Tasting notes can be scary to people new to the beer world. You might have thought you were delving into a niche market that eschewed all the trappings of the upper-crust libation snobs, people who regularly threw down hundreds of dollars for a bottle of wine or Scotch that they may never drink. Beer is marketed as the opposite of this, a drink consumed by the hoi polloi in order to unwind and suddenly be surrounded by women in bikinis. But tasting notes start to link these supposedly disparate groups as you delve deeper into the world of craft beer. Magazines, books and websites that cater to beer lovers are bound to feature descriptions of taste, aroma and mouthfeel, which can then be used to help the reader discern whether this is a beer that interests them. However, these notes can be off-putting by being too academic or pretentious – exactly the type of atmosphere most people try to avoid when they turn to beer.
If you’ve been reading this blog for long enough you have probably noticed that I don’t have the greatest palate. Picking out particular spices in a beer is difficult for me, unless the brewery actually says which ones are used in production. I also pride myself on being notoriously bad at taking tasting notes unless it is something likely to be forgotten (like the fifteenth beer I’ve had while on vacation). There is no rule that says you have to be good at tasting or describing beers to make notes, though you will probably find that doing so increases your sensory perceptions. If you’re just getting into craft beer, let me give you a couple of hints about tasting notes.
1) They aren’t mandatory. Bars won’t quiz you before you leave, nor will the Beer Store ask for a detailed write-up for each empty you’re returning. Sites like Ratebeer and Beer Advocate are great because they let everyone have their say about a beer, but I have never posted a review to either site and never plan on it. There is nothing wrong with taking notes and in many ways they can enhance your enjoyment in the long run, but don’t view them as a requirement.
2) Don’t be That Guy. Beer drinkers can be lax in their social etiquette at times, but try to be discreet if you feel the need to make tasting notes in social settings. There are times when it is obviously acceptable, like when you’re sitting with a bunch of beer geeks at beerbistro and tasting rare BrewDog beers. But please write down your notes, rather than talking into your iPhone. The rest of us are trying to have a conversation over you.
3) Write What You Know. This past week I encountered two strange flavours in beer, or rather two odd sensory experiences. Sometimes the melange of flavours come together in a way that reminds you of a specific time, place or food, and it is perfectly acceptable to say that in your notes. Soph and I were drinking the Russian River Consecration this past weekend, a sour ale with currants. There was a strange familiarity in the beer, which we obsessed over until realizing it was dill pickle chips. It was present in the aroma and a quick, intense burst midway through each sip. Two days later the New Glarus Wisconsin Red was reminding me of cherry Halls, minus the menthol. While I could write excessively long descriptions that say the say thing (“a flavour reminiscent of a vinegar brine and dill seasoning, thrust forth upon a salted and fried sliver of potato”), I’d rather just get to the point and use my frame of references.
4) Read a book (or four). Confused by the term “mouthfeel”? Not sure if a beer fits within its supposed style? It is always helpful to read some beer books to gain further insight on what to look for when you’re tasting a beer. This is actually just a general recommendation regardless if you’re making notes or not.