Beer tasting

Beer tasting

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”.

Brewing Britain by Andy Hamilton

Brewing Britain, a cracking read

‘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’.

 How to taste beer

Andy Hamilton with a wiper and true pint

Hmm, I can taste Um bongo

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.

Melissa Cole

Melissa Cole

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.

Stockport bus station

Not quite West Bengal

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 , 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.


How to taste beer with Jane Peyton from the School of Booze

How to taste Beer with Jane Peyton

Jane Peyton Beer tasterLearning how to taste beer is a skill and to learn a skill you need a good teacher, Jane Peyton, the Principal at the School of Booze, is such a teacher.

Jane trained through the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, and is a tutor at the Beer Academy.

I caught up with her to find out what makes a beer taster, it has to be the most ideal job ever created but can anyone do it?

Jane On beer tasting

What is the difference between beer tasting and learning how to taste wine, and what is the difference between beer and wine tasters too.

Beer tasting tends to be less formal and more fun than wine tasting – but that depends on the tasting tutor and the atmosphere that they have created.  And this is a generalisation but in this country, there will be more men at a beer tasting than women.  Also a beer tasting event has an element of surprise and exploration as quite a lot of people have not tasted a range of beers or know that such beers exist.

No difference in principles of  wine or beer tasting  – if you can taste wine, you can taste beer too.  I do.  I specialise in beer, cider, wine, whisky, gin, Champagne.

Is there a particular type of person who becomes a beer (or any drink) taster? Do you need to have any special talent, for example extra sensitive taste buds, or is it something anyone can do?

Beer tasting is about education – informing other people about the amazing drink that is beer.  So someone who is keen to educate and share their knowledge is the ideal person.

Roger Protz by Steve Parsons Norwich Evening news

Roger Protz – beer tasting Genius

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.  Some people do have more sensitivity than others so they would be ideal. Also women in general have more sensitive noses and palates than men so women might consider a career in drinks/beer tasting. It helps too if a person has a good turn of phrase and imaginative ways of describing aromas and flavours.  Roger Protz is a genius at this!  So are Oz Clarke and Rupert Ponsonby.

Is there a specific procedure to adhere to and what is it?

With any drinks tasting there is a similarity of principles:

1)       Look at the drink in the glass

2)     Swirl the liquid to release the aromas and sniff.  Try to identify what you smell.  Keep swirling and sniffing.

3)     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.  Let the drink cover the tongue so all the taste buds are engaged – our tongues register different tastes in separate parts of the tongue – salt, sweet, sour/acidic, bitter, and umami (savoury).  Some complex beers are sweet & sour, with bitterness too so the tongue and nose get a work-out!

4)     Check for the body of the drink/beer – this is how much it fills the mouth.  Lower alcohol beers will be light bodied, higher alcohol beers tend to be fuller bodied.

5)     Swallow the drink/beer.  The after-taste is important.  With beer the after taste will be degrees of bitterness.  In beer tasting this aftertaste is often called ‘the Hang’ – i.e. how long the flavours hang around on the palate.  It can also be referred to as ‘the finish’.

6)     Repeat the above!

Do you think knowledge of the brewing process can enhance the enjoyment of beer?

If the drinker is curious about life then yes. 

If a beer doesn’t fit into a specific style, does this matter and if not how do you reference it?

Quite a lot of beers are tricky to categorise – especially nowadays when there are so many more breweries in Britain who are creating beers. 

Some brewers confuse their customers by describing their beers as a certain style when it patently is not that style.  One of Britain’s biggest selling beer brands does this and it confuses customers.  There is a fashion now for Black IPAs – a bit of an oxymoron.  Some brewers make Milds which are very hoppy – a contradiction.

If you’re having difficulty categorising, it’s handy to call it a hybrid of **** and ****

Beers don’t always have a powerful smell, or indeed any smell is “no nose”,  a valid enough assessment?

Yes – this is especially so with Pilsners. But that is the style of the beer so it’s not a fault. If an ale has little nose I would be worried!  Ales should have more aroma than Pilsners.

When looking to describe flavours are you looking for food comparisons or are there a set of beer flavour that you keep to.

Food comparisons are really useful in helping people recognise aromas and flavours.  I always use those references.  But beer can be extremely complex and some surprising aromas and flavours appear e.g. sweaty socks, barnyard, burned rubber.  With cider and perry, Stilton cheese is a very common aroma.  I always say to people that if they smell something peculiar that they are not expecting then they should say it – because everyone is right when it comes to describing what they are experiencing.  Our senses are our own so we’re always right!

Jane on Beer

If you had to pick a top 5 of beer what would they be?

Andy Hamilton holding a beerIt’s really hard to choose because it depends of my mood, the weather, time of day, what I’m eating.  But these are 5 that I go back to again and again and revere.

  1.  Brewster’s Pale Ale
  2. Fuller’s London Porter
  3. Verhaege’s Duchesse de Bourgogne
  4. Brooklyn Brewery ‘s Chocolate Stout
  5. Schneider Weisse’ s Aventinus

And a UK only top 5?

  1.  Brewster’s Pale Ale (My number one beer worldwide or UK)
  2. Fuller’s London Porter (My number two beer worldwide or UK)
  3. Harviestoun’s Ola Dubh
  4. Meantime’s India Pale Ale
  5. Fuller’s Golden Pride

Are there any beers/breweries to watch out for in the next couple of years?

Brewster’s (in Grantham) is constantly good and they have a dynamic range of beers.  They’ve recently invested in some bottom fermenting kit and have been brewing some excellent Helles beers. 

Harviestoun have an excellent lager called Schiehallion – it’s a cask lager using ale hops so some people are confused.  Hopefully it will help change ale drinkers perception of what lager is.

Durham Brewery have some great beers – especially Temptation Stout.

A trend in brewing at present is to bring back heritage styles of beer.  Kernel and Meantime are very good at this.  And Fuller’s have been delving into their brewing bibles from the 1890s to brew beers of that era.

If you could design a perfectly flavoured beer, what would go in it.

I actually brewed it last month – at a brewpub called The Botanist in Kew, SW London. It is called Limey Porter, made with chocolate malt and flavoured with kaffrir leaves which gave it a very subtle lime aroma and flavour.  Chocolate, coffee and lime aromas and flavours are an excellent match. 

To book a beer tasting course with Jane For in London and around the country please contact School of Booze. Choose from: beer tasting,  beer and food matching, chocolate and alcohol tasting, wine tasting, Champagne tasting, sherry tasting, cider tasting, and School of Booze will devise a bespoke entertainment for you.