MESSAGE FROM GORDON A. PONCE, CEO OF BELGIAN BEER JOURNAL
DISCLAIMER / RANT: I will right up front declare that I am not a Cicerone®, no do I proclaim to be a beer “expert”. However, after all the reading all the numerous books, study guides, after participating in dozens of tastings these past 39 years (both public and private), and after tasting all the classic Belgian styles numerous times over the years, do these facts disqualify my from offering any advice on how to properly taste beer? Maybe.
What I believe that the Cicerone® program does not teach you, is the human aspect of enjoying beer. What do I mean by that? While obtaining a Cicerone® certification is considered the benchmark for beer professionals, I feel it lacks the experience that one obtains while enjoying beer in the different moods, moments, and seasons. Most people reading this page don’t give a rip on uber-techinical aspects on beer, they just want to know, “what can I expect to experience when I try the specific style of Belgian beer, and does it taste good?” That’s who I want this page to appeal to.
Beer enthusiasts who hold a Cicerone® certification are welcome here too of course. Please know, I am not knocking that level of expertise (it’s great that you have that!) The reason why I am not a Cicerone® is because I don’t want to spend the time studying about beer styles from other countries that I don’t care about. The Cicerone® program finally now has a Belgian Beer Styles Specialist course that I will be immersing myself in very soon.
Lastly, I have learned quite a bit from my friend Alan Koziol, who holds a First Level Wine Sommelier Certification. I’ve read the exam details of both the Master Cicerone® and the Master Wine Sommelier program, and the Somm certifcation is inherently more difficult to obtain. Wine Somms must also have a massive understanding about beer styles as well. You can read more about Alan here.
Now that I’ve said what I needed to say, let’s get down to the business of Beer Tasting 101.
IT ALL STARTS WITH THE RIGHT GLASSWARE
When I discovered Belgian beer for the first time in 1983, I quickly learned that the aspect of the Belgian beer culture was that they had a specific glass for each beer, and more specifically, for each brand! This was way above and beyond what I knew while drinking beer in America (NOTE: tasting beer out of a shaker pint glass is one of the worst vessels to enjoy great beer out of).
As time went on and as North America started acquiring a taste for Belgian beers, new breweries making beer in the classic Belgian styles adapted this glassware practice.
After many years of trial and error, these are the 2 glass styles we have settled with and use when trying a new beer for the first time.
LEFT HAND SIDE: This glass is known as a ‘Balloon’ in the wine world, but is also an excellent vessel for tasting beer because of it’s shape, and tapered rim.
RIGHT HAND SIDE: The classic stemmed Tulip shape is used by beer enthusiasts worldwide because of its round bottom and tapered rim.
Both glasses are excellent for purposeful tasting due to the fact that the tapered rims focus and concentrate aromas. The stems in each glass allow for holding the glass without your hand touching the part of the glass that the liquid is in.
BEER CLEAN GLASSES – THE WAY I ACHIEVE THEM
Now, since I don’t have a proper pub inside my home (with the 3-sink glass cleaning system and overhead glass drying racks) I will describe how I achieve a beer clean glass every time.
I have never liked the idea of using chemicals (even “food grade” ones) to clean glasses. Call me crazy, but that’s me. For commercial settings however, using the 3-sink system is a must. I like to use an organic, fragrance-free, zero-residue dish soap like Better Life.
When cleaning, I use THE SMALLEST DROP POSSIBLE of the Better Life soap in the glass, and then using hot water to bring up the suds.
The reason why I use this type of brush in the picture above, is because I wanted to replicate (as closely as I could) the first sink station in the 3-station cleaning system. Plus it works well to remove lipstick, grease, etc., from inside and the rim of the glass. Do not use a sponge or a wash cloth as these are much harder to sanitize, plus they can trap bacteria in them over time. The brush I use is much easier to clean and keep sanitary. Use a softer bristle brush; if the bristles are too stiff, it can scratch the insides of glasses over time. You can use this brush to clean the outside of the glass as well.
RINSE, RINSE RINSE
Use plenty of hot water to rinse all traces of dish soap. Even though I use the Better Life fragrance-free, zero-residue dish soap, I don’t like to take ANY chances.
