One of my favorite parts of drinking beer is the effect. It relaxes your inhibitions, it drops your nerves, and it releases your courage. For myself, it enables words to flow into my thick skull and out my big mouth. It gets you drunk. That little effect of drinking beer is probably why human society has lasted as long as it has and it’s my favorite reason for drinking it. But my second favorite thing about beer is tasting beer.
I’m not saying I like the taste of beer, because not all beers taste the same. I’m saying I like the act of tasting beer. Lots and lots of different beer. Tasting beer is itself a thrilling experience, because it’s got all the rituals of drinking wine without all the hoity toity bullshit (plus, it’s all based on metaphors and language and all the fun, nerdy English stuff I like).
The traditional way of tasting beer breaks it down into areas of your perception, including appearance, aroma, flavor and mouthfeel. Each of these areas have their own subcategories of description and each affects the other. For appearance, there’s the color, the clarity, the foam and its lasting power, and the “lace” that it leaves in the glass as you drink it. For aroma, there are good smells and bad smells that each tip you off to how the beer was made and what went into its production. Flavor is tightly tied to aroma, but there are flavors that don’t translate into aromas, like saltiness for example. The flavor of the beer is also connected to the foam and texture of the beer, which is also deeply tied to the last category of mouthfeel (which also ties us to our first category of perception, appearance!). So when you taste beer, those are the things that you comment on or think about and all of them are intertwined.
But the fun part is actually coming up with the words that describe each category. All of it happens in metaphors, because flavors in beers aren’t necessarily the things you’re literally tasting. If a beer smells like wildflowers with hints of lemon, I highly doubt that a brewer wandered through a meadow picking flowers to put in their beer. But when you taste a beer, that is a valid image to use in your description. And if a beer tastes “earthy” it’s completely valid to imagine your brewer giving the brewhouse a big hug right after a rolling around in the mud. And if you smell a smoky, roasted, dark colored beer with strong hints of pine and resin, it’s perfectly acceptable to imagine the brewer was an Ewok, brewing a smoked Cascadian Dark Ale in their tree fort on Endor.
You see, there isn’t a wrong way to describe the beer; that belongs to you. If you think a beer tastes like a freshly-extinguished dumpster fire, then say that. If a beer tastes like Strawberry Shortcake took a dump in a creamsicle factory, and wiped with a banana peel, say that. You don’t need any fancy words, you need words that express your feelings about the beer, and words that will connect you to the person you’re describing the beer to.
The last and most important thing about tasting beer is to have fun. I would love to scroll through Brewer’s Advocate, or Ratebeer and see someone’s review of a beer that revels in the joy of drinking beer. Often people comment on their glass (“Beer was poured slowly into a pilsner glass” or “Beer was hard-poured into an 18th Century Austro-Hungarian Stein”) and it would be so funny to see someone’s reviews be only shotguns or beer bongs. It would be awesome to see someone describe their beers in the voice of Cormac McCarthy or Stephen King. Or really, just someone that was writing beer descriptions that aren’t trying to impress anyone. That would be great.
Robert Alan Wendeborn is a former Cellar Operator at Ska Brewing and current Lead Cellar Operator at Tin Roof Brewing in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.