Over this past weekend, I happened to catch some videos on YouTube of a trio of American self proclaimed beer-tasting experts. The camera on its tripod shook in the wind as the three stared at the camera sampling Southeast Asian beers I am well familiar with: Singha, Chang, Beer Lao, and Tiger.
I skimmed a few more of their videos where they went on to sample two of South Korea’s most popular brews, not very difficult to do in a country where three brands dominate.
These videos were not very good. Never mind that their opinions differ from mine. There’s an old joke that opinions are like a—holes in that everyone has one. The videos weren’t good because they didn’t convey, at all, why I should care about what these guys had to say. One guy kept saying “dude” and “smooth” Another interwove the most banal comments about a beer, such as “I like its distinct flavor”, with how much he’d love to drink this beer with [Fill_In_Any_Girls_Name] and seduce her. If seduction is all he was after, he wouldn’t need exotic foreign brews. He could accomplish that with a six pack of Rolling Rock, some leftover peanut packs from his last budget flight, and a desperate co-ed.
There is an art and a science – and a bit of a joke – to beer tasting. The trio had the joke part down fine.
The art spans several areas which, like any art, are more often subjective. Is the head dense, is it thin, is it nonexistent? Is the beer cloudy, is it clear? How does the beer smell? Like hops? Like malt? Like fruits? Like any of the other exotic ingredients new brewers love adding to their beers? How does the beer taste upon its first sip? Then, the mouthfeel. Is it dry? Is it thick? Is it chewy? Is it carbonated or is it flat? What about the finish? What is the taste after the drink has been swallowed? What flavors linger?
Just as two art aficionados would differ on what they consider great art, two beers tasters would greatly disagree on what they consider too dense or too hoppy or too thick or too whatever. The better testers make you take an interest in why their interpretation is worth listening to.
Science describes things that are objective, that can be clearly measured and repeated. Temperature is an obvious scientific consideration. A beer will taste best when it’s served at its proper temperature. A premium lager should be served at 42-48º F (6-9º C). Stouts can be as warm as 55º F (13º C). Older ales and barrel-aged stouts can be served at room temperature or just lightly chilled.
In the United States, most beers are served too cold. Refrigerators chill beverages to 38-40º F (around 4º C), too cold to smell the aroma properly and discern its flavour nuances. In Thailand, most beers are served too warm, and you’re asked if you would like a bucket of ice served alongside. Ice waters down the beer and impacts the aroma, flavor, and mouthfeel. This is not the gaffe it may seem when the beers being watered down are mass produced industrial brews made with chemicals, fillers, and foaming agents.
Science also takes into account what you pair with the beer. To perform a controlled study, you should not consume the beer with food or just after eating, as the lingering food particles impact your perception of the beer’s taste. Beers, like wines, can be properly paired with ideal foods to bring out the best in both, but I would not attempt to drink the beer in combination with food before I sampled it and knew its basic taste and flavor characteristics first. That’s why you’re charged a hefty premium for beer or wine pairings. You’re supposed to be paying for the chef’s brilliant creations as well as his unparalleled expertise in what to drink with them.
Science dictates that you sample the beverages, whether wine or beer, from light colored to darker colored and that you cleanse your palate with water between samples.
I used to think that beer glasses were just a high profit margin good-looking joke, and if you’re talking about a mass produced industrial beer along the lines of Miller or Budweiser, that’s exactly what specialized beer glasses are. A Budweiser’s “nuances” and “floral notes” aren’t going to be more pronounced whether you drink it out of a plastic bottle, a jug, or an enema bag. But for more hand crafted brews, a special glass can be an aid to bringing its strengths to the surface. Beer glass types would differ more by style than brand. That is to say, an IPA would be better sipped from a glass with a ribbed base and a curved bowl designed to enhance aroma and carbonation. A porter or a stout or a lager would require different kind of glasses still.
All right. Enough about art and science. Most of us having a few friends over aren’t going to study the carbonation bubbles and check out the head or adjudge if the temperature is off by a few degrees. All we care about is if the beer tastes good to us. We don’t have to care what the critics say, and why should we? The critics don’t have the same pocket book or identical taste in food that we do. What’s good for them, like a $50/bottle of rare ale, may not be feasible for us.
So here’s the most important rule, devised by yours truly: taste no more than four beers at a time and compare them side-by-side. Perhaps your palate has a broader taste memory than mine and you can squeeze in a half dozen or more brews into a tasting and file away an individual beer’s characteristics in your high storage memory banks. Most people cannot. After so many beers, they all start bleeding into each other.
Ever taken the Pepsi Challenge? Pepsi used to setup booths outside supermarkets and public squares to have you compare two glasses of Cola. One was, of course, Pepsi; the other, Coca Cola. With only two colas, it was easy for me to pick out the Pepsi from the Coke and appreciate why they were different. Would it have been so easy if there were six or seven colas to compare?
It’s easy to compare, say, a Leffe Brown (Belgium) to a Singha (Thailand), even if you’re not drinking them side-by-side, and judge the Leffe superior. A beer’s character is based upon its balance and its complexity. Industrial beers like Singha are rarely very complex, even if they are usually well balanced, so a more artistic brew is going to have greater character merely because of the added complexity.
But what if you’re comparing like with like, an industrial Thai beer like Singha with a similar industrial beer like OB Golden Lager from Korea? Neither is very complex. I have found, from personal experience, that my taste buds recalibrate when I am exposed to a new set of beers. If I am in Thailand and am drinking the typical range (Singha, Chang, Tiger, etc) I am easily able to put these beers into a pecking order. Once I am in Korea and exposed to a different set of mainstream brews, I assemble these in my mind from best to worst. It becomes difficult, if not impossible, to assess whether Singha trumps OB or Chang is superior to Cass unless you taste the beers at the same time.
Anyone can be a sound taster if s/he can combine the art, the science, and the levity. The great tasters know how to combine them in a magical way.