Active Tasting — A Guide to Expanding Your Palate

At the bar the other night, I sat down with a friend for a beer after work. I ordered something new on tap that I’ve never had before and they ordered the usual. Upon the beer coming to the table, I proceeded to do what I’m most familiar with new beers — I assessed the color, clarity, aroma and wait… my friend was already halfway done with hers! “Just drink it” she says. “It tastes good.”

This brought to mind the question… are we over-thinking beer? Have we gone too far with trying to learn and engage with this product that we’ve actually taken the joy out of it? It’s a valid question. I’ve had multiple conversations with some of my craft-beer focused friends that devolved into conversations about yeast, bacteria, barley, and historical brewing techniques. In essence, getting together to have a beer and talk about life has turned into getting together to have a beer and talk about that beer.  So are we over-thinking beer? Have we taken the joy out of it?  My short answer is No.

There is a time and a place for analyzing and scrutinizing beers and there is another time and place for just drinking and not giving it much thought. The reason that we analyze and frequently over-analyze these beers is that we are actually getting acquainted with our own perception as much as we are with the liquid in our glass.  I call this process “Active Tasting.” You can drink a beer and simply enjoy it, acknowledging it as good or you can delve into it and find the subtleties of the brew. The cool thing is that after practicing this for a while, your palate will get more familiar with flavors and create stronger connections to your brain, allowing you to taste these subtleties with ease.

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte
Georges Seurat – 1884

Think of it this way — we all remember Georges Seurat’s painting “Sunday Afternoon,” which is a classical example of pointillism. From 40 feet away, it is a beautiful picture, but upon someone telling you it’s all made using dots and not strokes, you get closer to see the details. With closer inspection, the blurred picture from far away reveals thousands of tiny points, each with small variation in color and size, creating a life-like scene with shadows and highlights that truly took a master to create. Now imagine that painting was a glass of beer and you could get closer to it to catch those details.

So how do we do it?

A Guide to Expanding Your Palate

Have you ever had some food that reminded you of something else you had, but you couldn’t quite put your finger on it? That’s what we are trying to do here. Your tongue already tastes every one of these flavors. You just don’t make the connections to your brain to tell you what you’re tasting.

Step 1 – Avoid aromas or activities that affect your palate before active tasting. This includes smoking, chewing gum, brushing your teeth, putting on perfume, etc.

Step 2 – Smell it first! A majority of tasting is smell, so go right to the source. The best way to assess the aroma of a beer is to take a few, quick sniffs instead of long ones. Take it in. Think about what you smell and give it time to settle in before drinking

Step 3 – Drink your beer! Take a sip. Let it process. You’ll want to take a minute to let your palate get acclimated to this burst of flavor coming forth. Assess the flavors and take note of what you get.  Pay special attention to the timing and the duration.  What flavors did you get first? And which ones lingered around after you drank it?  Usually the second sip is more insightful than the first.

Step 4 – Descriptive words. This is the important part! Let’s head back to our high school English classes for a minute. Pretend you’re writing a best-selling novel and you have to tell the reader what you’re tasting before they can create that sensory experience. When you describe a beer, be as descriptive as possible.

For example: “Fruity” can mean many things. Instead of saying “fruity,” find out what fruit it is that you’re tasting. Is it mango, peach, plum, raspberry, fig, raisin, date? These words all evoke different cognitive experiences.  Instead of hoppy, try “spicy,” “citrusy,” or “herbal”. And instead of “sweet,” try “honey,” “brown sugar,” “chocolate,” or “caramel.”  These are just some of the thousands of words you can use to describe a beer.  What does it taste like to you?  What foods does it remind you of?  Don’t be afraid to relate it to memories of people, locations, activities, or whatever else comes up. The important thing is that you’ve made a connection with that flavor.

Step 5 – Write it down. Many studies have shown that the act of writing something down helps solidify it in your memory. I’m not saying that you are going to remember in a year’s time that your Victory Prima Pils tasted like “lightly-toasted honey,” but when you come across the same flavor profile, you’ll have that experience already logged in your memory and have the vocabulary necessary for describing that experience to yourself and to others.

After lots of practice with active tasting, you will train your palate to pick up on those subtleties and you will notice that you can do it without thinking too hard about it. You will appreciate the beer more, even when you’re just drinking at a backyard BBQ. This will inevitably help to develop your appreciation for wine and food as well. So taste your beers — they’re delicious!

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About the author

Sean is a Certified Cicerone® and restaurant consultant with the Better Beer Society. He has an expansive knowledge of beer styles, history, and pairings and advocates for support of local craft brewers. Follow Sean on twitter: @TCBeerDude for no reason at all!