Developing your palate so that you can recognize beer flavors and aromas can be useful for many reasons. Not only will you sound like you know what you are talking about you can also discover many more beers to your personal liking. It’s a really great skill to have and is very easy to acquire.
So, how can you train your palate to become a better beer taster? Developing your palate for beer tasting involves sampling the key ingredients of beer (hops, malts & yeast), as well as learning common ‘beer’ smells in real life situations, such as at the supermarket, for your vocabulary. Beer spiking kits are a useful way to identify common off-flavors in beer.
Training your palate so that you can become better at identifying the complex flavors in modern beer has lots of practical benefits for the average beer enthusiast.
This process doesn’t have to leave you feeling like a snob or make your friends mock you, it can really help you explore more of what is on offer in the rapidly developing craft beer and home-brewing community. Just remember to enjoy the experience above all else.
In this article, I have set out some easy ways that you can develop your palate at your own pace and, for the most part, in the comfort of your own home.
We’ll start with getting to know the key ingredients of beer, then move on to how to identify more elusive flavors before discussing ways to spot off-flavors in beer so that you don’t drink something that’s gone off or has been infected.
Navigate this article more quickly
- Building your beer vocabulary
- Practical reasons to improve your beer palate
- Identifying the key ingredients in all beers
- Testing your bitterness tolerance
- Here are 25 popular craft beers and their IBU levels
- How sweet can you go?
- DIY off-flavor beer spiking kit
- How to actually taste beer like a pro
So, read on for my tips and suggestions for how to develop your beer palate and become a real beer connoisseur
Building your beer vocabulary
Some people are just better, so it seems, at describing smells and flavors. If you’ve ever read a review of a beer and thoughts “what the heck are they talking about, pine needles?” then you probably know what I’m talking about.
However, training your palate is nothing to do with being better at describing beer in reviews. Firstly, it’s to help you pick out more flavors and aromas in a complex brew. Secondly, it’s to help you articulate those flavors and aromas to someone when you really need to, at the bar when picking out your next drink. So how can you get better at it?
The best way is to go out in the world and taste and smell as much as you can. This will help you better associate smells and tastes to words. The part of the brain which deals with sensory inputs such as flavors and aromas is nowhere near the speech part. They don’t communicate that well and this is why you can’t explain smell and taste that accurately.
So, the more you expose yourself to different scents and tastes the better you will be able to explain it, even if you are using basic ideas such as “it tastes like a Hershey bar”
Another important and delicious way to improve your ability to accurately describe and categorize beer is if you taste lots of different types of it. Don’t pigeon-hole yourself into only liking one style, try everything from an ale to a lager, to a fruit beer to sour brew. If you don’t like it, then you can use that information in the future, if you do like it try and pinpoint why.
Also, don’t let the names of beer put you off. I went without pumpkin ale for years because I used to think, why do I want to drink a vegetable? Worst perspective ever!
My own experience in developing my palate.
For most people, when they hear someone describing the taste of beer or wine for that matter, we just think “what a pretentious ******!” But, how can you improve your ability to sample beer without losing your friends and why do it in the first place?
There are many practical reasons for taking the time to really training your palate and improving your ability to break down the beer you drink into different flavors and aromas.
For me personally, this is an on-going progress and I have traditionally been terrible at identifying tastes and smells. Next to my wife, who I met in Bordeaux while she was sitting her sommelier (Wine snob) exams, I was hopeless.
“What can you taste Phil?” She’d ask. “Well, I’m getting strong flavors of red and I’m definitely getting fruit, yep, there are grapes in this!” I’d say. Hopeless.
The same thing happened with beer until I took steps and started to train my palate. It can also help you in some really practical ways.
Practical reasons to improve your beer palate
So, you like drinking beer but you aren’t a fan of some of those more avant-guard ones that some craft breweries are churning out. Also, let’s face it, even the names of the average craft beer are starting to lead us down the wrong path. So how can you be sure what you might like in a new bar?
In the past, you’d have to either blindly choose something from the menu or listen to the knowledgable but slightly intimidating bartender while they listed off beer characteristics that you didn’t really understand. But that is the past.
When you are able to verbalize even at a very rudimentary level the flavors and aromas that you like in your beer that same bartender is going to be able to make a better recommendation. What’s more, you are likely to be given a beer that you might not otherwise have gone for. Honestly, it doesn’t take much to get to this stage and it really does open up a world of beery possibility for you!
