There are as many different types of beer drinkers as there are beers themselves. Some are hop heads, others stout and porter drinkers only. Some are brand loyal while others seek constantly to try something new. Wherever you fall along the spectrum of beer drinking, much like with most things in life, there is always room for improvement--always a new way to enhance your beer drinking experience.
My writing partner Nicole and I are by no stretch of the imagination beer experts. We are, however, avid beer enthusiasts and, in some ways, this has allowed us to learn a lot about beer in a relatively short amount of time. Though we do not eat, drink, and sleep beer the way that some fanatics will...we do whisper it! (Hence the blog name!) It is a passion for us--one whose caprices allow for an extraordinary diverse array of experiences both for tasting and learning. As my eyes have opened to what beer and its consumption can and, in my opinion, should be, I have also grown more adept at not only identifying different types of beer enthusiasts but also diagnosing what would help them to maximize or to improve upon their experience or relationship with beer--thus, the whispering.
Now, you can do some research and find myriad articles, books, and blogs dedicated to the "art" of beer--they focus on the nuances of proper tasting techniques and the importance of the proper pour. In some ways, these pieces of writing, though informative, are, at best, also rather exclusionary and, at worst, snobbish and uppity. Beer in general has suffered an image problem for the last few decades as it has become viewed as unsophisticated or boorish. Wine, instead, has become the de facto drink for elegant gastronomical affairs. In recent years, though, microbreweries have struggled to and succeeded in elicit a change in this restrictive view: beers are now paired with fine cheeses and world class cuisine, much like wine. The problem, though, is that, in some circles, beer has, essentially, become too cool for school.
Though things like proper tasting and pouring techniques are important to maximizing one's beer experience, they are by no means the be-all and end-all of how to improve upon one's relationship. In fact, I think that if there is too much emphasis placed upon the delicate nature of beer consumption--an instance which creates a faux symbolic parallel with wine that, in this writer's opinion, is wholly unnecessary--then you run the risk of alienating a good portion of beer fans simply because they feel that they are not classy enough to enjoy beer, much the way wine culture has a tendency to turn its nose up at people who are interested in trying anything less than the most exclusive and expensive wines.
With that said, we believe that we have compiled a list of elements that can apply to almost any type of beer drinker--a checklist of sorts, if you will--that will truly open up the world of beer in a way that might have been theretofore inaccessible or perhaps even entirely unknown to said swiller. Though there is no official order that the things enumerated below should be in, I have attempted to avoid arranging them in an arbitrary fashion. The ordering, in a way, begins with the most basic adjustment that can be made by someone with only a perfunctory relationship or latent interest with or in beer and it ends with things that even a connoisseur of suds would want to consider.
So--without further ado--we offer you:
I. BROADEN YOUR HORIZONS!
This applies to everyone who enjoys beer. Whether you are a hardcore Budweiser loyalist or someone who will drink nothing but the choicest Trappist ale, you can benefit from loosening up your restrictive perspective on different brands or styles of beers and dabbling with something new. Oftentimes we learn as much or more from things that we don't like as we do from the things we enjoy. Branching out affords you the opportunity of new experiences, which, in turn, will strengthen and mature your palette thus allowing you to get the most out of your beer whatever that beer might be.
If you're a Bud or Coors guy, that doesn't mean you have to start with something drastically different. If you're loyal to a particular brand or brewery, regardless of your reason, you will find that you have plenty of latitude in terms of trying different beers; the bigger the brewer, the higher the likelihood of being able to try something different. Fans of Budweiser might thumb their noses at Michelob until they realize that both are brewed by the same parent company; ditto for Coors and Killian's.
Regardless of what you enjoy, if you're uncomfortable with change then try something that's only somewhat different from your usual brew. You might love regular Budweiser but hate Bud Light. In that case, try something like Budweiser Select or Bud Ice. And don't just have one or have it once--mix it up, ESPECIALLY if this is your first foray into expanding your beer experience! See what happens to your interaction with Budweiser after you've had Select or Ice and vice versa. If you're feeling bold, try something completely different--either an entirely different brand's offering or something that is still beneath the umbrella of the parent brewer but different from what you typically drink. You'll be surprised by the results.
