Grab your beer of choice. Pour a small amount into a glass where the top is slightly smaller than the bottom so all the aroma doesn’t escape at once. Perform the four S’s; swirl the liquid in your glass, deeply sniff the aroma, take a sip, and swirl around your mouth before swallowing. I guess that’s five S’s? Now repeat.
As we unveil our Seattle Times beer bracket and ask readers to vote for their favorite Seattle brewery, we’re hoping you’ll go out, drink lots of beer, and then report back to vote in the poll and tell us which breweries you loved the most. But what does it mean to taste beer? We thought we’d ask an expert.
“Always taste things twice because the first time you taste something you’re cleaning your mouth basically. The second taste is where you can get the full impression,” says Chris Elford.
Elford is a certified cicerone (a beer sommelier) and co-owner of No Anchor, Rob Roy, Navy Strength and Vinnie’s Raw Bar. He knows a lot about beer. But when it came down to talking about tasting beer versus just drinking beer he didn’t give any of the aforementioned advice other than smelling it and tasting twice. Why?
“Unless you’re holding your nose while chugging a Rainier, you’re still tasting it,” he says with a smile.
Because for Elford, what “properly tasting beer” boils down to isn’t even “tasting with intention.”
“The main thing for tasting anything for me is just developing vocabulary, and you develop vocabulary around a certain topic by talking about it with people,” he says.
No matter who you are — from the biggest beer geek to the first-time drinker to even a beer hater — vocabulary is the way to get you what you want because at its core, taste is subjective. Especially when it comes to beer and what you like. Start with what you know.
Simple terms; light beer versus a dark beer. Bold versus delicate flavors. Think about temperature — similar to wine. Just as the palest whites should be chilled, so should the most straw-colored beers. Deep, dark espresso-colored beers shouldn’t be the same temperature.
Also think about what you like to drink that isn’t beer. Is it white wine with ice or is it a negroni with funky amaro or a barrel-aged spirit?
And don’t start with what you don’t like. Elford says that’s like getting into a taxi in New York City and telling the driver you don’t want to go to the Empire State Building.
“That only helps so much,” Elford says. “It’s like, ‘cool, we won’t go there.’ Where do you want to go?”
Maybe you think what you don’t like is a good starting point. “I don’t like hoppy beers,” many people say.
Elford says it’s probably because “someone gave you a double IPA and you didn’t enjoy it.” That’s cool, but was it the hop flavor or was it the bitterness factor?
“Pilsner Urquell is a great example of a beer that isn’t particularly bitter but it is hoppy, it has a hop presence.”
That’s where developing a vocabulary comes in handy. As it develops, you can start to add to your knowledge of flavor. Maybe the beer isn’t just sour, it’s tart.
“Then eventually you might be like, ‘These beers are sour but these beers are tart, and these beers might be sour but they are delicately sour,’” Elford says.
Soon you can discover that there are beers that taste like wine, or as Elford says “beers that taste like peach skins and beers that taste like apple slices.”
Don’t worry about impressing anyone. Meet beer where you are — not where someone thinks you should be.
“If you ever lose the pleasure that you get from drinking something, then you’re doing it wrong,” Elford says.
If you’re a die-hard lager fan, there’s something out there for you. Elford says the Pacific Northwest has some of the best lager breweries in the world, naming Bellingham’s Chuckanut and Portland’s Heater Allen as two of his favorites.
If you love “weird beers” made with new hop varietals or flavors one wouldn’t always associate with beers, there’s something for you too.
“Mirage has a sour IPA which sounds to some people like the most disgusting thing in the world but I think it’s just undeniably thirst quenching and really delicious,” Elford says.
Which brings Elford to his next tip: “Try and be adventurous within reason, for your comfort zone.”
“I think curiosity unlocks a lot of really fun parts of life, if you can just have a sense of wonder,” he says.
Listen to others talk about beer to help build your vocabulary, or pick up a copy of “Tasting Beer” by Randy Mosher. It’s required reading for anyone who works with Elford.
At the end of the day, if you’re stumped on what you’re tasting or why you like it, Elford has one last piece of advice.
“If you feel like you’re reaching a dead end or feel like you’re not getting any better at something, it’s OK to just shut your brain off and drink the beer.”