Being alive right now is great: there’s a real-life hoverboard, Game of Thrones just had its best season in years, and really outstanding beer is more accessible than ever. While you probably won’t be McFlying through Hill Valley just yet and have to wait until next spring for more adventures in the Seven Kingdoms, chances are you could have a world-class beer within the next hour if you live in the developed world (Note: states with vestigial alcohol laws from Prohibition and dry counties are not the developed world). Consider the following situation: you’ve been given a $25 gift certificate to a wine store with a decent beer selection and it’s about to expire tomorrow. So you grab a friend, go to the store, and plan to pick out an IPA and Imperial Stout respectively. After some browsing, you decide on Firestone Walker’s excellent Double Jack (which is luckily on sale) and your friend selects this year’s vintage of The Abyss from Deschutes, which both of you have heard great things about, but never tried. You go home, grab some frosty pint glasses out of the freezer that you stole from a pizza place back in college on Pint Night, and pour in your beers to try. The moment finally arrives and, after clinking glasses, you each take a big sip… and the beers are severely disappointing.
So what happened? Did Firestone Walker AND Deschutes, larger breweries with trained quality control departments, both happen to release bad batches of their beers? It’s possible. It’s also unlikely. A closer look at the events leading up to your taste shows that is much more likely to be a series of errors, mostly your own, that caused the beer to be found wanting. Sorry. Let’s go through step by step to see what went wrong and how to fix it.
It’s great that the Double Jack was on sale, but the reason behind the discount does not bode well for its flavor. You double check your Double Jack double IPA and it is within a week of its “Enjoy By” date. The wine shop isn’t supposed to sell it past that, so they lowered the price to move it quickly. Unfortunately, your beer is now three months old and the burst of fresh, citrusy hops that you crave has now turned into a generic, murky bitter flavor. And your friend, whose face recoils after his sip as if he just took a shot of bourbon, is experiencing the opposite problem. His beer tastes “hot” and boozy because it is: a brand new batch of a high-alcohol beer, especially one aged in spirit barrels, has a lot of alcohol that’s going to burn a bit going down. A previous year’s vintage of that same beer will likely seem much smoother. This brings us to our first rule.
Rule No. 1: Drink your beer at the right time! A quick and dirty guideline for some common styles is as follows: Pale Ales/IPAs/Double IPAs/Any “Hoppy” Variant of Other Styles should be drank within a month of being bottled, the sooner the better. Imperial Stouts/Baltic Porters/Barleywines/Quadrupels/Anything Big and Dark are meant to withstand some aging and almost always get better with six months spent in a cool, dark place. After six months, it’s really up to you. The intricacies of cellaring beer will be reserved for a future post, but if the ABV is above 10%, I think 18 months of aging usually turns out pretty nicely. Sour beers are great fresh, but also develop all sorts of interesting flavors over time—I’ve had 16-year-old gueuze from Drie Fonteinen that was amazing. If your beer has something added (e.g. fruit, cacao nibs, coffee, vanilla, peppers), you don’t want to wait too long or those flavors will dissipate. Try to keep it under a year (an exception seems to be cherries/grapes in sour beer, which often intensify over time). Nearly all other beers that do not benefit from aging are best enjoyed within 0-6 months of bottling.
Continuing on, you made a double whammy of a faux pas when you pulled out the frosty pint glasses. You made beer that was too cold even more gelid and you used improper glassware (more on that later). Let’s say the refrigerator was set at 36 degrees Fahrenheit and your glass from the freezer was a rather frigid 10 degrees. Your Double IPA, which can be enjoyed at lower temperatures than the Imperial Stout, was shocked by the sudden drop in temperature. This leads to a visually unappealing “chill haze” turning the otherwise clear beer opaque, but more worrisome is the fact that you just shut off most of the aromas coming out of the glass. At such low temperatures, the aromatic compounds in your beer are unable to volatize and make their way to your nose, where they activate neurons heading to the pleasure centers in your brain. If you want your Nucleus accumbens pleasure center to be properly activated, you must follow rule number two.