If you're more worldly in your beer interests then consider trying a different style. If you play it safe with pale ales and IPAs then try a brown ale or an amber ale. If you enjoy lagers only, try an ale and vice versa. For someone who has a considerable beer background I would recommend trying a style of beer that you know that you dislike but sample a variety of brands and subtle variations of the beer's style. If you hate stouts then try a dry Irish stout like Guinness, an oatmeal stout, a stout with a strong espresso or coffee constitution, a milk stout, or Founder's Breakfast Stout for something completely different. You might begin to find that your opinion is changing slowly...or that you are confirming just how much you hate stouts. Regardless, you are expanding your palette and are gaining something from the experience.
Feeling adventurous? Try a Rauchbier (you will be hard-pressed to find one better than Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Urbock) or a Flanders Red style (Rodenbach Grand Cru is among the best in the world). Also be sure to try beer throughout the year. Often a brewery's seasonal offerings will be among if not their very best (Dogfish Head Punkin' Ale is one of their best selling beers, and with good reason!) Even the same seasonal beers might vary from year to year. Remember: every new experience brings you one step closer to beer Nirvana!
II. TAKE NOTES AND KEEP A LIST!!!
This is especially important early on in your journey--it will help you to guide yourself along and will provide you with a solid foundation to build upon. Plus, many years and hundreds of beers later, you can look back at your humble beginnings with a wistful, nostalgic air surrounding you. Now, obviously, the most common thing that you can take notes on will be the taste (these are called "tasting notes," appropriately enough) but there are many other things--some far simpler--that are worth noting, especially early on. Simply writing the brand name of the beer and noting whether or not you liked it is a good enough start, especially if you're a heavy drinker and might not even remember having had the beer the next day!
Over time, though, you will find that the detail of your beer writing will improve as will its overall quality. As you engage in more beer-oriented conversations or read beer-themed materials, you will notice certain commonalities or things that appear repeatedly when it comes to certain beers or styles. If you are attempting to keep tasting notes, it couldn't hurt to have a list of common (and not-so-common) adjectives written down so that they are at your disposal when you are drafting a beer review, if such is your wont. Again, the breadth of your beer lexicon will begin to expand as you delve deeper into the world of beer.
It is helpful to keep a small notepad on hand whenever you are heading out to enjoy some drinks or even just to have on hand in general. Some people carry around miniature journals called "commonplace books" where they will jot down random tidbits of information, ideas, or musings that come to them throughout the day. Such a book would work perfectly as a record of beer experiences.
You might want also to begin keeping a list of the beers that you try, even if you do not think that you will wind up trying very many. For one thing, it provides you with a great resource that you can return to to help you analyze your beer habits or simply to have a running list of everything that you've tried. I began keeping a list after I went on my first brewery tour at the Coors facility in Golden, Colorado. Since then, I have accrued 575 different beers for my list and I have expanded the scope of said list to include personal grades, online beer reviewers' grades, as well as numerous other fields that help me to keep a comprehensive data set that I can refer to when making beer decisions.
I never imagined that I would come to try as many beers as I have (I expect to surpass the 700 mark by the end of the summer and, with any luck, reach 800 by the end of the year) but as my list grew so too did my pride in my variegated beer experience. My list became a badge of honor of sorts--something that helped me to realize how far I have come in only five years of serious beer drinking. It is not nearly as expansive as many others' lists (I know a man whose list is well over two thousand beers!) and, for me at least, it reminds me that I have many more beers to try and much more to learn about beer in general--both prospects of which excite me a great deal!