USE A STEMWARE DRYING RACK
If you don’t have a overhead drying rack system in your house, a great system I use is the Folding Stemware drying rack. This item is great because it allows maximum air to flow to dry the glass without the glass rim touching any surface. Simply place a clean paper towel underneath the rack to catch any water drops. A paper towel is best because it dries out as the glasses do. Cloth towels can develop undesirable aromas while underneath your glasses. Yes, I take beer clean glasses seriously!
TIME TO GET TO THE BUSINESS OF BEER TASTING
Now on to the best part of this adventure- the tasting! You’ll want to take your glass you cleaned (whether it was allowed to dry over time, or freshly cleaned) and rinse it thoroughly with cold water. I highly recommend using a filter directly at the tap (as close as you can get to the water pouring source (no pipes, etc.) the better. I use the Waterdrop WD-FC-01 filtatrion system. This assures a few things: That you eliminate the possibility of unfiltered tap water residue affecting the taste of the beer, and rinsing the glass with filtered, cold water reduces excess surface tension on the sides of the glass (this keeps your beer from overfoaming as you pour it.) Be sure to shake out as much cold rinse water out of your glass. You are now ready to pour your beer.
IMPORTANT NOTES: Refrain from wearing cologne, perfume, scented body lotions, etc., while tasting beer as their aromas can interfere with the aromas of beer. Brush your teeth before tasting, and rinse your mouth out with lots of water to remove the taste of the toothpaste. Blow your nose, or even consider using a neti-pot (or something similar) to really open up your nasal passages- again rinse your mouth thoroughly afterward. And lastly, do not taste beer for the first time if you are sick, have a cold, etc.!
Generally speaking, beers that are lower in alcohol should be served at cooler temperatures than ones with higher ABV. The temperature ranges I like to serve at are 40°F – 57°F. Breweries that have a conscience for the consumer experience will state the optimum serving temperature range on the label. If taking your bottle or can directly out of the fridge, allow your beer to come to the proper serving temperature. HINT: Invest in a good digital bottle clip thermometer to eliminate the guesswork- you’ll be able to visually see when the time is right!
45 DEGREE POUR, OR STRAIGHT IN?
There are two ways to effectively pour canned or bottled beer into your glass. Properly pouring from a tap is another animal (do a search in YouTube- there are plenty of videos!)
THE 45 DEGREE POUR
Tilt your glass at a 45 degree angle, and gently pour the beer down the side of the glass. How fast you want to pour is based on how quickly the head is forming. You’ll want to shoot for (depending on the on the beer style and (more importantly) what brewery the beer is from) to end up with a 2-3 finger height head. As you can see in the video above, the ales from Unibroue are well known for producing big “collars” even in their high alcohol / high gravity beers!
THE STRAIGHT IN POUR
There are great exceptions to this method. And the only way to find that out when using the Straight In Pour method correctly, comes with lots of experience with pouring different styles of beer (some styles produce more foam than others). This takes some skill to pour it without it creating too much foam. If you do it right, you can get a 1-3 finger height head that holds in the aromas within the liquid and makes for a pleasurable tasting experience.
POURING AMOUNTS FOR TASTING FOR PURPOSE, NOT JUST DRINKING
If you use the glasses we are suggesting for tasting a beer for the first time, we recommend a 2-3 ounce pour with a 1-2 finger height. This amount of beer is just enough liquid to allow you to swirl the glass, releasing aromatics from the beer.
YEAST DUMP OR NOT?
Many of the the great Belgian ales are bottle conditioned and refermented with a small amount of yeast that settles to the bottom of the bottle. These are known as ‘living beers’ because they continue to develop complex flavors as they age in proper cellar temperatures. Not all Belgian beers are bottle conditioned however. I read conflicting advice from different Belgian beer writers on the subject doing the yeast dump. My opinion is try tasting the beer before and after. If you decide to do the yeast dump, be sure to save a small amount of liquid in the bottle to swirl it at the bottom to loosen up the sediment to pour it in your tasting glass.You find that with the yeast, the beer does take on a greater complexity in aroma and flavor.
EXAMINE THE APPEARANCE OF THE BEER IN THE INITIAL POUR
Beer is a beautiful beverage to look at and admire. HELPFUL TIP: You may wish to open up the BELGIAN BEER STYLES page in a separate browser tab to refer to the descriptions based on the Belgian beer style you are tasting.
