How to taste beer like a pro

A beginner's guide to becoming a beer connoisseur

SAB and AB InBev Africa beer culture manager Tshepo Tloubatla demonstrates how to taste beer. Here he is seen swirling the beer to release the volatiles
SAB and AB InBev Africa beer culture manager Tshepo Tloubatla demonstrates how to taste beer. Here he is seen swirling the beer to release the volatiles
Image: Supplied

SA has a rich brewing history and a long love affair with beer. Beer lovers are spoilt for choice with more than 100 styles on offer.

“While the professional beer taster undergoes rigorous training to help them identify distinctive flavour profiles in the beer, you can imagine how this myriad of beers might be overwhelming for the beginner beer lover,” said SAB and AB InBev Africa beer culture manager Tshepo Tloubatla.

SAB has prepared a step-by-step guide on how to taste beer like a pro to help any rookie become a beer connoisseur.

1. Cleanse your palate

Anything consumed prior to tasting your beer can influence the taste, so cleanse or refresh your mouth.

Cheese or crackers can affect your palate’s sensitivity to the flavours of certain beers, so just use water.

2. Observe the colour

Observe your beer carefully. The colour will represent the type of brew it is – pilsners are a pale straw while American and English Ales have a golden hue. Porters and stouts are amber brown and black.

If you are going to taste several different beers, it is better to taste from light to dark.This will help you focus on the developing flavour intensity and characteristics of the beer style.

3. Get a quick whiff

After observing your beer, move the glass past your nose once or twice – this action is known as “the drive-by”.

Your sense of smell will give you vital clues about the type of beer you are tasting.

You should be able to pick up roasted notes typical of malts; or pine, citrus, pepper and fresh-cut grass from the hops; or perhaps hints of yeast.

This is when you would detect undesirable aromas which are called off-flavours. The most common one is a sulphur-type flavour which can happen in beers which have been exposed to too much light.

This off-flavour is somewhat like percolating coffee, with some people likening its aroma to the smell of tinned tuna.

Other off-flavours are aromas like vinegar and butterscotch toffee, which are undesirable in beer styles such as lagers.

Always sniff before the first sip – once you swallow a sip of beer, your ability to smell it will be slightly diminished.

4. Give it a swirl

Swirl the glass gently to releases the volatiles, which are trapped and concentrated in the glass.

Swirling knocks some of the CO² out of the solution, causing it to foam slightly.

Allowing the beer to mix with the air provides the drinker with a stronger scent of the various aromatic components, such as hops and malt.

5. Take a deep sniff

Take another deep sniff – not too deep, to set the stage for the long-awaited taste.This whiff should differ from the previous one as now you’ll get hints of the aroma:

* Malts: should smell of honey, biscuit, caramel or baked bread flavours, but can contain hints of roasted coffee or, in the case of stouts, dark chocolate.

* Hop aromas: these are generally citrusy, floral, or perhaps grassy in nature.

* Yeast aromas: these are fruity or sulphurous in nature.

6. The long-awaited sip

Take a small sip, enough for it to run across your entire tongue, then let it slowly roll over the tongue for a few seconds before you swallow and breathe out gently.

You’ll taste both broad and subtle flavours, the former being what you mainly taste while the latter will be a hint of a flavour.

Broad flavours range from sweet, salty, acidy or simply bitter, while subtler flavours can range from cloves, fruit, coffee, caramel, nuts, chocolate, oak and many more.

7. Food pairings to complement your beers

SAB has a range of beer styles to cater for varying palates. It is recommended to have something to eat in between your beer tasting. Here are some recommendations:

* Stella Artois, a soft and creamy pilsner, goes well with creamy dishes, seafood or a lightly curried butternut soup.

* Hansa Pilsner, with its crisp flavour, is best paired with light meals such as green salad, steamed broccoli or even hake.

* Brutal Fruit Litchi is a surprisingly good palate cleanser between beers.

* Full-bodied lager Carling Black Label is best with strong-flavoured foods such as peppered fillet with creamy mash.

* The toffee, coffee and mocha flavours in Castle Milk Stout are well paired with chocolate desserts, but also go with rich meat (oxtail and lamb shank).

8. Be bold, the journey doesn’t end here

The key to building your palate rests in being knowledgeable about beer in general.

In the process, you’ll learn what marks the key differences between an ale and a lager, what IPAs or Hefeweizens are, and how to distinguish characteristics of beers.

Your beer-tasting journey can be as adventurous as you want it to be, but remember to drink responsibly!


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