If you enjoyed Anthony's piece on the best beers for wine drinkers recently, you may have decided to learn more about heavenly hops. Here are the first things you need to know when you want to boost your beer knowledge...
Are you a zythophobe or a zythophile? (A zythowhat now?!)
A zythophile is someone who likes beer and all things related to it. A zythophobe then, is a beer shunner; someone who gets Beer Fear.
Perhaps this is you; you don't drink much beer. Perhaps you don't even like it that much, but you've decided to give it a go - or that's been decided for you - and here you are confronted with a glass of sudsy unfamiliarity. How do you talk intelligently about beer while not knowing the first thing about it?
Relax. You already know more than you think. You'll pick more details with practice but in the meantime, here are a few terms and pointers to help you fake it until you make it.
There are four: water, malt, hops, and yeast. That's it.
Anything else on the recipe sheet is an adjunct. If they're in your beer they'd better be earning their place by enhancing the experience somehow. Usually this means adding a nice flavour or two.
Malt is made from grain, usually barley. Other grains used include wheat, rye, or oats. It gives beer its colour and a good deal of its flavour too. This can be bready, biscuity, caramel, toffee, nutty, fruity, coffee, chocolate, roasted, smoky... it's a long list. Just watch out with the fruity flavours, they can also come from the hops or even from the yeast in certain beers.
Beer people like to bang on about hops. I mean, we *really* do. These little green cones might as well be magic, the amount of fuss some people make about them.
Don't sweat it though, and certainly don't worry about trying to identify particular varieties after just a couple of sips. If the beer tastes noticeably bitter then simply saying 'this is hoppy' is perfectly correct.
Hops are added to a beer to give bitterness and flavour, and also for their antibacterial and preservative properties. English hops will commonly give flavours that are earthy, spicy, honeyed, or even minty. Think of a pint of Best Bitter; it's a gentler taste than you'll get from the brasher hops grown in the USA. These can have flavours that are citrus, floral, herbal, fruity, and tropical. That'll be what you're tasting in your craft IPA. If you're drinking something German, then the hops will be more restrained. These beers usually contain 'noble hops' that are floral, spicy, earthy, and herbal. For a great example look no further than a lager.
Yeast is responsible for a lot of a beer's flavour, and yet most drinkers know very little about it. If you're drinking something Belgian and you can smell or taste bananas and cloves, that'll be the yeast. Bubblegum, nail polish, pear drops? The yeast. Rubber or leather? Yeast. Don't worry though, I bet no one will bring it up.
All beers aim for a good balance between the sweetness from the malts and the bitterness from the hops. Too sweet and it's cloying, too bitter and it's unpalatable. But this balance usually tips a little to on side or the other. Take a sip and notice how these two basic tastes correspond. Do you like it? Your opinion on this is just as valid as anyone else's.
Some people find that word a bit off-putting, but if you're talking beer then it's hard to avoid. Mouthfeel is separate from flavour. Instead it describes the beer's texture on your tongue. This takes into account the beer's body, that is its thickness and viscosity. Is it thin like water or full like milk? It also includes the amount and character of its carbonation.
What's it like after you've swallowed the beer? Often there's a drying effect on your tongue that, when done right, provides a pleasant encouragement to take another swig. If it's done wrong though and you could be looking at astringency - that excessive, tannic dryness. Think of crunching up grape seeds and the face it makes you pull. What about the aftertaste? How long does it go on, how bitter is it, are there any other flavours that stand out? That, taken all together, is the finish.
Don't be afraid to say what you find
Serve three people the same beer and none of them will have exactly the same experience. We're all sensitive to different flavours in differing degrees. If you taste something in a beer, don't be afraid to say it. And if you *don't* taste something you might have been expecting to find, that's just as valid too. Don't feel like you need to make something up. What this all boils down to is either you like a beer or you don't. Only you can be the judge of that, and your opinion has value even if you can't say why you like or dislike a drink.
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