Brewing Britain my beer book will be released in paperback in June (2015) and I thought it high time that I published a bit of it to give you a “taste”.
‘An author sitting sharing a beer with a couple of builders . . . beer is a great leveler,’ mused a builder I shared a pint with in a pub in Cambridge. He was right, as undeniably one of the greatest things about beer is that it cuts through the silly class divide that exists in our country. Pubs have always been places where rich builders can share in the enjoyment of beer drinking with poor authors or where gentry can have a pint of the usual with the workers after a hard day. But when we start creating parallels with wine by doing things like having tastings, then are we not in danger of at the very least a poncification of beer – creating a divide between different beers and therefore a divide between different beer drinkers? Are we in danger of the gentrification of this drink of barbarians and thereby turning some beers into a drink for snobs and elitists?
Well no, not at all. For a start beers are generally not as expensive as wines and most will fit into a similar price bracket. A beer is best drunk in a few months, or in some cases a few years, but never a few decades like wine. This means that beer can never be a long-term investment and therefore should always be accessible to everyone. Beer-tasting, in my experience, is much more about mutual enjoyment rather than one-upmanship. Or at least it should be. Learning to taste the subtle and not so subtle flavours in each hop, the sweetness of the malts and the interplay between the two just adds to the enjoyment of beer. Learning to taste rather than drink a beer is a great skill, and is available to anyone who can afford a beer and has a working tongue and olfactory system rather than a big bank balance.
According to Jane Peyton from the School of Booze, ‘The nose and palate can be trained to recognise aroma and flavour so lots of practice is required! But some people have a condition called “onosmia” (smell blindness) and unless a person can smell properly then they will not taste properly so should not try being a professional taster’.
The first step into the beer-tasting world is very easy: just sit back and really think about what you have in the glass, bottle or even can in front of you, pause and give your beer some of the true reverence it deserves. Take the time to work out what you are smelling, what you are tasting and how it feels in your mouth. It really is that simple; it’s just a different approach. You can even do it with food to get you started. Swap your knife and fork from your usual hands; you’ll eat slower and will taste the food more. The reason is that you have to think about what you are doing, and it’s the same with tasting instead of just drinking beer.
Improve your skills further by starting to think about the glassware you serve it in. If you only have pint glasses, don’t worry, but do consider how clean they are. My friend and fellow beer writer Zak Avery suggests in his book 500 Beers that ‘dishwasher clean isn’t good enough, as the residues on the glass will at least spoil the head on the beer, and at worst will interfere with the aroma and flavour of the beer itself’. Putting this to the test and serving the same beer in identical glasses, one dishwasher clean and the other cleaned with washing-up liquid, thoroughly rinsed and polished with a crisp cloth, I found that there was more than a noticeable difference.
If you are tasting at home with your own or shop-bought beer, then you can choose the type of glass you serve it in. Any glass that is tulip shaped, such as the one below, will do the job – but you could also ensure you have the right glass for each beer.
At a professional tasting or when judging beers, you’ll also swirl it around in the glass and give it a good look. Take notes on the colour ,if it is clear or not, how dark or light it is, are there any other colours, a red tinge in a Porter for example. Also, this is a chance to get your nose right in there. If trying a bottled beer, I like to sniff straight from the bottle, putting a nostril over the neck after removing the cap. This gives me a little edge before really working the aromas in the glass.
Keep swirling, as this helps to release aromas, and keep sniffing. Don’t be afraid if the beer doesn’t really smell of anything – some lagers really don’t, and even some ales are so delicate that it takes a bit of practice before you really do smell anything. Remember, though, that other smells, especially strong ones like tobacco smoke, also affect what we taste – so although the smoking ban might be considered the biggest culprit behind pub closures (along with successive idiot chancellors), it might actually be helping to fuel our demand for better beer. Because pubs are no longer filled with smoke, we can now taste our beer. If you don’t believe me, hold your nose and take a sip of beer. What did you taste? Nothing? So look around wherever you are tasting and ensure that there are not any overpowering smells. I remember once smelling wet dog on a beer in a country pub, only to look down and see one staring right back at me from under the table. Keep smells from barbecues, aftershave and perfumes at bay. Further advice from Zak Avery is to always to taste beers indoors, away from any rogue smells.
