Friday, October 2, 2009

Tasting Beer 1

Tasting beer:
Yup, tasting beer guidelines. I know, it seems easy; just open your mouth, pour in beer, close mouth (usually), swallow. Repeat. That’s the essence of drinking beer, but not tasting it. In some cases that’s good--as there are beers that may taste bad to you...but drink them anyway. Yet there are so many beers, beer styles, and beer extras (like pairing with food) that may go by your wayside if you do not know at least the basics of tasting beer. Wine is associated with ‘tasting’ a lot, and rightfully so. Wine has unique characteristics and is highly influenced by geological variables. Beer, too, has unique characteristics and covers a wider range of tastes. For these reasons, it requires a fine-tuned palate to appreciate and enjoy them. In no way will my guidelines make you a Master Cicerone (equivalent to Master Sommelier), or magically equip you with the palate that can pick out even the most subtle flavors in various beers. I’ll give you the first step(s), and you can go from there. So here we go:

The Tongue: Ewww…it’s gross. Slimy, wiggly and bumpy. But of course the tongue holds the receptors for taste (along with the olfactory system). Have you ever noticed some flavors gather around the side of the tongue? Perhaps there are some foods that give a tingle on the front/top of the tongue. Wonder why? Let’s understand the basics of the tongue first.

The common ‘tongue-flavor’ map is inaccurate. You know the one, sweet, salty, sour, bitter lined up nicely in a row down the tongue. Its has been disproven. So as not to get too scientific and complex with this issue, it is just enough to know that flavor relies on three factors; taste, smell, chemical irritation. That is, taste of the food/drink/whatever, its aroma, and chemicals such as those that are spicy, cooling, etc. Tastes center around the six (yes 6) taste-sensitive regions of the tongue. These are listed below. It is important to note that while the tongue has these six essential regions the olfactory system can detect about 10,000 aromas. The nasal passage is important to tasting beer and we’ll get to that later. The combination of these facial adjuncts (tongue and nose) affects the way we taste.
Six Regions of the Tongue:
• Salty (detection of sodium ions)
• Sweet (basic indicator that food is present)
• Sour (acidic detection)
• Bitter (usually an indicator that food is bad; but humans have ‘adjusted’)
• Umami (Japanese for “deliciousness”, savory and meaty quality)
• Fat (although beer has no fat, it is the most recently discovered taste)

Taste regions are not concentrated as the old tongue map indicates, and are spread out throughout the tongue. To be sure, more sections have more receptors for one or another taste, but it is important to know that all taste receptors are all over the tongue (hint: why it’s important to ‘swish’ your beer). The common method used to drink a beer is a quick inhale where the liquid is rushed over the top of the tongue, missing the very front and the sides, and is swallowed without much olfactory interaction. Most of the liquid hits the back of the tongue where lay a concentration of bitterness receptors. Perhaps a good way to drink some low flavor beer, but not good for most others.

Another common practice is drinking very cold beer. Again, good for some beers, not for many. Coldness actually suppresses imperfections and certain characteristics in beer (and wine). The poorer the quality of beer, the colder you should drink it (wine too). Chilling an English Stout, however, really minimizes the flavors it provides. This is not to say that all beer should be served at room temperature. Each beer style has its own serving temperature. More on that later.

Obviously the tongue plays an important role in tasting, duh. Knowing a bit more as to how it works will help you understand the many flavors beer offers, when they are presented during drinking, and what certain sensations mean as it relates to the characteristics of the beer.
Next will be the basic flavors found in beer.
Any questions or comments are welcome.

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