If you are a home brewer, then being able to identify which flavors and aromas you enjoy more is very helpful in selecting your next project. When asking for recommendations in the community, or buying a kit from the web, you can be sure that you will get something that you will be happy to drink.
Also, if you really take time to develop your ability to stop off-flavors in your wort or finished beer, you will be a better judge of when it’s time to throw in the towel and start over. There’s nothing worse that going through the entire process of brewing only to find out that your beer was infected by bacteria 3 weeks prior to that first sip!
Another more advanced, yet equally practical benefit of developing your beer palate is if you plan to build up a beer cellar.
For many enthusiasts, the pleasure of beer tasting is seeing how the beverage develops over time, especially with bottle aging varieties. An excellent way to gauge this is to sample an example of the same beer on the day you lay it down for aging.
If you take detailed notes on all aspects of its characteristics you can compare that observation to your second tasting one or five years later. This is the true test of how a beer can develop and improve (or not) in the bottle over time.
Identifying the key ingredients in all beers
Hops are the traditional ingredient used for flavoring beer and can be used in different ways to bring out different characteristics in a beer. Generally, hops are the source of the bitterness in beer and to combat this each recipe is balanced with the sweetness of the malt to some degree.
However, not all varieties of hops are made equal. So, it’s really important to go back to basics and identify the individual aspects of each type of hops used in both commercial and domestically brewed beer.
If you brew beer at home, you can easily just chew on one of the hops pellets (or the ‘wet’ hop if you are using it). That’s what your hops taste like and if you do this enough you’ll be able to identify its presence in the finished beer.
If you are enjoying a beer that you didn’t make personally and are not a home-brewer (but frankly you should start!), then you can still learn how to identify the nature of hops in beer. Simply buy a heavily hopped beer to train your nose and taste buds.
Some styles which you can try with that very hoppy notes are IPAs (including Imperial IPA), English style bitters, Amber Ales, Pale Ales and anything ‘fresh hopped’.
In terms of commercial beers, a good bet is to buy a New Belgium Voodoo Ranger or Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA. Also, if you can find it, a Duvel Tripel Hop Citra from Belgium will slap you in the tongue with hoppy bitterness.
Familiarize yourself with common hops flavors
It is a misnomer that hops just give a bitter taste to beer, on the contrary, it can also give a very flavorsome and sweet aroma to your favorite beverage. Picking out the complex flavor and aroma of hops begins by identifying similar tastes and smells from elsewhere.
Get yourself a grapefruit, fresh pine needles, black peppercorn, freshly picked grass, freesias (my wife says they’re flowers), thyme and some sage. All of these aromas (and some tastes) can be found as a byproduct of hops in beer.
Spend some time smelling each of the ingredients and rating them as to how much you enjoy that aroma.
Beers with common hop flavors
Now try the following beers and try to pick out each of the aromas in the beer.
- Citrusy: Terrapin 8 Wired Free Spirit, 3 Stars Above the Clouds, Brooklyn Sorachi Ace
- Pine Needles Scent: The Hop Concept Hop Freshener Series: Lemon & Grassy, Weyerbacher Double Simcoe IPA
- Peppery: Victory Prima Pils
- Grassy: Tröegs Nugget Nectar
- Floral: Forbidden Roo Wildflower Pale Ale, Three Floyds Blackheart
- Herbal: Good Juju, Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye
Malt is the product of germinating grains, commonly barley, and is the base ingredients for most commercial and home-brew beers. It is possible to make your own malt from basic feed grain for animals, but most breweries and brewers will purchase malted grain.
What does malt taste like?
Ask a hundred beer tasters and you’d get about a 1000 answers, but generally, malt is the sweetness within most beers.
Malt can be described as being nutty as well as having a caramel or fruit note like raisins or even tasting like toast. Again, the best way to identify the classic malt taste is to sample a beer famous for its maltiness.
Stouts and most darker beers will have a very malty finished which outweighs the bitterness of hops. Guinness is an obvious choice if you want to record the taste of malt in your taste bank. I’m sure that I also heard it’s good for you somewhere too!
Yeast is the hero in the story of beer, without this fantastic fungus (try not to picture mushrooms) you’d be left with a starchy grain soup on a Friday night after work.
