The “How to taste beer” series explores the four steps of the beer tasting process and what each step can tell us about beer’s flavour and texture. New to the series? Start here.
It’s time to learn how to assess a beer’s aroma. Why is this an important step in the beer tasting process?
Because flavour is actually a combination of aroma plus taste. We only have 5 basic tastes, but we can pick up on thousands of different aromas. Together they give us flavour.
Before we get started, I’ve got a quick word to say on glassware. I always recommend using a stemmed glass that’s easy to swirl, like a wine glass.
Why? Aroma molecules are detected in air. By swirling our glass, this helps the bubbles to rise up and out of your beer, bringing the aroma molecules with them. Make sure you only fill the glass about 1/3 of the way full, as that leaves plenty of room in the glass to experience the aromas.
There are actually 5 different techniques that beer professionals can use to assess the aroma of a beer and each technique allows us to pick up on slightly different aromatics.
Why not grab a glass and give them all a go? (Check out the above video for a visual, if that helps!)
First up is the distant sniff.
Hold your glass about 6-8 inches (15-20 cm) under your nose, give it a swirl, and take one to two short sniffs.
This technique is best for more volatile aromas, meaning compounds that disappear very quickly, or aromas that are very powerful or overwhelming.
For those compounds, if we bring the glass too close to our nose, we’ll get oversaturated and won’t be able to detect the compound. But, at a distance, it remains detectable.
Drive by sniff
Now, let’s try the drive by.
Swirl your glass, then slowly pass it across your face, underneath your nose taking a few short sniffs as the glass passes by.
This technique also helps detect those volatile aromas that dissipate quickly.
Next is the basic short sniff.
As it sounds, give the glass a swirl, bring it to your nose and take one to two short, quick sniffs.
This is likely the most natural technique.
With the long sniff, as it sounds, give the glass a swirl, bring it to your nose and take one long sniff, around 2 seconds.
This is a longer, deeper sniff that helps increase the intensity of the aromas we’re picking up.
And finally, the covered sniff.
This technique is helpful if you’re having a hard time getting much aroma from your beer. Why? More bubbles come out of solution as the liquid warms, bringing those aroma compounds with them.
To warm your beer and concentrate the aromas in your glass, try covering your glass with your hand while swirling for 3-5 seconds, then bring the covered glass up to your nose, uncover, and take one or two short sniffs.
Yes, you may look a little strange if you try each of these techniques on your next brewery or pub visit. They’re more often used when judging beer at a competition or when you’re beer during a blind tasting on an exam, for example.
Even though you may not use them all the time, they’re fun techniques to try to help you learn the many ways we can experience aroma. Plus, they’re great tools to have in your toolbox.
Again it’s worth mentioning that our flavour perceptions vary greatly as individuals – not only because of our biology, but because of the ingredients and cuisines we’re regularly exposed to.
We also have a hard time tying together what we’re smelling or tasting with the words to describe it, as our brains are not wired to make those connections. Aroma signals are processed by the emotion and memory centres of the brain, not the higher thinking centres of the brain responsible for vocabulary.
When you’re first getting started, think back to the things that you eat and drink regularly or try using a tool like a flavour wheel, as it acts as a really helpful bank of words to choose from as you’re building your own flavour vocabulary.
And much like honing any new skill, practice helps.
Just one last note on aroma… we can’t smell tastes.
For example, we can’t smell sweetness or bitterness, we can only taste them. If you do think you’re picking up on those tastes, what you’re likely smelling are the aromas often associated with those tastes – like vanilla or ripe strawberries with sweetness or tonic water with bitterness.
Because – as I mentioned earlier – aroma plus taste is what gives us flavour.
Next, let’s move on to Step 3 to taste our beer (finally!)