Tasting it all
Tasting beer is simple enough right? You make your selection, your bartender chooses the proper glassware, pours a perfect fill with just the right amount of head on it. You reach for the glass and perhaps a sheen of condensation has begun to form on the sides that feels both damp and cool when your fingers first touch it. What’s left to do but take a swig?
I say pick it up and drink! However, you might be missing out on something. Consider these elements to get even more out of the hard work done to make that craft beer in front of you. Since so much of what we taste goes beyond just what the Papillae (taste buds) on our tongue can pick up on, it is the other aspects of our sensory experience that enhances what comes from the first sip and beyond. We eat with our eyes first.
Admire the color of the brew in front of you. Through evolution, our minds learned to trust what we see. The more traveled beer taster might reference the BJCP guidelines on if the color matches the style of the beer before them. Our Czech style Pilsner has a Pale Gold that shimmers through the glass, the Bonanza Brown has that almost Ruby Brown appearance when the sun pushes through the pint. Take a quick look and prepare the mind for what it is about to imbibe.
With the sometimes pillowy head on top of the glass, you might think you are being shortchanged an extra sip of beer. Not true! When a beer is served to you without any head you are missing out on much of what will complete the tasting experience. In my first level beer certification class, our instructors were adamant that we pick the glass up as soon as possible and bring a big whiff of aroma into our nose while the head is still there. The malt and other adjunct grains like wheat, oats, and rye leave medium-length proteins that bind together creating the head of the beer. It will be popping off aromas derived from malt and hops used in the brewer’s recipe so you are actually calibrating the pallet for what is to come. While not always true, I’ve found if the beer comes in front of me without head, it comes off as flat.
Now for the payoff, the first sip. This bit took me a little bit to practice. Thankfully it just means more beer to drink. The olfactory nerves that reside in our nasal passageways account for more taste than we realize. If you ever watched Fear Factor back in the day, think about when contestants had to eat truly vile things. The smarter ones would pinch their nose to get through it. Can’t get away from that texture though!
With most humans having around 9 million olfactory neurons (compare that to dogs with 225 million) it is a wealth of information for the brain to collect. There are two sets of these specialized sensors in our body. One is attributed to being sensitive to more “flavor” than “aroma”. The other is connected to our sense of familiarity or personal preference. If the caveman ate something that smelled like “X” and became sick, this system might have saved them from future bad times. So here is the trick.
As you bring the glass to your ready lips, inhale through your nose, and take that long sip. Enjoy the mouthfeel that it brings. After you swallow exhale through your mouth. The hop aromas passing across the olfactory sensors will really enhance the whole of the flavor experience. One might call it a bit of mindfulness, being ever so aware of your immediate experience in that moment.
These days I find it is something I do automatically now. I would almost call it ritual. I have found this process crossing over into many other experiences in life, from walking through a wooded park to cooking on the grill. Tasting is a muscle that we all can benefit from working out more.