However, yeast can be as unique and special as we are and there are many different strains to play with. So what does yeast taste and smell like? Well, as a general description of yeast is that it smells like bread, but this isn’t always the case. Yeast can also lead to a sweet aroma in beer.
As a tip here for the men, don’t google “what does yeast smell like?” because you are going to be introduced to a world of lady things you don’t want to know about. Anyway, back to beer.
In terms of flavor, yeast can develop into fruity notes as well as tannins and strong alcohol kicks. Each recipe can bring about exciting and differing results.
Again, if you are brewing your own beer, give that priming solution or pitch a good sniff. I wouldn’t recommend drinking it, but definitely get a good waft so that you can smell it again later.
If you are dealing with a craft beer or other store-bought brews, then you can work through the different styles which will use similar yeasts to give their beer a distinctive flavor.
Common yeast used in beer brewing and how they taste
There are two main camps that beer falls into, Ale yeast which will ferment in suspension at the top of a fermenter and lager yeast which will ferment at the bottom of your fermentation container. Each type of yeast performs best at different temperatures but let’s not worry about that for the moment.
Within each group of ale and lager yeast, there are many different strains that you can use to achieve different results both in the process of fermentation and the finished taste and aroma of your beer. This is very subjective and you should experiment with different yeasts and recipes to see what you personally like, especially if you are a home-brewer.
Testing your bitterness tolerance
Not everyone likes the same bitterness in their beer. Luckily, not too long ago I was at a paid group event (a drinking group with a running problem) where a bitter Pilsner was made available along with a less impressive local lager. Everyone else couldn’t handle the bitterness and drank the uninspiring lager, I managed to crack open several cans of the decent pilsner before leaving. Happy days.
Bitterness shouldn’t be confused with ‘hoppy’. All beers have hops in them and depending on how those hops were used the beer can be bitter or not. Generally hops brings stronger aromas and flavor when used later in the process of brewing and more bitterness (to off-set the sweet malt) when used earlier in the brewing process.
Knowing how bitter you like your beer can help you select a good beer to buy and brew. So, how can you do this at home without having to drink a lot of beer?
One method is to take some grapefruit juice and water and pour out a few glasses with a stronger concentration of grapefruit juice to water each time.
Take three glasses, pour a half cup of grapefruit juice into all three and then half a cup of water into the first, a quarter of a cup into the second and no water into the third.
Taste all three and see which one you can handle. If you are happy with the full on grapefruit juice, you can probably handle a beer with an IBU of 70 or more. If you are reaching your limit with the 1/4 mix of water, go for a beer with an IBU of no more than 40, if even the half and half is pushing it for you, then stick with an IBU level of up to 25.
Of course, the IBU indication of beer doesn’t always mean the beer will be bitter, it depends on the balance of the recipe, but it is a good guide to what you may like to try.
Here are 25 popular craft beers and their IBU levels
Ithaca Flower Power IPA
Victory HopDevil IPA
Dogfish Head 90 minute IPA
Geary’s Pale Ale
Tree House King Julius
Lost Abbey Cuvee De Tomme
Anchor Christmas Ale
Tree House Very Hazy
Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale
New Belgium La Folie
Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale
New Albion Ale
Victory Prima Pils
3 Floyds Dark Lord
Russian River Pliny the Elder
Anchor Liberty Ale
The Alchemist Heady Topper
Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout
Sam Adams Boston Lager
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
How sweet can you go?
When it comes to beer not everyone likes the face collapsing bitterness of a young IPA, and if you have a sweet tooth then picking the right malts is important.
To gauge how sweet you want your beer to be, then you can sample whole-wheat bread, an oatmeal cookie and rock candy. These three foods give a good spectrum of sweetness in beer.
Magic Hat Plus/minus is a beer which is on the same level as whole-wheat bread in terms of sweetness. Oskar Blues Old Chub or a similar beer would rival a cookie whereas Big John from the Goose Island brewery is going to good for those seeking a very sweet beer.
DIY off-flavor beer spiking kit
Once you have trained yourself to identify the common flavors and aromas in different varieties of beer, now it’s time to look into undesirable tastes and smells. These are known as off-flavors.