III. LEARN THE MOST EFFICIENT WAY TO CONSUME A BEER
This is arguably the most important aspect of improving upon and maximizing your beer experience. Brewers--especially craft brewers--put an incredible amount of effort and pay a ridiculous amount of attention to detail in creating the recipes for their beers. A good microbrewed beer, from start to finish, is like a James Joyce novel: every aspect--every minutiae from the placement of a punctuation mark to the precise moment that an ingredient is added is critical in the beer's development. In essence, though, what the brewer begins the beer drinker finishes. Without observing proper beer protocol, one might inadvertently destroy the immense amount of work that the brewer undertook in crafting the perfect beer.
As noted earlier, I have no interest in exploring the snobby, sophisticated way of beer drinking; there will be no lifting of pinkies skyward here. There are, however, some critical aspects of tasting a beer that will make-or-break one's experience and thus I will enumerate these basic elements below.
IIIa. Drink From A Glass at ALL TIMES!
There is, perhaps, no single element more critical in the beer tasting process than the selection of the proper glassware. Generally, if your ultimate aim in consuming a bottled beer is to get drunk as quickly as possible, then a) you are probably not all that concerned with how it tastes and b) you will likely be consuming those beers in large numbers and rapid fire. If such is the case, then I would implore that you consider this:
Beer is like food.
At one end of the quality spectrum, you have your bland, boring fast-food that you eat for convenience or simply to sate yourself; this equates to most American adjunct lagers (macrobrewed beers). At the other end is the exquisite, pricey cuisine that needs to be savored and treated as an experience unto themselves; these equate to the world's finest brews. In between, though, is a lot of grey area and it all comes down to what your ultimate purpose is in eating/drinking the food/beer that you have in front of you. If all you care about is shoveling it down your gullet as quickly as possible, ignoring quality and flavor, then by all means do so...but only if the food/beer warrants that type of approach. You would never go to a steakhouse and wolf down a quality steak the same way you would destroy a Big Mac--you would afford it the reverence that it deserves as a respectable comestible. The same goes for beer--if it's of a particularly respectable quality--say, a bottle of Stone Oaked Arrogant Bastard Ale--then you wouldn't want to chug it straight out of the bottle the way you would a Molson's Golden or an MGD.
You might be thinking:
Why all the stink about drinking beer from a glass and not a bottle? What's the difference? If the beer already comes in a bottle, why not drink it straight out of it?
All three questions are understandable and I will answer them all. The reason that you want to drink beer out of a glass and not a bottle is because of the important opening acts of the beer tasting process: the look and the aroma. You can't really see a beer when it's bottled in a green or amber colored cruet; only when a beer is poured into a clear glass will its appealing body reveal itself to you. Now, though you can smell a beer if it's in the bottle, you're not actually smelling the beer as part of the tasting process. The proper type of glassware is important--depending on the individual beer--because, when the beer is swirled, the aroma will climb up to the nose in a distinct way that opens up the various olfactory components of the beer.
So, essentially, when you drink a beer directly out of a bottle, you are missing out on two of the three most critical elements of a beer's taste: its sight and aroma. Pay attention the next time you are at a beer-oriented place (you can tell if it's such a place if it has a broad array of obscure or local beers on tap in concurrence with or possibly instead of the ubiquitous macrobrews). Watch what types of beers are placed in what sort of glasses. You'll see tulip glasses, goblets, regular pint glasses, and tall, slender glasses often used for hefeweizens. Believe it or not, it really does make a difference what glass the beer is poured into as it will affect directly the flavor and tasting experience of the beer and beer drinker respectively.
IIIb. Learn The Proper Pouring Technique!
I cringed recently when I saw in a friend's status on Facebook that a bartender did a great job the night before because she poured beer with "absolutely no head whatsoever!!!" I just cringed re-reading that. I chalked it up to inexperience and it raised a very important point in my mind: the proper pour is the all-important missing link between the opening of the beer and the beginning of the tasting process. A terrible pour might not ruin a beer entirely but it will certainly delay things by quite a bit.
Don't worry--I know what I'm talking about! I was trained in Dublin at the Guinness Brewery!
