Brewer: David Berg
Brewery: Water Tower Brewing Co., Eden Prairie, Minn.
Years of experience: 1.5
Education: American Brewers Guild
House Beers: Eden Mill Gold, Pappy’s Brown Porter, Old Tower Amber, Flying Horse Pale Ale, Pergatory Creek Stout
Each of your senses affects the others, so the order in which you evaluate beer is important. Use a concave glass, which holds more volatiles (gases). The first step is visual. Look to see if the color is the way you want it. Then smell it. Before taking a sip, take a big whiff because once you taste it your sense of smell loses some sensitivity.
When you finally taste the beer make sure it is at serving temperature. Also, testing is best done early in the day before you’ve deadened your taste buds with coffee or spiced foods. Don’t be afraid to drink the beer instead of just swishing it in your mouth like you would wine. The alcohol content is not as high as in wine, so you won’t need to worry about overdoing it. Also, taste buds near the back of your tongue detect bitterness, so if you just swish, you may miss this perception. When you drink the beer you can detect any bitterness, whether intended or not. Just like with wine clear your palate with water or crackers between beers and move from light to dark. Don’t drink a stout first or your golden ale won’t taste like anything.
An important part of evaluating is checking for off-flavors. The lighter the beer the more you can detect off-flavors because the beer is not powerful enough to hide anything, but we taste all the beers. There are borderline off-flavors. A prime example would be diacetyl, a buttery flavor. Some people actually love it and some hate it. I happen to be one who hates it. But the yeast I use kind of gives all of our beers that character. I do what I can to control it, but my threshold for that taste is so low that I could allow more of it and people might not notice or might even like it better.
Diacetyl and other flavors don’t always show up right away. So evaluating your beer not only during the process but immediately after and even after that is important. In homebrewing, for example, after a few weeks your beer might suddenly start going sour. It could mean you had contamination that didn’t show up right away. Now the bacteria’s reached a point where you can taste the byproducts. Evaluating at all stages helps track what you’re doing.
As far as what to look for beyond off-flavors, criteria differs among brewers. Everyone draws the line somewhere between staying true to style and making something unique. My line is closer to “It’s my beer and I’ll brew it how I want it.” For example we have a brown porter on tap, which is not that common but is becoming more so. Brown porter is an example of the way beers used to be made. Most porters today use black malt. But when porters were first around there was no such thing as black malt. Brewers didn’t have the roasting capabilities to make it. They used brown malt, which is a lighter kilned malt. Now people are very much of the opinion that a beer is not a porter unless it has black malt in it.
Our porter is lighter in color. It’s a dark mahogany instead of black. It’s also not opaque like a classical one; you can see red through it. And it doesn’t have that acrid bitterness from black malt. It’s a lot more chocolatey. We’ve changed it over time to our liking. You taste, cut down a little here, and add some there, like cooking.
Another example of how evaluating is subject to opinion is when people say adding Munich malt to an English pale ale makes a beer untrue to style. That may be true. But I was always taught that the people who created and tasted these styles are dead. The frustrating thing about following style as if it were dogma is it limits you. If, for instance, Sierra Nevada had decided to make a pale ale but chose not to include Cascade hops because they weren’t true to style, we wouldn’t have Sierra Nevada Pale Ale today. If you’re always strictly adhering to styles that somebody came up with, you’ll never invent a new beer.
• Smell before you taste. You can better detect aroma before tasting.
• Taste beer in the morning before you eat or drink anything.
• Taste lighter-tasting beers first, then darker ones. Clear your palate between beers.
• Continue tasting your beers even after you serve the first one. They evolve.