Well kids, this week I’m going to do something slightly different, as I haven’t been drinking a lot of beer lately because of the painkillers I’ve been taking for my back (remember kids, alcohol and medicine don’t mix). I’m going to give you a guide to how to taste and assess beer. Something tells me that I should have done this earlier in the year, but let’s face it; the best thing about hindsight is that it gives you 20/20 vision. So you’re going to get a brief rundown on my tasting method, which may well help you expand your beer drinking horizons beyond that of the average first year (i.e. getting over thinking that shit you buy for $10 a dozen every week before you head into town represents top quality beer).
The first thing to do when you buy a beer is look at it. Not the can or the bottle, but the beer inside. For this most people will require a glass, (although I know some individuals who can perform this part of the assessment at the end of their night) and it pays to hold your glass up against something white (paper or a dinner plate) to get an accurate idea of the colour of the beer and whether or not it is cloudy (cloudiness is a good sign for a wheat beer or bottle-fermented beer, but can indicate a fault in most other beers). Colour is a good indicator of what you’re about to drink: dark beer tends towards black, pilsners and lagers are usually yellow, ales tend to be brown.
Next up, take a big sniff of the brew. Most of a person’s sense of taste is dictated in part by the messages the brain gets from our nose. Beer that smells of vegetables, fruit or flowers is likely to be hoppy; biscuity or grainy aromas indicate more of a malt dominance. Anything that smells like wet cardboard or vinegar should be avoided, it’s probably off.
Once that’s done, put the beer in your mouth, let it roll around, get a feel for the weight of it. Try tasting for the malt (the sweet hit on the front of your tongue) and the hops (the long bitter taste at the back of a beer. Hops give a beer its finish). If you can’t work this out on your own, I suggest sipping a small quantity of Scotch whisky (straight, no ice, and single malts like Glenmorangie work best), you don’t need to drink any more than is necessary to coat your tongue. Why did I tell you to do this? It knocks out the part of your tongue that tastes malt, as Scotch, like beer, is based on malt, but more concentrated in effect, meaning when you drink beer soon afterwards the hops will be about the only thing that you taste. From there it’s easy to work out what you’re looking for. Pay attention to how long the beer’s taste lasts in your mouth after you’ve swallowed, this tells you how long the finish is. Dry beers don’t have a sweet finish, whereas ‘medium’ beers do (the same goes for wines).
Another thing to look out for in assessing a beer is the overall balance of the beer. Is it too hoppy? Too malty? Tastes like brown water? Good beers have a balance of malt and hop flavours, backed up with a good alcoholic backbone.
Extra points should be assigned to any bottle with naked women on the label (they do exist; you just need to look harder).
With that out of the way, it’s time to review some beer. This time I’m only looking at two beers from two of New Zealand’s standout breweries, Emerson’s and Wigram breweries. Both are microbreweries producing a wide range of brilliant and award winning beers. For sake of comparison I’ve chosen both beers because their similar style.