Here is a link to me performing my very first perfect pour:
Now, perhaps obviously, Guinness is not the only beer that requires a particular pouring technique. Some beers are naturally more difficult to pour than others, particularly if they are highly carbonated. Some Belgian beers and many hefeweizens can prove persnickety in attempting to transfer them smoothly from the bottle to the glass. Regardless of the beer type, though, (Guinness included) there is a universal approach that one can take when pouring a bottled beer into a glass.
Tilt the glass at a forty-five degree angle.
Tilt the bottle at the same angle towards the glass.
Slowly pour the beer along the side of the glass, not directly into the bottom; you don't want it to splash in.
As the glass begins to fill with beer, keep the bottle at the same height and angle but begin to tilt the glass more upright; it should be almost completely upright when the bottle is around three-quarters of the way empty.
Turn the bottle upright over the glass allowing for a rougher pour; the agitation of the rapidly flowing beer will create a thick, creamy head on the beer.
Set the glass down on the table to begin your tasting!
IIIc. Learn The Proper Tasting Technique!
This is clearly the single most important element of improving your beer experience as it allows for a more complete relationship with your beer. Understanding how to taste a beer properly will allow you to unlock the secrets that many people remain completely oblivious to with regards to their beers. It also allows for the brewer's mission with that individual beer to achieve completion; nothing tastes better than a self-actualized beer!
Now, even perfunctory research will yield numerous proper tasting techniques. Consequently, there is no one de facto approach to take and I would not deign to label mine as one. Still, though, there are common elements among the many methods and it is these that I seek to outline below. I encourage you to perform your own research and to determine for yourself how elaborate you would like your tasting technique to be.
STEP 1: THE LOOK
The first way for you to taste the beer is with your eyes. Observing the color and level of obfuscation in the beer will often give you a preliminary idea of what the taste will be like. Don't be afraid to hold the glass up to the light! You will often find that the color changes somewhat. Guinness, for example, looks pitch black in its glass but, when held up to the light, it actually appears to be ruby in color!
Note: you can also read the label while you wait for the beer to settle. This will also yield valuable information in terms of what you can expect the beer to taste like.
STEP 2: THE SWIRL
The second part of the tasting involves the nose only. Lift the glass to your nose without actually sticking your nose in the glass. Breathe in gently through your nose a few times and see what sort of aromas you can detect. If room in the glass will allow, gently swirl the beer as you bring it to your nose; this will release many of the hidden aromas contributed often by the hops that are added late in the brewing process. If there is no room then proceed to the next step and return when you can safely swirl the beer.
STEP 3: THE SIP
The next step is to take a somewhat small sip that coats the front of the tongue only. This will cause the beer to interact with only a portion of the tastebuds in your mouth. You will detect a number of flavors and aromas with this preliminary sip.
STEP 4: THE SWIG
This penultimate step is everyone's favorite. Take a large sip of the beer--enough to coat your entire tongue and mouth. Swish the beer around in your mouth before swallowing it. This will allow the beer to come into contact with every sensory part of your mouth and will release aromas into your sinus cavity allowing you to sense scents that were previously hidden. Swishing the beer will also agitate it and cause it to reveal more subtle undertones that will complement the already-apparent overtones and will uncover flavor notes that will help to complete its profile.
STEP 5: TAKE NOTES
This is arguably the most important step behind the actual tasting. Writing down what you saw, smelled, and tasted immediately afterwards will allow for stronger recollection later on. It will also provide you with the opportunity to produce the most raw and honest feedback that you can about the beer. You will want to note as many things as you can including the visual description of both the body of the beer and its head, its aroma, its mouthfeel, the scents and flavors that you detect, as well as the temperature of the beer and the type of glass that it is served in. You might even want to give the beer a grade that you can compare with various online beer rating websites including Beer Advocate and Rate Beer.
