Have you ever visited a bar that boasted a daunting beer menu? Maybe it had several dozen beers on it, and it took you what seemed like an eternity to skim through it under the scintillating lights. To top it off, these beers all had ridiculously long, nondescriptive names and description blurbs that only added to your confusion.
What in the world is a “Cthulhu”? And what does “nutty” mean? There are at least a dozen kinds of nuts. Are we talking a bitter kind of nut, such as walnuts, or a sweet kind of nut, such as almonds? Or does it have peanut buttery kind of flavor? You pick out a beer at random, and it’s the worst thing you’ve ever tasted. You try another one. It’s better, but you can’t really tell what exactly makes it better.
Let’s face it: beer lingo is confusing. And figuring out what sets one beer apart from another is even harder. But understanding beer lingo and knowing what flavors you love and don’t love can come in handy. The more you know, the easier choosing beers—either at the bar or at the store—and exploring new beers without a feeling of trepidation in your gut will be. Want to go from a beer amateur to a beer aficionado? Here’s how to develop your beer-tasting palate so that you can finally understand what all those words on bar menus and beer labels mean.
Build Your Vocabulary
Some people are really good at matching tastes to words. Others aren’t, and the descriptions that the former type of people write can completely befuddle the latter. What do they mean when they say a beer tastes like “pine needles” and “firewood”? How does the person who wrote the description even know what those things taste like? Have they just been shoveling pine needles and burnt wood into their mouth?
Maybe, but probably not. It’s more likely that they associate the smell of those two things with a particular taste. Pine needles smell fresh and earthy. Burnt wood has a rich, pungent, smoky smell. This means that a beer that has notes of pine needles has a refreshing and natural taste. A beer that tastes like burnt wood would have a strong, barbecue-esque flavor.
The ability to associate smells and tastes with words is essential to expanding your beer palate. The better you can describe beer, the better you’ll be able to understand other people’s descriptions of beer. And that means reading through descriptions on a menu will become a lot less confusing. Even if other people’s descriptions continue to not make sense, you can use your newfound ability to explain the kinds of tastes you enjoy to the bartender, who can help you out.
So, how do you learn how to associate smells and tastes with words? By smelling and tasting as many things as you can! The more smells and tastes you know, the easier describing the flavors of different beers will be. For example: this beer reminds you of that one candy bar you tasted at the gas station, which had dark chocolate and peanuts in it. Someone else would probably describe it as “sweet and nutty.” The taste of that beer reminds you of how that white oak tree in your backyard smells. And that white oak tree in your yard smells really similar to your grandma’s classic cookies, which are packed with an unhealthy amount of vanilla. See? The more scents and tastes you recognize, the easier describing beer with words becomes.
Know Your Ingredients
Familiarizing yourself with the most common ingredients used in beer and what they do is yet another way to make choosing beers less of a headache. Most beers consist of four main ingredients: water, malt, hops, and yeast. Everyone knows what water is and what it tastes like (nothing, mostly). “Malt” is a fancy word for grains. Grains such as barley, wheat, and rye are harvested from the fields, dried, and baked to create unique flavors. Most of the color, flavor, and fullness of beer comes from malt. Malt is also what creates the head (foam) on top of the beer.
Hops are plants grown on a vine. Beer is naturally sweet—that’s due to the malt. Hops balance out the sweetness with their potent bitterness, which means bitter beers tend to be more hoppy. Hops are also what give beer its fragrant (or not-so-fragrant) aroma. Most hops are bitter, but this bitterness comes in different flavors, from herbal to peppery to floral.
Yeast, which is a type of single-celled fungi, is what carbonates the beer and enhances its flavors and aroma. Two kinds of yeast are used to make beer: ale yeast—which is top fermenting—and lager yeast, which is bottom fermenting.
Test Your Tolerance
Everyone has their limits. Maybe you can handle unlimited amounts of spiciness but can only consume so much sweetness before you feel sick to your stomach. Knowing your limits is essential to expanding your palate. Maybe you’ve been avoiding bitter beers all these years because you severely underestimated your tolerance for it. Maybe you’ve had a terrible experience with beer these past few years because you’ve been drinking nothing but saccharine beers when your stomach can’t handle sweets.
You don’t have to run to the store and buy a bunch of 12-packs to conduct a tolerance test. Instead, you can use food and drinks already lying around your kitchen. Here are a few suggestions for each of the five taste groups:
- Sweet: Fruits, honey, jam, maple syrup, sugar
- Salt and umami: Bacon, hard cheeses, mushrooms, tomatoes
- Sour: Lemons, limes, pickled vegetables, sour cream, yogurt
- Bitter: Broccoli, coffee, grapefruit juice, kale, spinach
Grab something from each one of the taste groups and get to tasting. Take note of which flavors you love and which ones you hate. You should also see how much of each flavor you can endure before you get tired of it. You can use this information the next time you’re out beer-shopping. Can’t handle bitterness? Steer clear of beers packed with hops. Like sweetness? Get something fruity.
Ditch the Bad Habits
The final tip on how to develop your beer-tasting palate is to ditch your bad habits. They could be making it harder for you to discern different flavors. Smoking and consuming a diet heavy in salt can desensitize your taste buds to certain flavors. So, if you’re a smoker or sodium enthusiast and every beer tastes the same, it might be time to kick your bad habits to the curb for the sake of enjoying more delicious and more diverse beers.
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