if you are lucky enough to have a retailer who sells beer by the bottle.  The tasting is less costly by having only one bottle in lieu of a four-pack, six-pack, or case of the selected beverages.  The upfront expense of purchasing several bottles instead of several six-packs is what I mean when I say “less costly.”

The number of tastings per style may depend on the availability of brands in your area.  Some folks are very lucky in that respect while others have a hard time finding anything more exotic than Heineken or Olde English 800.  I know people who combine a beer-run with their periodic shopping trip to a nearby “big city” where the variety of available beer may be substantial.  Another factor can be the lack of commercial examples of some styles such as Berliner Weisse.  There are more producers of that style of beer here in the States than there are in Germany, yet they can still be hard to find.  Many Belgian beers come in large, cork finished bottles and it can become difficult to avoid waste unless you can gather a large number of tasters. 

There are a number of beers which seem to lend themselves to tasting instead of drinking.  Some of these are Belgian such as Tripels and Quads but others are Barleywines and Wheatwines along with Old Ales.  Many of these beers are best savored in 5 to 8 oz. servings at cellar temps while sitting in front of the fireplace on a chilly winter’s evening.  Such heavy duty beers don’t represent themselves as well or serve their drinkers properly when quaffed from pint glasses.  It makes as much sense as drinking whiskey from an iced tea glass.  Remember that tasting is a bit different than drinking and taste buds being overwhelmed half-way through the tasting, is not a good thing.  High alcohol content is a primary cause of stunned taste buds.

Vertical tastings of big beers require several years of planning ahead and are done to compare how a beer from the same producer ages from year to year!  I know folks who collect between a few bottles and a case of Sierra Nevada Big Foot Barleywine annually followed by a careful and proper storage of the collection for years.  The larger quantities anticipate future vertical tastings.  These beers almost always have a vintage date on the label.  There are a number of breweries worldwide who produce beers of this ilk.  Some examples include Anchor Old Foghorn Barleywine, Chimay Grand Reserve, Fuller’s Vintage Ale, Samichlaus, and Bell’s Expedition Stout just to list a few.  Vertical tastings don’t appeal to all beer fans and they can be expensive to conduct. 

From time to time, you’ll find similar tasting flights conducted with aged distilled spirits such as Scotch, Bourbon, or Tequila complete with a Sommelier brought in to guide you through the tasting experience.  Even though they are not vertical, I mention these things as they exist and may be of interest to some – just like vertical tastings of heavy duty beer.  

There is also the comparison of beers to established written parameters instead of to each other.  This relies upon the BJCP and BA guidelines for the multitude of beer styles.  In this case, accuracy of discernment will depend on training.

The flights offered by many brew-pubs highlight their offerings and can go from blonde to black.  These flights don’t fall under the premise of “recreational beer tasting” but rather into a sample paddle of what’s available for sale at the particular outlet.

Well, that’s the gist of recreational beer tasting.  You can compare one beer to another in a head to head tasting, a horizontal tasting of similar beers which works well for up to a dozen sample beers, or even a vertical tasting of heavy duty beers of the same producer but of different vintages.  The tastings can be done as a social function or by yourself at your kitchen table.  There are lots of options and the tastings can serve varied purposes.  In any case, it is a good thing to keep a record of what was tasted, the impressions of each taster, etc.  A number of books are available to help you to train your palette.  The BJCP Study Guide is an excellent source for aspiring tasters or at least to help polish the skills of anyone who wants to get better at evaluating a beer. 

This little article is not geared toward making you a better taster but rather toward  “what if?” which might illuminate you as to some of the possibilities or activities that are available based on the concept of tasting beer.  Beer culture should be fun and runs the gamut of subjects from history through physics and bio-chemistry.  There is also the fun side of beer culture which is illustrated by the 5 to a dozen tasters who gather together for an afternoon or evening of socializing.

Beer tasting is not supposed to be a chore . . . it should be a respite from the labor of making a living and staying alive.  Go have some fun!

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