Last week I taught my first ever Cicerone classes — and let me tell you, teaching is a true learning experience. The first class, a Beer Savvy Bootcamp, designed to get folks to the Certified Beer Server level, was a challenge because it’s a four-hour beer basics class — and you’ve got to keep it fresh and fun throughout. Luckily there are a lots of tasty beer styles to try together.

It was the second class, Off Flavour Training Course, that I had to work hard to get up to snuff on. I did some off flavour training with my Cicerone Study Group a few years back, and this winter Tara and I took Master Cicerone’s Mirella Amato’s in-depth, three day off flavour workshop (which I highly recommend). But listening to a teacher is a lot different from being the teacher: so I spent some time geeking out over beer’s off flavour to prepare to teach students about all six, learning to sharpen my own technique and get out of my head in the process.

I thought I’d share some of those lessons and tips with you here:

  1. A little goes a longer way

When you smell a beer (off or not) it’s easier to get more out of it if you just pour a small amount, say one third of a tasting glass, leaving plenty of headspace above for aromas to gather and swirl up to the nose.

  1. Practice the Five Step Smell

Most beer off flavours are aromatic compounds, so you’ll pick them up by smelling, rather than tasting. We’re not always sure why, but we tend to pick up different off flavour aromas in different levels of the glass — once in awhile you need to stick your nose right in there and do a long sniff, but that should be the last thing you do. In the case of other highly flavour active compounds like Lightstruck (or skunked) you might miss it if you go in for the long sniff because these tend to jump out of the glass and are best picked up with a distant sniff. Anytime you’re looking for off flavours (or you just want to get more out of your beer) it’s best to practice this five step sniff:

  1. Distant sniff: hold the glass five to seven inches below your nose and sniff
  2. Short sniff: take a couple of short sniffs with your nose about one inch above the glass. Try it again with a swirl to coax more out of the glass.
  3. Long sniff: put your nose into the glass and take a long, deep sniff
  4. Covered sniff: cover the glass with your hand to trap more aromas, and sniff again.
  5. Retronasal: Breathe in. Take a sip of your beer. Hold it in your mouth for 3 seconds. Swallow. Breathe out through your nose. This pushes air out through the nose, through the retronasal passageway, some off flavours are picked up that way, especially Trans-2-Nonenal, a sign of oxidation.

3. Don’t make it about you

Because that’s when the head games begin. I should know. Sometimes I’ve been so fixated on getting it right, that I stick my nose deep into the glass and miss the volatile organic compounds swirling around the top. Well the brain does this weird thing of registering certain aromas as “already smelled,” and then looks for something new, so when you go back and try it again you might not be able to perceive it anymore. So keep calm. Practice the five steps to smelling (see below) and if you can’t pick anything up, move on. Let your sample warm up, and then come back to it later.

 4. But also, make it about you

When we teach off flavours, we don’t tell the class what the common descriptors for each flavour is until after they’ve had a chance to smell it themselves and make their own notes about how what the perceive. That’s because everyone’s sensory memory is unique, based on your own genetics, cultural and geographical background. For example, most North Americans describe the “lightstruck” compound as a skunky smell (because the compound is nearly identical to two of the compounds found in skunk spray). But skunks don’t live in Europe. So Europeans tend to describe this flavour as fresh-brewed coffee.

5. Know your weak spots

We are all built differently, and different genetic makeups mean that some of us are much more sensitive to certain flavours than others. After doing a number of off-flavour sessions, I know that I’m quite sensitive to butterscotch-like diacetyl but have a really tough time picking up DMS (a compound that gives off a cooked cabbage or creamed corn-like odour). Now that I know that, I am a better asset at a judging table, knowing just because I don’t pick up DMS, doesn’t mean it’s not in the beer. And I train on it as much as I can: the best way to train is to use pure flavour compound spikes and do multiple off-flavour classes. Trying to DIY it — like dosing your beer with creamed corn to get a DMS-like effect can just cause confusion, because it’s got lots of aromas and you might mistake one of those other aromas for DMS.

So yeah, you should totally sign up for Cicerone’s next Off Flavour Class. We’ve got one planned during Toronto Beer Week, but I can also come in and train your group privately. And the Beer Savvy Bootcamp is a quick and efficient way to get your entire restaurant or brewery staff to a Certified Beer Server Level.

Want to train up your team? Get in touch and Crystal and the Cicerone program can set up classes just for your group.