With great weather, fun new releases, and an ever-growing list of beer festivals around BC, summer’s a great time to try new beers. With that in mind, here’s a bit on how I like to taste beer to get the most out of trying new brews – maybe it’ll work for you.
To taste the beer the way the brewer intended, you need to get it fresh. Buy it directly from the brewery or from a store you trust, and check the packaging date. While some beers are meant to be aged (barleywines and imperial stouts will mellow and gain complexity, and beers conditioned with wild yeast will get funkier), most beer tastes its best soon after it leaves the brewery. This is especially true of hoppy beer. Store your beer upright in a cool place, and if the bottle has sediment let it sit still and upright for a day or two in your fridge before you pour it.
The most important thing about beer glassware is to use it; as nice as it is to drink IPA from the can on top of a mountain, you’re losing out on a lot of aroma. Standard pint glasses work fine for a lot of beers, and you can find lists of what styles go with what glasses, but I end up drinking a lot of things from tulip glasses like you can get from Four Winds or Farmhouse Fest. Make sure the glass is really, super clean, and leave a couple inches head space to really concentrate the aroma – you can always top up the glass (and revive the head!) when it gets low.
A lot of people feel strongly about pouring, but you’re really just getting beer from the bottle into the glass into your mouth. A little head on your beer is nice, but you can tilt your glass and pour gently to avoid having half a glass of foam. If you’re using a tulip, chances are (except for the most carbonated beers) you can just pour straight to the bottom of the glass to really rouse the head and aromas; the shape of the glass lets you drink the beer despite the foam.
So you’ve got your beer in the glass. Take a sniff right away – some aromas blow off quickly. What are you smelling? Resiny, piney, mango-ish northwest hops? A whiff of lagery sulfur and a slight herbal or floral hop note? Nutty malts and brown sugar?
Hold the beer up and take a look at it – what colour is it? What colour is the light shining through it? How clear is it? What’s the texture of the head? Is it fading? Does it stick to the side of the glass?
Now swirl the beer a bit and stick your nose right into the glass (unless there’s beer up to the top, then it’ll get wet). Really try to identify what you’re smelling – cut grass? Bubblegum? Banana-bread crust? Black pepper?
Take a swig. Roll it around your mouth. Some people like to breathe out a bit while the beer’s in their mouth – I always just choke a bit when I try, but if you can pull it off you can get a different set of smells and flavours. Taste for sweetness, bitterness, acidity. Swallow the beer and feel the texture of it – is it highly carbonated and light bodied? Full-bodied, round, and creamy? Does it have astringency like stewed tea, or a warming alcohol feeling?
Keep tasting and smelling it as you drink. Flavours can change as the beer warms up and oxidizes a little in your glass. Talk about what you’re tasting with your friends, if they’ll put up with it. How does it compare to other beers that style, or to other batches of this beer? Do you like it?
Don’t be afraid to criticize a beer. You can’t be wrong about not liking something. Sometimes great breweries make bad beers, and sometimes bad batches happen of good beers. Give second and third chances, but if you’re not enjoying something, pour it down the drain and open a bottle you’ll like. Summer’s too short to drink bad beer.
Most of all, enjoy it. Try new things. Try old things to see if they’ve changed, or your tastes have. The beer we can get in Vancouver is a treat, and you should take some time this summer and make the most of it.
CAMRA BC – Vancouver Branch