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How do I get better at smelling, tasting, and describing beer?

advanced cicerone sensory analysis Sep 08, 2015

How do I get better at smelling, tasting, and describing beer? I hear this question over and over. Often, it isn't even a question, it's a statement like: "I'm not good at tasting and describing beer (or wine), so I can't do the BJCP or Cicerone tests." Never say that again and correct anyone else who does, it's just not true! Read on to see why. 

I did an AMA ("Ask Me Anything") on Reddit awhile back to promote my Beer Scholar Study Guides, answer questions about the Cicerone Certification Program, and to generally talk beer with some like-minded people (here's the whole AMA on Reddit: I wrote a study guide for the Cicerone exams. AMA.). One of the very first questions I got and the one which the most people seemed interested in was about learning to get better at flavor and aroma analysis: 

"Are there any methods I could use to improve my ability to identify specific aromas and flavors in beers? When I read other users' ratings while drinking, I find it easier to notice a certain aspect that I wouldn't have been able to identify myself... but then I wonder how much is just the power of suggestion...Similarly, I might use words like "pine" and "earthy" and "resin" and "grassy," but it's not like I have a deep understanding of what each of those flavors are. It's more like I'm saying, "this beer tastes like beers others have called 'grassy,' and that's how I know it's grassy". I understand campfire smoke and chocolate, so flavors like those are easier for me. How did you train yourself to distinguish beer characteristics so specifically?"

I saw an excellent article recently that reminded me of this question. The Salt on NPR asked: Are Women Better Tasters Than Men? The answer is an intriguing, "yes, but only if the woman is of childbearing age." However, the truly important point of the article is something I've said over and over -- tasting is a LEARNED skill, it is not something some people are born with!  

And so, here is an edited version of my Reddit AMA answer to the question above. It's worth a read!

The first thing to know is that tasting and analyzing beer is a learned skill. Like most things worth doing, it takes time and effort, it is not just a natural talent. Luckily, it sounds like you're excited to learn these skills and willing to put in the effort! I've heard a million people say stuff like, "I don't think I should bother with the Cicerone program or the BJCP test because I'm just not good at tasting and describing beer." Unless the person has a chronic nasal issue, my response is, "yeah, that's because you've never tried to learn how." People don't figure this stuff out just by virtue of the fact that we all eat and drink, particularly in the American cultural environment, with our emphasis on eating processed foods and eating it quickly without reflection.

Your question really says it all - you're much more familiar with certain aroma and flavor characteristics than with others - because those are ones you've taken the time to reflect on while experiencing them. Reflection on aroma and flavor leads to the building of mental connections between the way you sense those compounds and their source. As soon as you experience something that reminds you of chocolate, you easily make that connection. However, for less familiar aromas and flavors (barn yard, resin?) it can be very difficult to build up those connections. One thing to know is that every time you eat, drink, or smell anything, it's an opportunity to consciously experience that thing and put it in your mental file cabinet of aroma memories. Most of "taste" is actually aroma and because of the pathways in the brain that smell takes, your sense of smell has the ability to trigger memories and connections with past experiences in a way that other senses can't. We've all had those weird experiences where we smell something that takes us back to a childhood memory. It's powerful stuff and you can make that work for you by creating those connections purposefully.

We're all in that same boat when we start learning to analyze aroma and flavor. What the heck does "resin" or "horse blanket" smell like? How do pick out the different aromas of white vs black peppercorns? In some cases, terms of art are chosen so that specialists can effectively communicate with each other what they're experiencing. It really helps to have some guidance here. For instance, if you can take a BJCP training course with a Master Judge who walks you through the flavor profiles of a variety of beer styles that is extremely helpful. Experienced tasters can help you connect flavors and aromas with their names. This is key, because we don't all experience aromas and flavors in the same way, but we need a common language in order to discuss them. After some training, many common flavors and aromas will begin to click for you, it's amazing!

As to reading beer reviews, there's no question that the identification of aroma and flavor is highly suggestible. That doesn't mean those suggestions are not meaningful. Always analyze the beer on your own first, then see what others have said about it. Take their suggested characteristics with a grain of salt and make your own judgement. Others may just be parroting what they've heard. That said, maybe they'll enlighten you and help you dial in your own tasting and smelling abilities!

This is a long process. It is frustrating at first but is incredibly rewarding when things start to click. You will never stop learning and making those mental connections. Also, it's really fun to do with other people and it teaches you to slow down and experience your food and drinks. It makes you more aware of the world around you in funny ways, for instance, I really can't stand smelling people's perfume or cologne anymore because it seems overwhelming...and besides, there's a whole world of amazing natural aromas out there waiting to be experienced, which I can then look for in beers!

Here's my advice for getting better at tasting:

  1. Read Tasting Beer by Randy Mosher. This is an essential beer geek bible and contains some helpful tips for getting better at tasting (such as why using short sniffs is best).
  2. Read The Brewmaster's Table by Garret Oliver, which is largely about beer and food pairing. Pairing is heavily intertwined with beer flavor and aroma - the point of it is to identify beers that match up, or contrast, with particular dishes.
  3. Download a BJCP Style Guideline app onto your phone (iPhone & iPad & Android). When you're having a beer look up the style description and see if you can identify those listed characteristics. Yeah, it's nerdy, but every beer is an opportunity to learn!
  4. Take a BJCP training course with an experienced judge. You'll probably need to sign up for an online BJCP course such as the one I did when I first started down this path, Better Beer Scores.
  5. Host and attend beer shares, homebrew shares, and off-flavor tastings with BJCP judges or Cicerones. Let them know you're looking to learn and want to critique beers together.
  6. Don't forget to consider flavors and aromas you experience from non-beer sources. You can learn from any food, drink, or aroma! Cooking frequently can be helpful here as well. 

Go get your taste on and good luck! 

advanced cicerone sensory analysis