Thursday, June 21, 2012

Introducing: Dharma of the Draft - Crash Course in Tasting Beer, and a Sample Review of Sneaky Pete Imperial IPA

Just as I promised months ago, I'm about to start expanding the scope of this blog from fly fishing, fly tying, and include another field of interest: beer.

No, I'm not talking about pounding down Coors Light all day, or beer-bonging Natty like a frat boy.  I'm talking about taking an intelligent, thoughtful, adventurous approach to trying new and different beers, and sharing the experience with other beer lovers/beer snobs/beer nerds.  Recently, it seems there's a connection between craft beer and fly fishing emerging.  Maybe it's the younger crowd, maybe it's the independent spirit, maybe its a sort of counter-culture vibe, but there's no denying the overlap of beer snobs and fly fishers.

Before I just dive right into a beer review, though, I thought it might be nice to explain where I'm coming from, why I do this, why you might care, and how to rate/review a beer yourself.  Whether you've always been interested in craft beer, but suck at putting words to a taste beyond "good" and "bad", or maybe you just don't want to look like the odd man out the next time you go with the guys to a 'beer bar', either way, I hope to teach a little something with these reviews; maybe not with each and every one, but often enough to keep it fresh.


Before we progress ANY further, I want to nip in the bud any would-be pedants or ne'er-do-wells that might say something like, "Well who died and made YOU beer god?!"  I'm by no means a beer expert, and I do not wish to pass myself off as such.  Rather, I'm simply someone who enjoys the experience and complexity that the world of craft beer offers, and I like to communicate and share among others that share this interest.  

On that note, just about 100% of the content of my beer reviews, beyond the statistics of the beer (name, brewer, serving type, style, ABV, IBU, etc.) is all subjective opinion.  I have very little formal training in beer tasting (though I DO have a small amount), and I am not a certified Beer Judge.  I'm an enthusiast with SOME knowledge of the styles, history, chemistry, processes, and flavor profiling of beer.

So take my reviews at face value.  To be blunt, it's something I do for me, not anyone else, so if you don't like them, don't read them (they'll be clearly labelled when I post them).  That being said, if you are a beer nerd and you don't like them for ANY reason, by all means, let me know why in the comments!

My Background

As I said, I'm not a certified beer judge, nor am I a full time professional beer taster.  I don't feel that any of that expert-level qualifications should be necessary to share one's thoughts on ANY subject, and beer is no exception.  To that end, I encourage ALL of my readers to chime in whenever they like.

With this being said, it is worth mentioning that, as a part of my full-time job at a brewery, I am a member of our taste panel for quality control, so yes, I do get paid to drink beer at work, and I have had training.  I'm far from certified, but I can taste the difference between isohumulones and dimethyl sulfide, and I know what causes each one, and whether they belong in the flavor profile of whatever style I'm drinking.  While I'm no pro, that should count for something, right?

You may think that without that kind of knowledge, your untrained palate is useless, but you're wrong.  If you want to describe flavors, the single biggest roadblock is your own brain, overthinking the experience.  When I can't pinpoint a specific flavor, I compare it to flavors I do know in my description.  I even do this at work in formal panels, and I've described such odd descriptions as "lemonheads candy", "wet, dirty gym socks", and "old wood shed by the ocean" to describe flavors I've encountered in beers.  Communication is the key, and if a stupid description gets your point understood by others, then it's not stupid.

If you need help, the two biggest aids you can pick up and use from day one are the beer flavor wheel and the BJCP Style Guidelines, linked here.

Finally, you must understand that tasting is, by its very nature, a subjective experience.  Two people can taste a beer from the same pour, in the same glass, and have very different descriptions and flavors.  It happens.  Just be honest with yourself, and you'll be surprised what you might learn from it.


If the only thing you care about with any beer is a simple Love It/Hate It decision, then tasting as an activity isn't necessary.  You don't need a flavor description to know if you like something, you know this from the moment it hits your tongue.  What we're after is something a bit deeper: an accurate description of the experience of drinking the beer.

To get more specific than a completely subjective thumb up or down, you must have some sort of baseline to measure up against.  This is where your beer styles and flavor profiles come into play.  In the BJCP Style Guidelines I linked above, you'll find descriptions of nearly every style of beer in the world.  This is your roadmap to what makes a good beer good, beyond whether or not you like it.  This alone is a key distinction that many miss: knowing whether you don't like That Beer because it has a localized problem, because you just don't like That Beer's style, or because That Beer is just a poor example of it's style.

The first issue, a localized problem, is identified as a beer fault.  An off-flavor such as skunkiness is a great example.  Most people are familiar with this one and intuitively understand that just because one beer is skunked doesn't mean the entire brand tastes like that.  Unfortunately, they often fail to apply this experience on a wider scale.

The second issue, that of the taster not liking the style, obviously requires some pre-existing knowledge of that style.  A guy who's only ever drank American Light Lagers cannot tell if he despises Stone IPA because he specifically doesn't like Stone IPA or because he doesn't like IPAs in general.  He just doesn't have the background.  Doesn't make him stupid or any less of a taster, he just lacks knowledge, but the great part about that is that you can always gain knowledge (and in this field, it's lots of fun!).

The final issue, of a beer being a poor representative of its style, is a genuine, legitimate, objective issue, when agreed upon by a majority of tasters.  This is the level you want to get to.  When you can taste a beer you don't like, and you can say with a degree of certainty, "This is bad for a Witbier.", or "I don't like this...but then again, it's a Doppelbock, and I generally don't prefer them anyway.", instead of, "Ew, this sucks!"


