Monday, 23 July 2012

Considering a Beer: Seeing, Sniffing, Tasting, Rating

This will wrap up my series of posts in response to popular demand by some readers for a basic grasp of some core beer concepts.  Read the first post (on balance) here and the second (on serving) here.

You don't have to actually provide elaborate thoughts to rate a beer, nor do you have to actually fully review one, but it doesn't hurt to know what to consider when discerning whether or not you like a beer and how it compares to its peers.  It helps you actually think about what it is you like about something so that you can both better express what you like and, accordingly, find other such beers more easily when either desiring or needing to (if your favourites are not available).

Despite some technical language at times, most words used to describe beer are words we already know; it simply sounds trickier than it is.  Are not most pale lagers somewhat grainy and grassy to the nose and palate?  Do they not have a crisp, refreshing finish with a fairly light body?  It isn't so much learning how to describe our beers, but rather thinking about them in ways that relate them back to our more common vocabulary - a descriptive vocabulary and capacity we already have!

It doesn't take beer 'expertise' to consider a beer, it just takes a few moments to consider it.  It is simple but basic, for instance, to describe the smell or taste of an IPA as hoppy, but that actually takes more beer knowledge than the simpler, yet even more precise and proper assessment of how that hops presents.  Does it come across as citrusy (most commonly like grapefruit) or pine or floral or something else entirely?  This too is simple, but requires considering what that bitterness tastes like rather than simply noting that it is bitter.  We all have this ability and it shouldn't frighten us!

While one could rate beers across styles, it is usually important to consider style norms since you may prefer given styles.  Rosee d'Hibiscus from Dieu du Ciel is a great example for me here, since I am not much of a fan of witbiers and would almost never order one, but it doesn't take a witbier fan to taste this and acknowledge its expertise in the style.  We may not always be aware of style norms (nor even of what style of beer our given choice is since they don't always say and since some exist on boundaries of ill-defined categories anyway), but this is where a search on Beer Advocate or RateBeer to discern the general style of a beer and a check of style norms at BA or the BJCP comes in handy.

One crucial point for assessment when rating is balance.  How balanced are the hops and malt (read: dryness and sweetness)?  How balanced should they be according to style norms?  Scotch ales and Imperial IPAs are imbalanced intentionally in opposing directions, for example, yet should be, though achieving a notable balance (within the parameters of balance or imbalance so prescribed by style) is greatly desirable in a beer.  For more on balance, see my post here.  Some even note the complexity of beers that offer nuance and differing appearances of aroma and flavour as they evolve (both aged and within the single serving).

Aside from standing out within the style, another characteristic that many value a beer for is quintessence.  That is, perhaps this beer literally or figuratively creates or defines the style for you or many.  A quintessential beer may not be your favourite, but it is one that many are measured against for their defining nature.  Westmalle Tripel and Samuel Smith's Oatmeal Stout are this, in much the same way that Guinness (for many) defines dry Irish stouts.

Finally, an important - and perhaps the most important - criterion for assessment concerns just how enjoyable or drinkable this beer is, which is assuredly and entirely personal.  There is, of course, no right or wrong answer, but sharing tastes and assessments with others is one great way of finding delicious new brews to enjoy!

Just below, I will share some brief, simple thoughts on considering appearance, aroma, flavour, mouthfeel, and an overall assessment (in turn), but will first note that ratebeer offers an excellent pdf scoresheet that provides reminders of these elements, chiff.com offers a detailed-yet-highly-usable version with the 'beer flavor wheel,' while the Beer Judge Certification Program offers a more elaborate, yet personalized version here.  Finding one that works for you is always helpful, though the ratebeer and chiff sheets, in particular, offer key terms on aroma and flavour that may help you put your finger on what exactly you are smelling or tasting.

Note that I rate my beers on brewgene, because I often rate by phone and this offers a better, free app than many of the others.  I'd pay for the beer advocate or ratebeer apps if they were any good, but alas they are deemed terrible (or non-existent) and I don't know if I could transfer all of my ratings.  Though I currently enjoy brewgene (despite some reservations), I encourage them to allow exporting of ratings to spreadsheet format and (or) sorting by style, but more on that in correspondence with them!

The initial assessment of a beer is crucial, not only because of first impressions, but because one should both consider the initial head and the initial aroma.  Both head and aroma (can) dissipate quickly, while other aspects can be considered afterwards.  I, personally, like to glance at the head, then take several deep sniffs before returning to an assessment of the appearance.

