In order to appreciate fully what’s coming out of the tap, it’s important to understand a bit about zymurgy and the (mostly) guys who brew. It’s a thankless, 24-hour pursuit that demands dedication beyond the pale. The least we can do is learn to appreciate the products of their artistry.
First off, don't be intimidated if you don't know anything. Beginner tasters are not without advantages, especially in the enthusiasm department, where a little goes a long way. Ask about the ABV of the IPA; solicit his opinion on cask conditioning; make a friend. The positive return in insider suggestions and special tasters can be staggering.
The act of tasting is complex, wildly subjective, and ripe for pontification, so have some fun with it. Hold your glass up to the light. Note the clarity and the laciness of the head. Stick your nose in and take several short sniffs. Smell any bready, nutty, or caramel notes? You’ve just stumbled upon the malt. The hops, which are there to balance out the malt’s sweetness, rise up as floral, herbal, or spicy. Think of them as little green emissaries of flavor, bitterness, and aroma, layering on character and earthiness.
When it comes to this part of the game, some folks have the noses of champions. Cory O’Neel, Granite City Brewing brewmaster and member of both the Master Brewers Association of the Americas and the American Society of Brewing Chemists, is one of those guys. “When you’re tasting, you have only one shot at aroma,” he explained late one night as he tried to convince several billion yeast cells to congregate in the bottom of a tank. “Once you taste it, the aroma won’t be just the aroma anymore, so be sure to describe your first impressions. Don’t be shy. If the aroma reminds you of your grandmother’s brownies, say so. If it’s a European lager, did it suffer from a long trip across the ocean? When hops react to light, they create the same sulfur compounds found in a skunk’s scent. Trust your nose; you can smell stale aromas.”
Next, let your taste buds weigh in. Julia Herz, craft beer program director at the Brewers Association, suggests thinking of a taste as a little movie that’s constantly changing rather than a single snapshot. With that in mind, roll the beer around in your mouth while you meditate on the flavor and mouthfeel, sweetness and carbonation. Pay attention as the bitterness builds; bittering hops work their magic on the back of your tongue, so close your eyes to focus.
Finally, revel in the aftertaste, which may be delightfully different than either the aroma or the first taste. Hang out with it for a few seconds. Contemplate its ethereal charms. We’re here to drink some beer after all, to swirl and quaff and postulate, to honor the brewmasters with our conviviality, and to learn a little something along the way. So pay attention, make friends, and start tasting.