Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Why would I write tasting notes, Julia? I just want to drink my beer and enjoy it. What’s the point of writing notes?”
There are actually many points to writing notes. If you’re anything like me, you want to try lots and lots of beer, but having done so, you can’t always remember which ones you like and which ones you didn’t. Or maybe you do, but you can’t remember why you liked one and not the other. Maybe you’re trying to describe to a friend who’s new to beer what exactly differentiates an American Pale Ale and an IPA. Or maybe you’re that friend, and you just want to learn more about beer.
Personally, I find that writing notes helps me “enjoy my beer” even more. True, it’s not something I tend to do if I’m hanging out at a bar with a group of friends, because it takes a bit of concentration (“Hey guys, shut up a minute, I’m tasting some serious esters here!”). But taking the time to notice the different flavors, smells, and other details that make up your beer will not only make you a more discerning beer drinker, it will also allow you to appreciate the amazingness in your glass that much more.
Obviously, everyone’s tasting and notetaking processes are going to be different. This is sort of a collection of things to pay attention to, and tips for how to make best use of your powers of observation. What works for me may not work for you, and vice versa. It’s ok. It’s just beer. It shouldn’t be work. It should just be tasty.
For illustration’s sake I’m going to include some sample notes—in this case, my glowing review of Pliny the Elder, which I had the pleasure of tasting for the first time last month.
Ok. So my notes, like many beer tasting notes on Beer Advocate and elsewhere, are divided into five rather self-explanatory categories: Appearance, Smell, Taste, Mouthfeel, and Overall. Usually these are abbreviated to the first letter for brevity’s sake. They are listed in the order in which I and many others write them, and I find it is a logical progression—you look at your beer, take a sniff, then a sip, and then form an overall impression. In general, I like to notice and write down as many details as I possibly can, and then make value judgments later. Although sometimes a beer is either so fantastically good or so horrendously bad that this can be difficult.
So first, note the obvious facts—the name of the beer, the brewery, the ABV, the style, whether it came from a bottle or was on draft, what kind of glass you’re using. I also like to note the date and sometimes the bar, if I’m at one. So for formality’s sake:
Pliny the Elder, Russian River Brewery
Double IPA, 8% ABV, bottle poured into pint glass
Next, appearance! This is the perhaps the easiest category, and the one that “matters” least in the actual experience of drinking your beer, but there’s still a lot to notice. Also, appearance is important in identifying a beer—if you asked for a pale ale and you were handed something dark and foamy, something’s up. Ask yourself, what color is your beer? Is it clear or hazy? Is it foamy? Is there lacing? Noticeable carbonation? Sediment? You don’t have to spend too much time on it, just write down what you see.
A: Very clear amber, white foam, not much head or lacing.
Onto smell. This is where the fun begins! Get that glass under your nose and start sniffing. In a geuze tasting I attended last month, Master Cicerone® Nicole Erny suggested that short, strong sniffs are more effective than long, drawn out ones, because they draw more of the aromatic compounds into your nostrils. But by all means do whatever works best for you (personally I do a little of both). What do you smell? Hops? Ok—what sort of hops? Are they citrusy? Piney? Bitter? Can you smell malt? Is it sugary? Fruity? Take some time with this, because often you don’t smell everything at once. You might smell fruit on the first sniff and yeast on the second. Other times you might smell something that is really, really familiar, but you can’t quite put your finger on what it is. This is where a second opinion can help; I often shove my glass under Andy’s nose and say, “What is that???” Between the two of us, we usually figure it out.
S: Fruity hops upfront—grapefruit, pineapple, orange pith. Piney resin (cypress?) accompanies notes of malty sweetness. Hints of apple.
Now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for—tasting! Take a sip. Notice the way the flavors change as the beer moves across your tongue. Breathe out through your nose before you swallow. Take another sip and do it again. Savor the moment, then pick out the flavors and write them down. Are they the same as the ones you smelled, or are they different? Malt character—is it sugary sweet? Roasted? Grainy? Chocolatey? Are the hops fruity? Bitter? Resiny? Can you taste yeast? Are there adjuncts? If your beer was aged, does it show signs of deterioration or has it matured in a beneficial way? If a barrel was used, can you detect its influence on the palate? Again, try to avoid value judgments here like, “Mmm, tasty,” or “Yuck!”, just make note of the flavors as they come to you.
T: Sweetness upfront gives way to bitter citrusy hop character, orange pith and pine sap.
Keep sipping your beer and now pay attention to mouthfeel, which is exactly what it sounds like. Does it feel thin or heavy on your tongue? Is there lots of carbonation? Is it syrupy? Chewy? Creamy?
M: Medium body, chewy, with moderate carbonation.
Ok. If you’ve come this far and noticed everything you possibly can, you probably have a pretty strong opinion at this point. Now’s the time to write it down. Did you like it? Is it highly characteristic of a particular style, or is it a departure? Is it appropriate to a particular occasion? Whatever comes to mind.
O: Wonderfully flavorful DIPA, worth savoring and definitely deserving of the hype. Hop character is pleasantly bitter but not overpowering.
And there you have it! Your very own comprehensive set of tasting notes. Keep track of them—I keep mine mostly in a particular notebook, but I also have a pile of coasters from the Trappist with notes on the back—and come back to them when you need to. Take notes on the same beer served different ways, or from different batches. Try not to use the same words over and over again to describe the same style of beer—sure, most porters have a roasted malt flavor, but what distinguishes Deschutes’s Black Butte Porter from Speakeasy’s Payback Porter?
Drink, notice, learn, and enjoy.