Have you ever read a beer review, or perused the entries for a brew on Beer Advocate or Rate Beer, and when presented with a particularly florid description, thought to yourself “gooseberries, fig jam, and jasmine flowers’? This reviewer has got to just be making that up!”
Anyone who’s developed an appreciation for craft beer has, at some point in their development as a taster, felt frustration at their seeming inability to discern the nuances and details of a beer. Beer is an acquired taste, and tasting beer is a skill that you can improve with a little conscious effort. Your palate is more than just the physical sensory organs responsible for detecting the tastes and aromas that make up flavor. The palate also includes the mental processes that go along with the beer’s characteristics that help you decode all those signals being sent from your nose and your tastebuds. Everyone’s palate is different and uniquely tuned, and while in some ways you’re stuck with what you were born with, you can always hone your ability to taste.
Think of your palate as a muscle; it needs exercise to get stronger. And just like hitting the gym without a defined routine won’t guarantee a ripped physique, just drinking different beers won’t necessarily mean an improved palate. Go beyond the usual reps of your favorite brews and workout your palate with these exercises that will get your tastebuds jacked.
There are few things better than drinking a delicious craft beer, but one of those things might be tasting a craft beer. The difference is solely in your mindset. Tasting beer is about drinking mindfully, savoring the tastes and aromas, and paying attention to the beer’s individual elements and the complex interplays that make up the tasting experience. Not every beer you drink has to be scrutinized, but the more effort put into tasting mindfully, the quicker your palate will improve.
Receptors in your nasal passages are responsible for much of the sensory input that we perceive as flavor (try plugging your nose and drinking your favorite brew to see the difference), but not all of those aromas need to enter through your nose to be perceived. Retronasal aromas occur because your nasal passages are connected to your mouth and throat (by the palate) and aromas can travel from your mouth into your nasal cavities—especially when you swallow. Next time you swallow a gulp of beer, exhale through your nose after and pay attention to any aromas you can sense. It can provide a new window into a beer’s flavor.
The nitty gritty of being able to identify all those obscure flavors happening in beer is being able to put words to the sensations happening in your nose and mouth. The bigger your mental repository of aromas is, the better chance you’ll have of being able to describe a beer’s flavor. You’ve got to always be smelling. Smell your food. Smell your neighborhood. Smell anything you can get your nose near and start building a vast library of scent-memories. This is particularly important when tasting all the pungent, complex IPAs that are being brewed these days. When confronted with an IPA redolent with tropical fruit aromas, can you tell the difference between the mango, the papaya, the pineapple and the guava scents? Hit the produce section of your supermarket (or better yet, the farmers market) and smell everything.
Our brains do much of the work when it comes to tasting things, and brains are full of opinions and preconceived notions. Sometimes, it’s best to take these prejudices out of the equation and make your brain focus only on sensory inputs. A blind tasting can be a useful way to experience new beers and old favorites alike. It’s tough to set up a blind tasting by yourself, but get some friends over and take turns pouring flights for the tasters. In a more fun version of the Pepsi Challenge, try the classic Miller-versus-Coors-versus-Budweiser blind tasting to really give your brain a workout.
One method of blind tasting that’s a favorite of brewery quality control specialists is called the “triangle test” where the taster is served three glasses, two of which contain the same brew while the third contains a different beer. The goal is to identify which glass holds the odd sample (and usually what makes the second beer different). This exercise is a great way to discern the subtle differences between two very similar brews. Next time you buy a six pack of IPA, stash one bottle in the back of your fridge and one on your kitchen counter. Come back to them in a month and try the triangle test to see if you can taste the difference that cold-storage makes.
Scent is a funny sense—the raw data coming into your brain from your nasal receptors actually gets preprocessed in the same regions of the brain that are responsible for memory and emotion! Clever tasters can use this to their advantage by paying close attention to the emotions and memories sparked by a beer’s flavor. Focus on what memories come to mind when you’re tasting a beer and try to decode why that IPA makes you think of grandma’s house. Maybe the hops are reminding you of the jasmine bush in Nana’s backyard, and now you have some words (floral, jasmine) to describe that flavor with.
It won’t take long to get your palate pumped-up and to begin appreciating the flavors of craft beer more, but you might find yourself hitting a plateau after a while. One remedy is to apply these taste exercises to flavorful libations and foods besides beer. Spend a week trying wines, bourbons, or rums. Compare different quality chocolates. Delve into the flavors offered by coffee and tea. All your beer-tasting skills will translate, and the new tastes and aromas will give you more perspective on the flavors of beer. One word of warning—once you discover the world of flavors unlocked by your newly developed palate, it’s tough to go back to the run-of-the-mill stuff.