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Taps Magazine 09/14

Originally published in TAPS Magazine

The first time I sat down in a room full of people to taste beer together, I was intimidated. In that Prud’homme Level I class, all kinds of descriptors were thrown out about my favourite beverage—red licorice, apple pie, rootbeer, a dewy, autumn morning—but I didn’t pick up on any of them until after someone had suggested it.

I knew I had a learning to do, but I had no clue how to do it: a book can’t deepen your sensory memory or help you identify umami flavour in a beer. So how do you train a tongue and nose?

Apparently, I’m not alone. When I attended the American Homebrewer’s Association Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan (aka Beer City USA) this spring, no less than three presentations focused on ways to develop your palate and tasting skills—and there were lessons for beer fans, brewers and foodies alike.

Jamie Floyd is the founder and brewmaster at Oregon’s Ninkasi Brewing Company, which is the 30th largest brewery in the United States, brewing 87,000 barrels every year. “When we hit 17,000 barrels I decided I needed to go train myself at Siebel and develop a sensory program for the brewery.”

When Floyd tastes a beer he breaks it down into six clinical steps (see sidebar) and stressed the importance of using all of your nasal receptors—including the ones inside your mouth. Known as “retronasal aroma” (or backwards nose) you activate this sense by swallowing the beer with your nose plugged, then unplugging your nose and breathing it. As the beer warms up and breaks down on your palate it releases enhanced, and different, volatiles than plain-old sniffing.

“You can use retronasal to erase the surrounding environment, like a brewpub or a restaurant, get more depth of flavour, and pick up esters or off-flavours,” said Floyd.

Julia Herz, publisher of Craftbeer.com and craft beer program director at the Brewer’s Association challenged some of the popular thought on the fundamentals of taste—like the elusive “supertaster,” a term popularized by Barb Stuckey in her book of the same name. “The density of the papillae (tastebuds) on our tongue is supposed to define the supertaster,” said Herz, “but data is coming out against the use of this measurement. The supertaster might be bullshit, but we do know that we all taste differently, we just don’t know why.”

Herz’s tip? Trust your own tastebuds. “We’re all pro’s in how we taste, because we know what we like, and what we don’t like, no matter how many tastebuds we have—the trick is communicating what we’re tasting to others in a way that they understand.”

It’s one thing to know what you’re tasting—it’s another thing entirely to explain it to your friends in a way that they understand, and there’s no point in having a killer palate if you can’t share your experiences.

So how do you do it? “Start smelling!” said Brian Joas, a BJCP Grand Master II Judge from Milwaukee. “Become aware of everything that’s around you: what does your house smell like? Your cooking?” Then, pay attention to the aromas and flavours and bank them in your memory so that the next time you taste a beer you can describe it in a way that non-beer drinkers will understand, he said. Most people can relate to the scent of fresh-cut grass, sawdust or white lilies, but not to beer jargon like melanoidin malts or Saaz hops.

And as much as you don’t want to talk Carafa II malt everyday, serious tasters need to know what specific beer ingredients taste and smell like. In their BJCP classes, Buerger and Joas prepare malt teas by steeping ¼ cup of crushed grains in hot water for 5-10 minutes. Then they bring a coffee maker and ¼ ounce of hops to make teas out of different varietals—or chuck some hops into a Coors Light.

“And don’t forget to cross train,” said Buerger. Attending beer festivals, conferences, wine samplings or cooking classes were among his suggestions to help hone your palate.

In Grand Rapids where beer overfloweth, cross-training proved easy. At the JW Marriot spa I contemplated the dark fruits in a snifter of Brewery Vivant’s Solitude, a Belgian dark ale, while the pedicurist poured a can into the foot bath (for its supposed cleansing and exfoliate properties); I discussed dry-hopping with my Toronto homebrew crew over tulips of Stone’s mind-blowing fresh Enjoy By IPA at Hopcat, consistently voted among the of best beer bars in the U.S. And I smacked my lips at the beauty of a Founders Old Dirty Bastard paired with the brewpub’s take on a Philly Cheesesteak sandwich—a rich match of sweet and salty goodness which gave me the perfect “base” to taste a million at the legendary AHA’s legendary Homebrew Club night that was to come.

Am I better taster because of it? You betcha’. And studying is the fun part.

 Floyd’s Six Steps for Tasting a Beer

1. Appearance

Look at the foam, clarity and color of beer.

2. Drive-By

Waft the beer across your nose.

3. Short Sniff

Take two short sniffs, then one long one

4. Long Sniff

Cover the sample and gently swirl, then uncap and take a long sniff

5. Small Sip

Take a small sip of the beer, just enough to cover your whole mouth and swallow.

6. Retronasal

Swallow with your mouth closed and exhale through your nose.