Friday, January 10, 2014

Sensory School: Time to Taste

On your path to sensory enlightenment you've learned how much aroma matters in the perception of flavor, but the other half of the experience comes from taste (the remainder of sensory that starts in your mouth).

The human tongue can detect five different tastes, and the rest of the flavor experience comes from your nose. Once beer enters your mouth, you'll perceive the tastes of sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami on your tongue. When tasting a beer, it's important to let it really cover all parts of your tongue, because as you'll see in the following (and kind of gross) diagram, those taste buds are all over the place ... as are gustatory hairs. Eeeeew.

Surely we've all experienced those flavors, but you'll also notice there's another part of the sensory process happens in your mouth -- the way the beer actually feels in and around your mouth. Mouthfeel involves two basic sensations other than taste: texture (in this case meaning carbonation), and body (the heaviness or lightness of the beer itself) which relates to the beer's gravity.

This weight is a result of the residual sugars left behind in a finished beer once it has been brewed. Bigger beers taste heavier because there is more residual sugar while lighter ones have a smaller malt bill that leaves behind less sugar. Again, specific styles call for different levels of carbonation and different original & final gravities. Think about the weight of a Belgian ale, the gentle texture of a Saison, the syrupy and sometimes almost flat mouthfeel of a massive, Imperial Stout.

You'll also detect sensations like your tongue and mouth drying out, maybe a little warming from alcohol, and sometimes a lingering aftertaste or finish. Sours present a slew of new sensations that you just won't find in other beers, making your little spit glands dance and your face pucker up. Almost sounds like tasting wine, doesn't it? Duh.

(source: Tasting Beer)

To "properly" taste beer there are a couple basic guidelines you can follow. The type of tasting you're doing can change things, but let's assume you're tasting a beer at home while catching up on your Bruery Blog reading.

First you'll want to make sure your beer is at the proper serving temperature. Check the beer label or brewery's website for any particular directions on how to enjoy their beer. Like our labels, some breweries make it easy to know the proper cellaring and serving temperature, as well as glassware recommendations.

Use clean, proper glassware depending on the style of beer you are trying. If you don't have the right kind of glass available, use a wine glass. If you're trying more than one beer, set yourself up with some water and a plain palate cleanser, like water crackers. Lastly, try to enjoy your beer in an environment that is neutral of odors and clear of distractions.

Sensory Isolation Tank not required.

Pour the beer straight into the glass. Let it foam a bit if it wants to, and pour a little more as needed once it has calmed down. As we learned in our last blog, don't fill it all the way to the top -- leave the glass at least 3/4 empty so there is room to smell all those delicious beer odors. You want the beer to have some head and plenty of room to breathe.

Now use what you learned in our last blogs to enjoy your beer experience. Take in the appearance, enjoy the aroma, and put the beer in your facehole. Let it cover all parts of your tongue, think about the flavors caused by the combination of aroma + taste by sipping some while breathing out. Observe the mouthfeel and use your words! Now, go back for another swig if you need.

Think about what you've done. If you're into keeping track of your tastings, there are plenty of means to do so, some with more details than you might ever need. We enjoy the speed of Untappd, but if you like pen and paper the 33 Beers booklets provide just the right amount of space for jotting down some of your deepest, darkest, beer thoughts. Above all else, it's hard to beat simply talking with some drinking buddies, then recording it however you fancy. has a simple & quick video guide. Try a beer with Julia & Andy from The Brewers Association:

Keep in mind these are just some general pointers. There's hardly a wrong way to taste beer if you're doing it with an open mind and being thoughtful about it. Make sure you maximize your the last step of having fun (safely) while you learn about your palate. There's a lot of beer out there waiting for your mouth!

More interesting reads on tasting:
Read more on sensory:

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