Rule No. 2: Drink your beer at the right temperature! Most people drink their beers too cold. It’s not entirely your fault, however; not only have tasteless light beers predicated their entire marketing campaigns on the teeth-chattering chill of their beers, most bars serve an extremely cold pint because an employee of Budweiser/Miller/Coors sets up their draft lines to what is optimal for their product. Unfortunately, their product is not tasty and keeping it extremely cold helps to hide this fact. That said, beer warms up to its optimal temperature fairly quickly, so a little patience goes a long way. Always reject frozen glasses and mugs and use your hands to add some heat to a beer that’s too cold. I personally try to drink most beer at around 45 degrees and enjoy non-hoppy, bigger beers closer to 55 degrees or higher. It may seem strange at first to drink “warm” beer, but when that bounty of smells opens up for the first time, you’ll soon find that it’s much better. Since one of the keys to tasting a beer properly is smelling it, most glassware is designed (at least partially) to transmit aroma, so pay attention to the third rule.
Rule No. 3: Use the proper glassware! A quick way to tell whether you’re in a craft beer bar or a bar that happens to have craft beer is by looking at the glasses they serve the beer in. If you don’t see a tulip glass anywhere, it’s probably not a craft beer bar. In our example, you poured a double IPA into a pint glass, which isn’t the worst receptacle for the style, but it’s far from the best. Firstly, drinking sixteen ounces of a higher alcohol beer isn’t really recommended, so you’d be better off with a glass that holds ten to twelve ounces instead. Secondly, pint glasses have a conical shape that opens up towards your nose; that seems ideal at first glance, but we really want the aromatic compounds to stay in the glass, where they’ll hang out until it’s time to sniff them. Any vessel that tapers inward as it goes up will aid that process, which is the reason wine glasses are narrower at the lip than in the middle. Wine glasses are great catch-alls for most beer styles, actually, and I use them all the time. In fact, Tørst, New York’s best beer bar, exclusively serves beer in wine glasses. Tulip glasses are great for most beers too, and I generally use my trusty oversized Modern Times glass (seen above) for my personal beer consumption. If proper temperature and glassware are so critical to the aromatic experience of drinking a beer, following those rules would be useless if you don’t follow the fourth.
Rule No. 4: Take the time to smell and taste your beer! Not every beer needs to be smelled before every sip, but if you have purchased good beer, chances are you want to enjoy it for all it’s worth. In our example where you do everything wrong, you and your friend forgot to smell the beers before taking a big sip. So take a few quick sniffs rather than one long slow draw, as this will help you pick up the aroma more easily. Make a habit of noting the knee-jerk impressions of what you smell—don’t worry about being wrong, as it’s subjective anyway. If you think the aromas are reminiscent of pears, for example, say it. For years, I was always hesitant to voice my opinion when analyzing the nose of a beer (or wine, for that matter). I eventually realized that the first thing I thought I smelt usually lined up with the consensus of the group I tasted with. After taking in the aroma of a beer, take a sip that allows you to let the beer coat your whole mouth, not just the top of your tongue. This will provide a wider view of the beer’s flavor and makes the mouthfeel much more apparent. With the beer covering more surface area, things like the carbonation, viscosity, and astringency are more detectable, and incorporating them into your tasting can enhance the overall experience of the beer.
While considering all these rules, the most important thing to remember is that drinking beer is fun, so don’t beat yourself up trying to rigidly adhere to them. After implementing them, however, these guidelines do not require constant attention—you just start reaching for fresh beer, proper glassware, etc. and your overall experience is enhanced. So, for a recap, our rules for experiencing beer the right way are as follows:
Rule No. 1: Drink your beer at the right time
Rule No. 2: Drink your beer at the right temperature
Rule No. 3: Use the proper glassware
Rule No. 4: Take the time to smell and taste your beer
On a final note, I’ll say that having a system that standardizes (to a certain extent) your beer drinking experience makes it quite simple to judge beers against each other, both in the moment and in memory. This will tacitly increase your appreciation and recognition of quality beers, so I will add a final rule to the bunch:
Rule No. 5: Drink good beer!