If you’re new to beer rating or just trying to expand your tastes, the concept of palate can be a confusing one. I know when I first started drinking beer and scoured the internet to find beer reviews and ratings, I couldn’t believe how detailed the descriptions were. I had tried some of the good stuff, but wondered how they could possibly experience all those scents and flavors in a single beer? Boy was I surprised when I popped the cork on my first Belgian ale. With time, extensive reading and lots of beer drinking, I soon began to notice many of the subtle nuances in flavor and aroma that the great beers had to offer – and the lack thereof in the really bad ones. I also learned that while some people are simply born with a keener sense of taste and smell, it didn’t mean that anyone couldn’t develop a fairly sophisticated beer palate with time and experience.
So, what is palate and how does one improve or develop it? Palate is typically defined as the sense of taste. In Drafternoon’s system, it refers to mouthfeel and not taste or aroma. I tend to think of palate as combining all three elements of aroma, flavor and texture. Many things can affect your sense of smell and taste. It can be heightened and diminished by certain factors and I think it is important to understand what those factors are. I don’t believe in hard and fast rules when it comes to rating beer. I’m certainly not a professional taster nor do I approach tasting as such. I think of the following notes as simply some of the basics on where to start in developing your palate and your own rating style.
I think we all know how closely tied our sense of taste is to our sense of smell. You can’t taste a thing when you have a serious cold and your nose is totally blocked up. Perfumes, harsh cleaners, cigarette smoke, soap and other strongly scented elements mask your sense of smell, so do your tasting in a place without these outside influences.
Once you swallow a sip of beer, your ability to smell it will be slightly diminished so if you want to do a serious aroma rating, you should do your sniffing before you take the first drink. In fact, professional tasters record the aroma before the appearance, because there are volatile aroma compounds present when the beer is first poured, but dissipate quickly. The appearance, of course, isn’t going to change much.
Try to write down just what you can smell. You can save your thoughts on combined smell and taste for your overall impression. One of the most creative overall impressions I have heard recently was when a friend described a beer as tasting like Sante Fe – she said it tasted and smelled of chipotle peppers and thus reminded her of Sante Fe.
As the beer warms, it will let off more aroma vapors for you to pick up on. Swirling the glass will also release more of the beer’s scent. The only way to expand your aroma vocabulary is to smell lots of different things. You can’t describe something as smelling like rosemary if you don’t know what rosemary smells like. Whenever you are out and about, pick up things you are unfamiliar with and smell them – fruits, vegetables, flowers, spices, etc. Notice the smells while you are cooking or baking. Heat allows more volatile compounds to be released into the air.
If you are hungry, your sense of smell is heightened. If you block off some of your other senses, like by putting on a blindfold, you can also increase your sense of smell. I think blindfolded tastings are a great learning experience, especially with beers you have had many times before.
Let’s start with sweet versus dry. Dry simply means the absence of sweet. Liquids can have a drying effect as well, like tannins in wine and hoppy beers. Sweetness can run the gamut from cloyingly sweet to lightly sweet. Sweetness is mostly detected with the tip of the tongue, so it will usually hit you right off the bat.
Acidity. How sour is the beer? A lot of acidity will yield sensations of vinegar or lemon juice. Your tongue will pucker and curl. A little acidity will make the beer crisp and fresh tasting. It’s hard for sweet beers to seem acidic because usually the sweeter something becomes, the less acidity it has.
Bitterness typically comes from the hops. You will notice this on the back of your tongue and most often on the “finish” of the beer. Finish being the sensation left in your mouth after you have swallowed the beer. Sometimes the bitterness seems to last forever and sometimes it fades just as quickly as it appeared. It adds depth and balance to the taste. Some people just don’t like the bitterness of hops, but with each tasting you can gradually become acclimated to them and actually start enjoying the taste.
So, what does the beer actually taste like? Just like with aroma, the more things you have tasted, the greater your ability to notice and describe them. Each beer style will have its expected characteristics; like hefeweizens with their banana and clove elements and rauchbiers with their heavy smokiness. Each beer may also have their own individual stamp added by creative brewers – like a unique spice. There is no better way to improve your sense of taste than to eat and drink as many different things as you can – sounds like a drag doesn’t it? Malt (barley, wheat, oats or rye), yeast, hops and adjuncts (corn and rice) all add to the different flavor elements like fruitiness, sweetness, bitterness, spiciness, smokiness, etc. Read up and learn which elements add what flavors and how the different types have their own unique qualities.
All liquids have a different body or weight. Try drinking a glass of water, whole milk, soda, juice, coffee, etc. to experience different weights and textures. Does the liquid seem to coat your mouth and leave behind a residue or does it disappear quickly? How does it pour into the glass? Does it leave a film on the glass? How much carbonation does it have? All of these variables help define a liquid’s viscosity or texture.
The amount of unfermentable matter leftover once fermentation is complete determines the beer’s final gravity. This combines with the type and level of carbonation to create the mouthfeel. The alcohol level in a beer contributes to the weight as well.
Hopefully this will give you a place to start for beginning to develop your palate if you haven’t already. Time and experience are the greatest trainers, but there are plenty of great books out there on the subject as well. Much of what I learned and wrote about here actually came from a book on wine tasting – “How to Taste” by Janice Robinson. Some of it came from books on beer by Michael Jackson – “The Beer Companion”, Gregg Smith – “The Beer Enthusiasts Guide” and the book “Evaluating Beer” with contributions by many beer experts.
Happy Beer Tasting!!