First and foremost, you must write.  You also must write as it happens.  You need to physically have your pen and paper there, with you, and be writing as you consume the first few sips of beer.  This is because of a few key points.  First, your taste buds will become accustomed to the flavors in the beer within the first 1/4 of the bottle, dulling your perception of its subtleties.  Second, there's no way you can be as accurate in recall of subtle tastes the next day, writing from memory.  Third, smell and taste are closely related.  Much as your taste buds are dulled to taste, smelling a beer for long will numb your sensitivity to those smells  So please, write it as you taste.

For beer evaluation, I follow the ASTMA procedure.  That is: Appearance, Smell, Taste, Mouthfeel, Aftertaste.  These are all fiarly self-explanatory except for, possibly, mouthfeel, which is simply an account of the non-taste sensations in the mouth.  Any harshness or smoothness is to be noted here, as well as a warming sensation from a high alcohol content, excessive carbonation or flatness, and other 'texture' descriptions.  Record your ASTMA descriptions in order.  Appearance first, and the rest as they follow.  This is to avoid cross-sensory impact as much as possible.  For example, a thick, sweet, heavy ale might appear darker than it really is, once you've tasted it.  More likely, a sour beer may not smell sour until after you've tasted it.

Within each heading, be sure to touch on a few key points.  For example, for appearance, be sure to comment on color and haze (or lack thereof) on every beer.  You may comment on the head and lacing if you wish, as well, though this has as much to do with the glassware, and the washing methods as it does the beer.

On that note, it is worth noting the details surrounding the tasting, right in your review.  Though I don't always do this, many include information such as the beer name (duh), the brewer, the date, the bottled-on date, the ABV, IBUs, serving sytle, glassware, location of purchase or consumption, even what they'd eaten or drank prior, if it might affect perception.

Finally, keep in mind the personal bias I've touched upon a few times here already.  If you don't like oatmeal stouts and that's what you're reviewing, you're going to perceive more negatives than if you loved the style.  It's natural. While it's important to keep this in mind while tasting, you shouldn't try to falsely adjust your report to counter the bias.  Rather, you should simply note it for what it is and move on with your honest opinions.

Sample Beer Review

Now let me share an example of a typical review for a beer.  I've got a bottle chilling in the fridge at the moment, and I'll evaluate it and type my review as I go, explaining things as I see an opportunity.

Sneaky Pete Imperial IPA (Laughing Dog) Beer Name (Brewer)
Serving type: Bottle, poured into water glass.  (It's what I had on hand.  In a bar, you may have pint, tulip, or pilsner glass.)

Appearance: Dark amber/Light brown, translucent, with heavy haze to the point of opacity.  Thin, off-white head.

Smell: Sweet citrus, toasted carmel malt.  Tip: your sense of smell will de-sensetize faster than your taste buds.  Learn as much as you can from the first two sniffs.  If you need another crack at it, smell something else for a while then go back.  Some smell the back of their hand, coffee beans, etc.

Taste: Front end is sweet, almost cloying, and very malty.  Caramel, cookie, and dark fruit, with a dry, crisping hop in the background.  Eventually, the strong hop profile dominates, with powerful citrus, and herbal bitterness mixing with, though never completely displacing the malt flavors and sweetness.

Admittedly, this is a big, bold, complex beer, and maybe a bad first example.  Still, it shows just how complex one beer can be, and this isn't even a terrible good example of complexity.  Try a Belgian Quad, or a smoked Rauchbier for a flavor conflict!  We'll do a simple one soon, I promise.

Mouthfeel: Aggressive carbonation carries the malt flavors and sweetness over the other flavors, but as the carbonation dissipates, both the intense hop profile and alcohol warmth and slickness from a high 10% ABV make their presence known.  Still, with all these big flavors, the alcohol serves as a flavor blender as well, mixing the sweet and the bitter, without any sort of layering beyond what the carbonation offers.  A heavy beer that doesn't mask it's ABV well, if at all, though as an Imperial, that may not be an objective.  Very slightly astringent, but also very slightly cloying with the aftertaste.

This is an aspect you'll develop a knack for describing as you do it.  Many first time reviewers tend to label a big alcohol presence as 'harsh', and sometimes that's exactly what it is, but more often, it's the warmth and slickness of mouthfeel that they're experiencing.

Aftertaste: Lingering sweetness and a slight hop bitter, with the slight astringency and cloying sensation.

Overall: In the interests of full disclosure I've tried (and reviewed) this beer before.  I decided to revisit it for two reasons, first to provide a good test subject for this post, and secondly, to see how an extra month of aging affected the taste.  As I guessed, it's sweeter, with a diminished hop profile, but I never imagined just how much sweeter.  At this point, it almost doesn't fit the bill of an imperial ipa.

The sweetness is nearly overpowering and it affects all aspects of the beer, making it a bit of a chore to finish 12 oz.   That being said, the flavors are still bright and identifiable, it's just a different animal than it was before Memorial Day.


The Overall par tis just my catch-all for my thoughts and any peculiarities that may not hav ebeen noted/stressed in the ASTMA headings.  Finally, I give it a wholly subjective rating on a scale of 1 to 10.

And that's your review!

Look for more beer reviews in the future here, and feel free to refer back to this post if you like.

Questions, reactions, comments, denouncing chastisement?  Leave it in the comments here!


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