Brewing with the Aurochs: Tasting Beer (Part 1)

Sinatra once sang, “love and marriage… you can’t have one without the other.” So too is it with flavor and craft brews. You’d be hard pressed to find a craft beer lover that doesn’t believe that flavor is of critical importance in regards to beer. And while enjoying a good beer, I’m inclined to agree with them. Though there are many other ways to judge a beer (body, mouthfeel, color, alcohol content), the overall flavor of the beer is inarguably the most important factor.

Unless you’re talking about mass produced beer. In which case, the most important factor is…what are they calling it now? Drinkability? Whatever that means.

Anyway, craft beer fans believe that great taste and great beer are one and the same and to attempt to create a beer that’s short on taste is to infringe upon a God-given right to enjoy flavorful beer early, often and abundantly.

But why is it so important to understand the elements of taste as it relates to drinking beer?  Where does this “taste party” happen and who is hosting? How does taste work? Can it really enhance your ability to enjoy your favorite brew and encourage you to try something new and exciting? We will try to answer those questions and more in our next two posts, as we present an overview of a complex subject you can really sink your teeth into (couldn’t help myself)…

Taste vs Flavor

First, a quick note on the distinction between flavor and taste. Flavor is definite (by wikipedia anyway) as the “sensory impression of a food or other substance” and is actually a combination for two of the five senses: taste and smell. It’s a little-known fact that smell actually has a tremendous impact on the flavor of food. To keep things simple, we’ll be focusing specifically on taste and how it relates to beer. We’ll follow up with a post on aroma in a few weeks.

The Complexity and Purpose of Taste

The tasting experience is how your body gives food or drink the thumbs up or the thumbs down.  Its how you determine what you like, what characteristics you most enjoy and if it is good for you. Taste unlocks the complex history of whatever you’re consuming. It also offers insight into your own personal history – what you have been exposed to, your environment and your cultural experience. From an evolutionary standpoint, the primary purpose of taste is self-preservation, as it is intended as the first line of defense against spoiled or harmful foods.  It alerts the body if something is has a nutritional value or if it is dangerous for consumption based solely on its taste characteristics. Thankfully today most of us are able to enjoy our sense of taste more recreationally–say, by sampling beer.

When it comes to beer, the ability to understand how you taste and what you taste reveals the map that brewers and maltsters used to create your beer. Each ingredient – water, malt, hops, adjuncts – and each decision – hop schedule, protein rest, fermentation temperature – impacts the final product and made deliberately in the hopes of a specific outcome, often regarding or impacting taste. As a consumer of beer, knowing what you’re tasting helps you reverse engineer the brewing process and allows you to appreciate each decision made and ingredient chosen.

Wow, that’s went fast! We barely got through the introduction. Okay, in our next post, we’ll dive deeper into this topic and discuss the science of taste and how this specifically relates to the brewing process.

In the meantime, go drink some beer!