Jane Peyton also suggests you ‘Take a sip and let it sit on the tongue for a few seconds. This will warm the drink/beer and release aromas which then travel from the mouth into the olfactory glands in the nose. A few seconds later the brain will register the flavours.’ Tom Spencer, an Aussie friend who works in the wine trade, also taught me to bring air over the beer. Hold the beer in your mouth and suck a little air over it. Close your eyes if you have to; although you may well get mercilessly teased if you are doing this in your local, get all Zen on the beer if you can. Be just you and the beer. The tastes will come dancing out.
If you are still not really getting it (or even if you are), try drinking with friends, as everyone picks out different flavours and this will further what you are tasting. Some of the comments I’ve written about the beers in this book come from a selection of drinking partners who helped me to choose the beers I did and to pick out the subtlest of flavours I may otherwise have missed. You’ll be surprised at what people notice and point out (I was). Even my next-door neighbour, who mixes orangeade with cheap cider as his drink of choice, was picking out flavours that existed only as tiny details of beers. What is really interesting, too, is just how collective beer tasting can be. If someone says, ‘Er . . . mango, I think I can taste mango,’ often everyone else tasting the same beer will agree (as long as it is evident). Try it next time you are in the pub.
It may also help to have a list of flavours and aromas that you might be able to pick out to help you get started. Beer-taster, author and aficionado Melissa Cole rightly bemoans the phrases ‘hoppy’ and ‘malty’ when applied to a beer, as they don’t really mean anything and I’d add the word ‘bitter’ too, yet you’ll see these descriptions everywhere, from beer blogs, to the sides of bottles and in beer-festival programs. What kind of malt, hops and what sort of bitterness can you taste? Is it a piney hop, a marmalade bitterness, a caramel malt? Otherwise it’s similar to describing music as ‘notey’. Can you imagine being down the pub and hearing, ‘Went to a great opera at the weekend. It was very notey’, or picking up the music press to read ‘Chvrches, the Glaswegian electro three-piece, have been wowing audiences across the world on their latest tour with lyrics using words and full-on electro-notiness through their music-playing from the keyboards’. You just wouldn’t, and nor should you hear or read such lazy descriptions of beer.
As each of us experiences things in a different way, it can be difficult to tell people what they might be tasting. For a start, each taste needs to relate to the foods you know. For some a flavour might resemble a ripe mango picked fresh whilst on holiday in West Bengal; for others the same flavour would be like an Um Bungo drunk in the pouring rain at Stockport bus station.
Not only are our experiences of flavour different from everybody else’s, but there is even a theory that our own taste buds change depending on what our body needs. For instance, an account from a dehydrated and starving Steve Callahan, who was stranded at sea for seventy-six days after his 21-foot sailing boat capsized, suggested that he found a taste for fish eyes. To him these slimy bits of fish offal took on a delectable quality and he craved them as his food of choice. There isn’t a fish-eye-equivalent beer, but bitter receptors can become more acute depending on diet.
There are still some aroma/flavour descriptions that tend to be fairly universal and hopefully, if nothing else, these will get you started. You might also want to cross-reference the hops in the hops chapter with single-hopped varieties of ales in order give yourself a crash course.
- Aromas/ flavours from hops: herbal, floral, spicy, tropical fruit, piney and blackcurrant.
- Aroma/flavours from malts: chocolate, nutty, biscuit, caramel.
- Bitterness: marmalade, dandelion, astringent.
Occasionally, you’ll be experiencing flavours and aromas that the brewer didn’t intend you to. I had many whilst writing this book! The most memorable was one that tasted so strongly of nail polish remover that I had to chuck it after one sip. It would pay to familiarize yourself with some of the off flavours that can manifest in beer. Detecting and dealing with faults. Do remember that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing and I remember once a fella a beer tasting evening dismissing a beer out of hand for being off, he even offered some advice to rectify involving more hygienic brewing conditions. The beer in question was a Belgium Lambic which is supposed to taste funky. He kept quiet after that, a little too embarrassed to speak. To make sure you are not that person there are guidelines available online covering every style of beer. The Beer Judge Certification Program (BCJP) is the one used by most home brewers and descriptions can be found on their website bjcp.org , however this is bias towards American beers and SIBA (Society of Independent Brewers) is a more British Centric organisation that also offers beer descriptions on their site.
The last thing you really need is experience. It can take time to hone your taste buds. I have to admit it took me quite a few beers until something clicked and it all dropped into place. But at least you can use the excuse that you are becoming a beer-taster when you have to argue the need for that one last pint.