For further reading on tasting techniques, my writing partner Nicole recommends: Tasting Beer: An Insider's Guide to the World's Greatest Drink by Randy Mosher.
IV. READ UP!
As with most things in life, the easiest way to grow more knowledgeable on a subject is to read about it. There is an incredible wealth of material available for the beer neophyte though, as with most printed word nowadays, not everything is worth reading. I would suggest beginning with beer blogs like ours and websites like Beer Advocate and Rate Beer where you can obtain a broad array of information from people who are entrenched on a daily basis and deeply vested in the world of beer. If you're more comfortable with books there is no shortage of them available on sites like Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble's website. The panoply of reading material runs the gamut from homebrewing to historical beer information; there will surely be something to suit your interest if you invest enough time into your research!
V. GET OUT THERE AND SEE SOME BEER!
Our last step to maximizing your beer experience might just be the most fun. As you delve deeper into the world of beer, you should consider visiting breweries. You can learn a great deal just be attending a few tours and enjoying a few samples. Though the basic beer ingredients and brewing approach varies very little at the fundamental level, each brewery will offer its own unique spin on both and each is worth visiting in its own right (all 1,500+ of them!). I would recommend visiting both megaconglomerate international macrobrewers like Anheuser-Busch, Coors, and Miller as well as the numerous microbreweries that are spread throughout the United States. If you are traveling abroad be sure to keep your eye out for or plan to include a few breweries during your trip!
Once you're acquired at least a little bit of knowledge about beer and have begun developing your palette, you should consider attending a beer event...but not really before. Beer really does have an acquired taste that exists on many levels. There is the basic level which allows one to consume mass-produced beers. Those initial few encounters with beer might prove daunting but, eventually, your palette adjusts and allows you to enjoy the brews. The same can be said for darker beers like Guinness. Beyond that, though, it will take some time for your palette to adjust to the varying bitterness levels and gravities of different beers; you will want to have a solid understanding of what an IPA should taste like versus a porter or stout. I had a friend tell me that a smokebeer (the aforementioned Urbock that has STRONG smoked meat and even leather flavors and aromas) tasted "just like a Guinness." Other friends have made similar claims about other beers. The reason these comparisons were made is simple: a lack of breadth in their respective beer experiences. The problem, though, is that if either made those comments at a beer event such as a beer dinner or a microbrewery convention they would have been laughed at or otherwise ridiculed; not what you want with something that's supposed to be fun!
Keep your eyes peeled for advertisements of local beer events, especially during the summer when traveling beer festivals might come to your area. I was fortunate enough to attend the NY Brewfest last year on Governor's Island. My buddy and I stayed for four hours and I managed to accumulate forty-three different beers for my list. The experience was great (save for the frat boys who were there simply to get drunk but to each his own) and it allowed me to expand my palette a great deal, to get some one-on-one time--if only for a moment--with the people who brewed the beer, and to test my beer knowledge by engaging in conversation with other likeminded folks.
Some advice for anyone attending a Brewfest-type event, courtesy of Nicole and paraphrased from her aforementioned beer-book recommendation:
- Be aware of how much beer you can handle--throwing up all of that beer defeats the purpose
- Do your research about the brewers in attendance beforehand.
- Don't be afraid to dump beer--that's why they have the buckets!
- Have a reason for going, preferably other than "getting hammered on the cheap."
- Engage the brewers and their assistants in conversation--they LOVE discussing their beer!
- Be sure to stay hydrated and well-fueled with replenishing food.
- As always, procure a way home for yourself in advance.
Overall, this entry has been meant to serve as a guide to get you on your way; it is by no means exhaustive nor was intended to be such. The goal for The Beer Whisperers is not only to educate but also to instill a sense of excitement about beer. This should be fun--it should be something that you want to do; we seek only to help you along your way as we continue along ours. Hopefully we will meet up along our respective paths, share a few pints, learn a little, laugh a lot, and just otherwise enjoy good beer among friends.
Happy drinking, friends!
--Beer Whisperer Matt