Now, not all off-flavors are unwanted, in fact, some brewers actively seek out these tastes to give their beers a new direction. For now, however, let’s imagine that we are brewing beer or buying beer and we want it to be free of excessive amounts of these off-flavors.
There are ready-made kits that you can buy if you are training yourself for a cicerone certificate. However, for most people making their own home-made kit will be good enough.
The most common off-flavors found in beer are from Diacetyl (popcorn butter), DMS (corn), Acetaldehyde (apples), UV exposure(skunked), Oxidized, and bacterial infection. You can find a spiking substance for all these off-flavors in your local supermarket.
If there is diacetyl present in your beer you will get a buttery aroma and will give you a ‘slick’ mouthfeel. If it tastes like butter popcorn, then you have a diacetyl off-flavor taste
DMS stands for Dimethyl Sulfide and can give off an aroma of cooked tomatoes or cabbage most commonly creamed corn. There is always DMS in malt, but it normally boils off during the brewing process.
Acetaldehyde will give you an apple aroma and is normally dealt with by the yeast towards the end of fermentation. It can be present in beers when the yeast has been removed too soon.
daylight can have an adverse effect on beer as it reaches with the compounds found in hops to produce mercaptan which makes it smell like skunk spray. This process can happen in a few seconds if the beer container is clear and left in direct sunlight.
If your beer tastes or smells like wet cardboard or paper, wax or lipstick (who is tasting these, really?) then it has been exposed to the air.
If bacteria is allowed to enter the beer at any time, usually during fermentation, it can lead to a buttery taste from diacetyl or vinegar taste (acetobacter).
Make your kit
Ingredients and preparation:
- Diacetyl – 10 drops of butter extract per 6 fl oz of beer
- DMS- 2 teaspoons of strained liquid creamed corn per 6 fl oz beer
- Acetaldehyde – 4 drops of gourmet apple flavoring per 6 fl oz beer
- UV exposure – leave beer sample exposed to sunlight, fluorescent light or LED for 5 minutes
- Oxidized – leave an open can of beer for 24 hours with a paper towel covering it.
- bacterial infection – 1 teaspoon of distilled vinegar and 8 drops of butter extract per 6 fl oz beer.
- beer – a basic lager will do well for this test, something without too much character is ideal. You’ll need about 6-8 12 fl oz beers, but you may not drink it all!
How to do a blind test
For each type of off-flavor prepare 3 glasses with about 6 fl oz of beer in each. Two beers should be regular beer with no off-flavor spiking in them, the third is the flavor we are trying to train out palate for. This is called the triangle test and allows us to move between regular and off-flavor to help us identify the taste more easily.
If possible you should ask someone to prepare the spiking solutions for you so that you don’t know which glass has which the off-flavor in. You can simply label each triangle 1,2,3,4,5,6 or a,b,c,d,e,f.
When you have tried this test a few times with a regular beer, you can branch out and try the same thing with a beer with a bit more character. A real challenge would be to try the blind test with a beer that actually displays one of the off-flavors on purpose, can you taste when it’s too pronounced?
How to actually taste beer like a pro
Step 1: Serve the beer in the correct glass
It’s important to use the right glass for the beer you are tasting as this will allow the beer to release all its potential aromas.
Step 2: Smell the beer
Get an initial idea of what aromas hit you first.
Step 3: Allow the beer to warm up for a few minutes in your hand
As the beer changes temperature, it will slowly change and release further aromas. Compare what you can smell now to what you initially identified.
Step 4: Taste the beer
Take a mouthful of beer and make sure you spread it around your mouth, over your tongue and to the top of your palate. This will allow you to taste all the possible flavors and will push the aroma back up into your nose.
Step 5: Swallow the beer
Drink the beer down and allow yourself time to explore any aftertaste and the aroma left in your mouth.
Step 6: Belch
This isn’t spoken about too much in polite society, but the best way to gauge many of the aromas of beer is to belch back into your mouth and breath in through your nose. Try it, what can you smell and taste now?
Always remember that beer is to be enjoyed. Don’t get too concerned with becoming an expert beer taster, unless you are training to take an examination. Just learn to pick out a little more details in the beer you are drinking and this will help you discover even more beer to enjoy.
If you are a home-brewer, developing your palate will help you become more experimental in your brewing as well as allowing you to troubleshoot more successfully any off-flavors that may occur in your career as a brewer.