The “How to taste beer” series explores the four steps of the beer tasting process and what each step can tell us about beer’s flavour and texture. New to the series? Start here.
It’s (finally!) time to taste our beer. (And yes, this is only 1 of the 4 parts of the beer tasting process!)
Get ready to learn how to taste and what we’re tasting for.
Before we get started I’ve got a quick word to say on glassware. When tasting, I always recommend using a stemmed glass that’s easy to swirl, like a wine glass. And be sure to only fill the glass about 1/3 of the way full, as that leaves plenty of room in the glass to experience your beer’s aroma.
What does aroma have to do with taste?
We only have 5 basic tastes, but we can pick up on thousands of different aromas. So it’s the combination of the two – aroma plus taste – that gives us flavour. Which is why it’s so important that we learn to assess them both!
Taste is a chemical sense that’s primarily perceived on the tongue.
We’ve each got between 2,000 and 8,000 taste buds across our tongue. Inside each taste bud is a cluster of sensory cells and each cell is sensitive to a particular set of chemicals, giving us our 5 basic tastes: sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and umami or savoury.
You may have seen an old map of the tongue that showed different areas of sensitivity for different tastes, but that’s now been debunked.
Different tastes are not mapped to distinct regions of the tongue; all tastes can be perceived on all parts on the tongue.
This is why it’s so important that when tasting a beer, you take a big enough sip and give the liquid a slight swish once it’s in your mouth to coat your whole palate. This will help the beer reach all parts of the tongue during tasting.
Then, be sure to swallow your beer, as flavour perception continues after swallowing, particularly for bitterness, which is an important component in most beers.
And finally, after swallowing, keep your mouth closed and breathe out through your nose for another way to experience our beer’s aroma.
Breathing in through the nose is called orthonasal breathing. But, when we taste our beer, we can give retronasal breathing a go by simply breathing out through the nose after swallowing. (Check out the video above for a visual.)
This technique allows us to pick up on some slightly different aromatics as not only has the liquid warmed, but enzymes in our saliva have helped to release even more aromatic compounds.
Remember, it’s the combination of aroma plus taste that gives us flavour.
And yes, we can find all 5 basic tastes in beer… but some are more common than others.
Nearly all beers will have some sweetness from malted barley – the main sugar source used for brewing that also gives beer much of its colour and flavour. But most of malt’s sugars are fermented by yeast. So beer should only really taste sweet if there is any residual, or unfermented, sugar.
Most beers contain some level of bitterness to balance out malt’s sweetness and provide a refreshing quality.
Much of beer’s bitter taste comes from the hop plant, which also contributes aroma and flavour. But in darker beers, some bitterness can also come from the dark malts used.
Bitterness can take up to 1 minute to fully register on the palate, so be aware that a bitter taste can continue building after your initial sip.
It’s worth noting that bitterness is an acquired taste, so if you’re not loving bitter beers at the moment – don’t worry! You might in time.
You may also be tempted to think that all beers are balanced towards bitterness – because of the popularity of styles like the British best bitter or American pale ale and IPA – but that’s not the case.
There are many styles that are more malt-led or that use sourness, not bitterness, for balance.
All beer is actually a moderately acidic drink, with a pH of approximately 4.0–4.5, compared to pure water’s neutral pH of 7. But some beers are even more acidic (closer to a pH of 3.4–3.9), and we perceive them to have a sour taste.
This sour taste is found in beers that are part of the mixed fermentation family, meaning they’re fermented not only by brewer’s yeast, but also by wild yeast and bacteria. Those organisms produce acid, which gives beer styles like Berliner weisse, gueuze and fruit lambic their sour taste.
This sourness often gives these beers a “brightness” and is a pleasant counterpoint to malt’s sweetness.
A salty taste is only considered acceptable in one beer style called a gose.
This style, originally from Leipzig in east Germany, was once considered a historical style, but has had a real renaissance of late. It’s thought that the initial brewing water from the Gose River, after which this style was named, was slightly salty, so today it’s brewed with a pinch of added sea salt.
In the gose style, the salt should be noticeable, but the beer shouldn’t taste overly salty.
In other beers, a salty taste may not be detectable, but the presence of mineral salts in the brewing water can help make the beer’s other flavours richer and fuller.
The Japanese word umami actually translates as “deliciousness” in English. You’ll find this savoury, or meaty, taste in foods like aged cheese, oily fish, ripe tomatoes, seaweed and more.
And yes, it can be found in some beers, particularly well-aged bottle-conditioned beers.
Why? As these beers age, the yeast starts to break down, introducing a slightly meaty flavour. This savoury note should add a layer of complexity and complement the other flavours in the beer.
That said, the main tastes in most beers are sweetness and bitterness and our focus is on assessing the balance between these two tastes.
When tasting, remember to think back to your everyday flavour experiences – the bitterness of your morning cup of coffee or tea or the sweetness and acidity in a glass of orange juice, for example – as this can help make us better beer tasters.
Now it’s time for the final step of the beer tasting process, step 4, assessing our beer’s texture.