The bitter taste of..... beer!

Hello everyone, and welcome back to the blog! It’s been a memorable winter, mostly because it never arrived, and we now have early summer instead of spring. Summer is definitely one of my top four seasons in which to drink beer, so the arrival of warm days and long evenings has also spurred me into making sure that my fridge is well stocked with bottles of my favourite tipple.

My wife asked me a few weeks ago why I never take her on a guided tour of the different beer styles of the world, and she had a point. We’ve been cycling around Germany several times, visiting dozens of lovely breweries in the process, but there are many beer styles that are hard to come by in Germany which are also worth sampling. Furthermore, by sampling them all as part of one guided tour, perhaps she would learn to appreciate the differences between them, and appreciate the vast variety of styles and tastes a bit more.

As a direct result of this, I wasted no time in waiting a few weeks before finally getting around to inviting a couple of friends over for a big tasting party. I originally had this concept that I’d order in beers from various online beer stores to get a real global selection, but of course the weather was too nice and I left it too late. So, instead, I cycled to the local super-supermarket, the one where they have more beer than you can poke a shaky stick at, whatever that means, and proceeded to buy a decent selection.

I wanted to mix a few typical German beer styles with a couple of typical non-German ones. I quickly chose the former: a Pilsner, a Märzen, a Munich Helles, a Munich Dunkles, a Doppelbock,a Kölsch, a Bock, a Schwarzbier and a Zwickl. That clearly leaves out a dozen or so styles from this country, but I figured there will be other occasions. The international selection wasn’t great, but I was able to find a lambic – an Oude Geuze from Boon no less – as well as an American-style Pale Ale. That meant that we had 11 different ones to drink our way through.

The concept for the evening was straightforward: the participants did not know which beer was served, but they got a list of all the beers with tasting notes from the RateBeer web site. The challenge was then to try and identify the beer on the basis of colour, nose, palate, mouthfeel and luck.

These tasting notes you find online are actually quite interesting. Not seldom do you see people describing beers using phrases like “freshly mown grass”, “old leather”, “not quite ripe raspberries” or “hints of a 15-year old single malt whisky”. Personally, I divide beer tastes into three categories: “malty”, “hoppy” and “yeasty”, which nicely corresponds to three of the four main ingredients in beer (I also use the last ingredient, water, to describe beers sometimes, but usually not in a positive context). Anyway, this didn’t help the participants of the evening very much, so I was forced to elaborate by claiming that malty is a bit like biscuit-y or bready, hoppy a bit like spicy, and yeasty a bit like flowery or fruity. As you can tell, I’m not very good at this myself.

The sheet with tasting notes and a handy pen
Nevertheless, as the evening progressed, it became quite clear that the taste buds had been sharpened, because one beer after another was correctly identified, at least by a majority of the participants. It turns out that individual tastes and colour perceptions vary, so there was considerable discussion and a couple of minor fist fights, but all in all an impressive amount of correct answers were given. Interesting was also the favourite beers of the group – the clear winner was the Belgian Lambic, which considering its sour taste is not one that usually wins out amongst people used to “normal” beer. The clear losers were the bitterest of the beers – the Pilsner and the American Pale Ale in particular.

The winning beer was a bit of a surprise
At the end of the evening, I was challenged to do a blind taste where I was not allowed to even see the beer before drinking it, and although I correctly identified the American Pale Ale, I managed to mistake the Munich Dunkles for a Pilsner. Yes, you read correctly. Even I, the taster of a thousand beers (and some), can make such elementary mistakes. It turns out the science of tasting is heavily influenced by sight, smell, mouthfeel, mood, and, last but not least, how drunk you are. Oh well, better luck next time.

The take-home message from the blog post is: try something new! If you regularly choose to stock up your fridge with the same “safe” selection, you’re missing out on some amazing taste experiences that you probably never knew existed. Even if you think that you don’t like beer very much, perhaps it’s simply because you have never tried the type of beer that suits your particular palate. With online beer shops sprouting up everywhere and beer selection improving in almost every supermarket, you’ll be spoilt for choice unless you live in some beer-forsaken place like Iran. Then, after you’ve stocked up, do a little research on the internet, invite a few friends over and try to taste the beer whilst having fun drinking it. A competitive element like blind tasting adds to the fun, as does having the next day off work.

In conclusion, I've learned a few things about beer. First and foremost, I've reconfirmed that I like pretty much every style of beer on the market. Then, I have observed that people who don't count themselves as particularly into beer can still enjoy drinking it. Finally, I have learned that it's not always easy to know one's arse from one's elbow, even though you perhaps thought you had those body parts figured out years ago. On this happy note I shall say a very merry night to you all - and may your fridges forever be well stocked. Terviseks!