Notice the color and density of the head. A characteristic you are looking for is looks like thick cream with even sized bubbles. Sometimes the bubbles will be large and small. Does the head leave even-sheeted lacing as you swirl the beer and as you taste it? Or does it leave (what we call patchy, spider-web looking lacing?) Both are signs of a high quality beer.
Again, you’ll want to refer to the BELGIAN BEER STYLES page to notice the color of the liquid. Is it clear, or is it cloudy or even murky? There are exceptions to this rule, but for the most part, our style descriptions will be a good guide to follow.
EXPERIENCE THE AROMAS OF THE BEER
SOMMELIER TRICK FROM ALAN KOZIOL – As you try the techniques listed below, stick your tongue to the roof of your mouth just behind your top front teeth and keep your mouth just open while doing it, but not too wide. This opens up the olfactory senses in a deeper and greater way.
The under chin method: Swirl your 2-3 ounce sample of beer for at least 5 seconds, and then pass the glass under your chin fairly rapidly, but not so fast to to spill your liquid out of your glass! While the glass passes under your chin, use Alan’s sommelier trick to breathe in the vapor trail.
The under nose method: Do the same swirling techniques / somm trick as in the under chin method, but this time pass the glass just under your nose.
The bloodhound technique: Swirl your glass, but this time your stick your nose directly into the glass, and take 3 quick sniffs of the aroma. This will restimulate your olfactory senses.
The deep 2-3 second sniff: Same swirl technique, but this time you’ll want to have your nose in the glass, using Alan’s somm technique and breathe in deep for 2-3 seconds. This really wakes up all the sensory nerves in your head!
The hand cover sniff: Swirl the beer, but this time your your free hand to cover the beer to trap in the aromatics. Make sure your hands are clean, and do not splash the beer on your hand while swirling! Then use the somm breathing technique, breathe in deep for 2-3 seconds.
Be sure to notice the differences with each aroma sampling technique, even before you take that first sip!
YOUR FIRST THREE SIPS
Each one of these sip methods awakens the zones on your tongue, oflactories and soft palate in a slightly different way.
First sip: Swirl the beer for a short time, and then take a small sip. Concentrate on the initial taste impression you get- sweet, sour, hoppy, spicy, etc. Make note of this.
Second sip: Take another small sip and gently aerate the beer in your mouth like you were sipping mom’s chicken soup! Do this for about 2 seconds. Higher carbonated beers will really tickle your mouth. The trick is to incorporate Alan’s somm trick while doing this… not easy, but worth learning how. Make note of the taste. Some tasters do this, others don’t.
Third sip: This sip will be a bit larger than the first two, but with extreme purpose. You’ll want to sip in slowly, allowing the liquid to coat your entire oral cavity (gums, tongue, soft palate). Let it sit there for about 3-4 seconds and then swallow. This intentional, third sip truly brings out the flavor components in the beer in a much deeper and complex way.
NOTE: After each of the first three sips, exhale through your nose. This wakes up the retronasal olfaction senses in your nostrils as the beer’s odor molecules pass by them. Try exhaling through your nostrils with a bit of liquid in your mouth… see what you think!
MOUTHFEEL OF THE BEER AFTER EACH OF THE FIRST THREE SIPS
Notice how the beer feels in your mouth after the first three sips. Each method creates a slightly different experience.
THE FINISH… THERE’S A REASON WHY THEY CALL IT THAT
Make note of the flavors and how they linger after swallowing. Is it bitter, sweet, or sour? Is the finish short or long lived?
OTHER NOTEWORTHY IMPRESSIONS
The aroma and flavor complexities of the very best beers improve as the liquid is exposed to the air and begins to warm up. The carbonation factor will soften a bit, but shouldn’t feel like the beer has gone flat. The worst ones tasted great in the beginning, but then just tasted uninspiring after sitting in the glass for a while. Everyone’s taste buds are different, you’ll have see for yourself.
Make note of all the aspects while evaluating your beer during these tasting steps. Think to yourself what cheeses, other cuisines you could pair with your beer. Once you’re done tasting, it’s time to pour yourself a proper full glass and get to the business of ‘drinking’ your beer!
Santé mes amis!
ADDITIONAL LEARNING RESOURCES