Appearance: Yes, the way a beer looks is important, both to our aesthetic senses and our desire to consume it, but also to those (often overrated, but nonetheless useful and pertinent) style descriptors.  The appearance considers two parts of the beer: its head and its body.  On the head, you should consider its colour (white, off-white, beige, brown), its quality (is it smooth, rocky, frothy, creamy, etc), its thickness (often measured by finger: one-finger thick or two, for example), its retention (how long does it last), and whether it leaves any trail of lace around the glass as you drink it and what it looks like.  On the body, one should consider the colour, the clarity, any apparent gassiness, and the appearance of any particulate matter from active/bottle-conditioned yeast.  Colourwise, beer is geekily assessed by SRM (Standard Reference Method) which goes from 1 to well above 40, with one representing the pale straw of a light lager and 40+ being the dark black of an imperial stout.  Though there is less agreement on 'proper naming' (meaning there is none!) for each of these numbers, the more important criterion is some shared understanding.  Typical wording of colour (and matched SRM) number can be found here (which can work alongside such printable charts showing different SRM interpretations as seen here and here) and here is an SRM by style guide that I find handiest indeed!

Aroma: Smelling a beer can be done in two ways, but should always be done promptly!  One method is to get your nose close to the beer and to inhale deeply through the nose.  Another (and generally preferred) is to take short, quick sniffs in rapid succession.  However, since our sense of smell diminishes quickly (or 'acclimatizes' for lack of a better word though I am sure there is a more accurate scientific one I am unaware of), two good hints to refresh things are to smell the back of your hand (or something more neutral to you) while swirling the glass like you would a wine (to release more aroma) and then smelling again.  Discerning what exactly you are smelling can be much more difficult since our olfactory reception is so tied to memory and since there are thousands of identified smells and only a handful of tastes.  Aromas are so very personal and it can be difficult to pinpoint something unless reflecting back on what that scent reminds you of individually.  This is one reason the common phrasings for aromas listed in the rating sheets linked to above can be so helpful.  Keep in mind that, despite dissipation, some aromas remain and evolve as the beer diminishes and I always try to keep sniffing my aromatic beer throughout my consumption enjoying this part nearly as much as the tasting.

Taste: Aroma, of course, is part of our tasting process, but sometimes it can be interesting to see the correlation or difference between these two aspects of a beer.  Moreover, flavour often comes in three parts: an upfront reception to sweetness, a middle transition, and a (to what degree) drying finish.  The question of how sweet and bitter a beer can be should consider the duration of the finish as well as its dryness.  Note that many distinguish between bitter dryness (leaving your palate cleansed for a new sip) and astringency (that puckering-face inducing lemony sort of tartness).  Some prefer to taste a beer with their mouth slightly open as they swallow (which I sometimes do to further ponder the flavour), though drink it how you enjoy it is probably the best advice here!

Mouthfeel: Mouthfeel considers the body (light, medium, full), carbonation level, finish/aftertaste (which somewhat overlaps with the third assessment of taste), and literally how it feels in your mouth (crisp, sharp, gritty, oily, creamy, smooth, prickly, chewy, etc).  For proof that mouthfeel matters, compare the difference between two identical stouts (for example, the common claim that "Guinness tastes better on tap"); one served from a bottle, the other from a nitrogen tap.  The nitrogen tap gives the beer a creamier feel with absolutely zero effect on the flavour, yet we are fooled by our senses into thinking that the latter tastes creamier simply because it feels so.  This is crucial to our enjoyment of many styles and we expect this creaminess from our stouts, our reds, our porters, etc.

Overall: Finally, what did you think overall?  How does it fit within the style?  If outside of the expected, did it work well anyway?  Why?  Would you long to drink another or many more?

Obviously some of these categories are more pertinent than others, with the most weight going to taste and aroma, though an overall individual thought alongside assessments of appearance and mouthfeel are also crucial to one's enjoyment of a beer.

Don't feel like you need to make your drinking a science, but thinking about these things even briefly may enhance your enjoyment of beer and your ability to find and order a new beer according to your new beer vocabulary with deeper recognition of your personal preferences!

On off-flavours and aromas that indicate something bad, see this, but mainly just enjoy your beer!  Cheers!

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