Part 4 – Pouring and Appreciation
I struggled for a long time to find an appropriate title for this post, and while I think I ultimately failed, this is about the most accurate I could muster. One of the problems with writing about, thinking about, and enjoying craft beer is that you’ll inevitably cross the threshold of quirky geek knowledge into douchey snob intellectualism in the eyes of your peers. To say that people need lessons on pouring and appreciating their beer plants me firmly in the latter camp, but I hope I can explain away a bit of the sour taste you no doubt have after reading my title.
Pouring and appreciating beer is nothing more than the kinetic evolution of a beer drinker’s potential energy. As you learn more about beer and the brewing process, you will, at some point, understand how varied and interesting beer can be. It seems simple, then, that not all beers can be tasted and assessed the same way. You wouldn’t take a Prius to the racetrack to test its quarter-mile, just like you wouldn’t complain that the Bugatti Veyron doesn’t get great gas mileage. Those are hyperbolic examples, but they make my point. That said, I apologize if any of this sounds patronizing, because parts of it likely will. If you’re wondering why I even write things like “hold the bottle at the shoulder,” then you’ve never seen a truly novice drinker attempt to open a bottle-fermented beer. It’s not pretty, and you can bet at least 50 percent of the room will become a beer-soaked casualty of shaky hands.
The pour starts by opening the bottle (shocking!). Grip it firmly at the shoulder – the rounded part near the neck – and pop the top. This isn’t a big deal for most beers, but when you start to explore some high gravity, bottle-fermented ales, you’ll see just how temperamental a beer can be. Tilt the nose of the bottle into the center of the glass, forming a small head before angling the glass toward your bottle and pouring into the beer, close to the side of the glass. When possible, it’s best to avoid pouring the beer down the side of the glass. You want a bit of head, and most beers allow you to pour fairly vigorously before they overflow. Again, every beer is different, so some will require a more careful pour than others. The more your pour into the center of your glass, the more head you’ll encourage. If the head starts to get out of control, pour slowly toward the side of your glass until it balances out.
The purpose of a good pour is to activate the carbonation in your beer and produce a solid head. This will give you a nice bouquet, which is the aroma generated by your beer. As the bubbles in the head pop, they’ll release the unique scent that the combination of malt, hops, and yeast produce in your brew.
Some beers are best served in a glass that augments the natural qualities of the beer. Perhaps the most common example is Duvel, but you’ve probably seen special glassware for beers like Stella Artois, Leffe, and Sam Adams Boston Lager, too. The glassware certainly isn’t necessary to enjoy the beer, it can enhance the tasting experience. In the case of Duvel, the large bowl and fluted neck allow the beer to have large surface area and sustain a 3-inch head, even as you tilt the glass to your lips. The Stella glass aims the beer at the appropriate area of your tongue to enhance the crisp hop flavor. For those specialty beers, check with the brewery for pouring instructions. A-B InBev has instructions for pouring its specialty brews in the iLoveBeer iPhone app (iTunes Link).
This is the simple part of enjoying a beer - you drink it! As far as tasting goes, there are very few rules. Whether you’re pairing it with food or just sampling some new stuff in front of a fire, tasting beer is always easy. Taste is subjective, so you can never really be wrong about what sticks out in your beer. Not everyone will agree with you, but if you taste hot garbage, well, so be it. I’ve always described Cantillon’s Iris lambic as having a distinct gym sock finish, but Fuller’s London Porter tastes like burnt caramel. Your descriptions will run the gamut, and if you keep a little tasting notebook, you’ll start to see trends in your own taste and be able to choose new beers accordingly.
There are a couple things to think on when tasting. First, you’ll stick your nose in the glass to get a whiff of the bouquet. Again, keep your descriptions simple. It doesn’t have to smell like fresh holly on the fourth day of winter. Pine trees, frost, vomit, biscuits – these are all perfectly acceptable nouns to describe the aroma your beer produces. Next, your tongue essentially tastes sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, so there’s no need to get crazy. The sweetness of a beer comes from residual sugar in the malt, while bitterness comes from the hop. The other flavors will be present in different beers for different reasons. Sometimes it’s the yeast strain, sometimes the length of fermentation. Focus on the taste to start and worry about the reason later. Lastly, think about the mouthfeel and body of the beer. Is it too foamy as you drink it? Do you feel like you’ll fall through the floor after half a glass? These things affect the quality of a beer as much as taste, and you’ll start to develop a preference for different qualities.
The most important part of tasting, though, is that you drink beer and enjoy it. Invite some friends over for a tasting party. Hit your local brewpub for a tour. Head down to your local beer store and grab something you’ve never seen before, and check back here next week to read about pairing beer with food. If you’ve missed one of our Beer 101 series, you can find them on this blog by checking out the Beer 101 tag. Also, don’t forget to visit the beer section of the Bullz-Eye mainsite. Cheers!