“Quite spicy upfront, with an herbal and lightly citric hop smack that's steeping in a border-line boozy, peppery, and warming alcohol chop to the throat that burns; just a bit. Malt characters run deep with some tangy blackstrap molasses, honey, treacle syrup, some char, brownie/chocolate, burnt coffee, and an interesting dark, fruitiness that's akin to prunes. Finish is quite tame with some powdery sweet chocolate. More hop spice, fumy alcohol (not too hot), and a hint of smoke in the linger”
– Todd Alstrom, Owner of BeerAdvocate.com
WTF?!? Sounds like how you describe beer right? Yea, me neither.
Your palate (or imagination) may not be as sophisticated as that of the Alstrom Brothers, but there are still steps you can take to improve your palate and become the beer tasting master you were born to be.
Here are my 7 tips on how to improve your beer tasting palate:
1.Put em' head to head
This is my favorite technique because it is so effective. Say you recently drank 2 different IPA's, one today and one a week ago. You might think “Hmm these are different beers so they should taste different, but I couldn't tell you what the distinction is.” Totally normal and curable.
This technique is like navy seal training for your palate because it makes the subtle taste differences very obvious.
Here's how it works: You're going to drink two different beers of the same style back to back. No, not finishing one beer and then going right into another, as that's nothing new. I mean drinking both beers at the same time and going back and forth between them. When you go to the other beer the slight flavor variations will immediately alert your taste buds because it's a change from what they just experienced.
Do this with a large time gap between beers (even a week), and it is difficult for you to remember exactly how the first beer tasted. Do it how I recommend, and you'll be able to say “OK this IPA has a slightly more spicy flavor than the first one.”
2. Lay off the Newports
A study in Greece among young men found that there was a significant difference between the taste buds of smokers vs. non-smokers. From the study:
“Smoking is an important factor which can lead to decreased taste sensitivity.”
Now there are much better reasons to quit smoking, but if you needed one more reason then maybe this is it.
3. Don't Drink and Taste
Well that just sounds crazy. What I mean is don't drink too much and then try to review beer. Your taste buds get intoxicated just like their owner does. Your “drunk” taste buds won't be able to detect flavors as well as if you were sober. If you plan on having a blurry night then just drink your good beer first.
It'd be a shame to waste that $10 120 minute IPA because you can't distinguish it from the cheesy-bread you're eating.
4. Go Grocery Shopping
Try EVERY food. Much of developing your palate is being able to tie beer flavors to a specific food. You don't have to identify treacle syrup in your beer as Todd did, but you could say, “Ah this stout tastes like milk chocolate”.
Your food experience is your arsenal and the bigger it is the more weapons you can pull out when the time demands it. Limit what you eat, and you'll be referring to everything by the same 3 boring descriptors when you drink beer.
It's crazy, disgusting, and hilarious. It's also what has gotten him to the level of expertise he's at today.
5. Drink all styles
See a pattern here? Like food, variety is key. As I've said before, there are over 100 styles of beer in the world and most people have only tried 2 or 3. Being knowledgeable about beer starts at knowing beer styles.
Make it a point to try a new style every time you go to a bar or beer shopping, and you'll jump way ahead of the pack. Start by learning the key ingredients in a beer, a distinguishing characteristic, and something about its history.
For example – Hefeweizens: Wheat beer, banana and clove flavors, originated in the Bavaria region of Germany.
Bam! You're a stud.
6. Put the Salt Shaker Away
If you're like me, food is good, but food loaded with salt is really good. Well it turns out that like smoking, our high salt intake is inhibiting out taste buds. Dr. Joel Furhman in his book Eat for Health states:
“When we eat a diet low in salt, eventually, our sensitivity to salt and other tastes gets stronger and simple foods begin to have a better flavor. As you eventually get accustomed to a diet that stimulates your salt receptive taste buds less, you can enjoy more flavors in natural foods.”
So try cutting back and see if you start to notice flavors that weren't there before. I'm trying this and will report on my success.
7. Go Straight to the Source
Nibble on some hops, chew on malt, drink some yeast. Actually don't drink yeast — that's gross. But seriously, tasting the raw ingredients in your beer will drastically improve yours palate's power.
As a homebrewer, I always taste the malt and hops I put into my beer and then can identify them when they're in my glass. If you're not a homebrewer, find one, or get homebrewing yourself.
It takes Practice
Don't expect to be able to pick up each ingredient in your beer overnight. It takes practice and consistency. I'm still very much working on my tasting abilities, and while I may never be a supertaster, I have noticed a significant improvement after drinking craft beer for a few years.
The great part is that you're not practicing for the SAT's. We're talking about drinking beer. This is fun practice.
I know I didn't hit all of the tasting tips, so go ahead, what is #8?