Ears, Eyes, Nose, Mouth…

How do you review a brew?

As I mentioned on our last podcast (link:NE Sippin Forecast), when I first started exploring the new wave of beers, I felt greatly inferior to the great bloggers and reviewers that were already out there.  I simply didn’t feel that I had anything to add to the reviews that they had already given.  As a result I was always reluctant to actually review beers thoroughly and in the main I spouted opinions rather than fully formed reviews.

It’s interesting now to be doing the podcast and at its core is Rob’s beery education and voyage of discovery.  It’s impossible to go through that process without getting into actually reviewing the beers that we sample.  How do you develop an understanding of what it is that you like or don’t like, without taking note of flavours and descriptions which you enjoy.  Your current experiences will shape your future thinking when deciding what to drink.

So how do you review a beer?

Firstly, think about when you start to judge or evaluate a beer.  It’s actually well before you buy it.  Personally my thoughts on the M&S dine in deals are already positive when I see the advert for the delicious looking chocolate desert.  With beer, we start creating an expectation through many things, social media being a prime driver of that.  The brand, the descriptors, the image that the name conjures up.

So what is my process once I have the beer in my hands?  Well I have a rule of senses.  I think about a beer using, and in this order: ears, eyes, nose then mouth.  It’s a simple guide but using it slows down the process of simply drinking beer and makes you better able to think through each stage.  But what does each stage mean?

Ears:  Let’s face it we start interacting with a beer from the first split second the bottle/can is opened.  Personally one of the first things I look for the level of ‘pffft’.  By that I mean gas released from the bottle/can as you open it.  I like a beer with good carbonation, I’m often underwhelmed by certain style of beers which have little or no carbonation.  But even then, that reaction to the initial noise is driven by my expectations of style.  I like a hoppy IPA to make that satisfying noise, but couldn’t give too hoots if a big Imperial Stout doesn’t.  But you see, I’m already judging.  My beer reviews will usually refer to the level of ‘pffft’, it’s very technically sound and kick starts your whole experience of a beer.

Next up, Eyes:  Now this is the pour stage, which includes the settle.  What are you seeing?  Does the level of audible ‘pffft’ tally with the witnessed carbonation that you can see as you pour?  Is the beer developing a big head?  Is the beer looking like its lacking any sort of head?  What colour is the beer?  What does that colour mean for your tastebuds?  Even subconsciously the colour is moulding your expectations.  Is there any sediment?  Is the beer clear?  Is the appearance matching what you expect from the beer description/style?  Then simply, just how appetising is the beers appearance?  Which elements look appetising? Which elements don’t? Is there anything in the appearance which is significantly drawing you or repelling you?

Next one is Nose:  I say this is the next stage, it’s not really, this very much overlaps/interacts with the eyes.  For many beers the aroma will leap out the bottle/can from the moment you crack it open.  Or during the pour that carbonation is releasing gas from the beer and throwing the aroma of the beer up into the air above it.  So you are experiencing the full effect of the aroma while you pour.  It’s impossible for that aroma not to have an influence on the judgement of the appearance.  Even on a simple positive or negative scale.  If the aroma is enticing, an average looking beer will be judged in a more positive light.  But what of the aroma?  What are you getting?  Is it what you were expecting? What organic elements can you detect in the aroma?  Is it grassy?  Is it fruity?  If so can you pinpoint which fruit?  Is it sharp bitter fruit?  Or sweeter more fleshy fruit?   Is there any alcohol in the aroma?  Is there any link to a different drink you’ve had?  Does it remind you of any occasion you’ve experienced things in the past?  Close your eyes, what image does the beer conjure up?

I’d say that by the time you get to aroma, you’re teetering on the edge of drinking this beer in front of you, but hold off for just a little longer.  A good beer review cant be rushed.  A good beer deserves the right amount of attention.  By this point you have most of your senses painting a picture that your brain is deciphering and is rapidly delivering an exit poll result for you, which will only be proven right or wrong by the count, sorry by taking a sip.  So dive in!

Mouth: A few elements to consider here, what’s the initial mouthfeel like?  What’s the level of carb like?  Does it zing as much as it pffft’d earlier?  How viscous does it feel?  Is there much presence to it?  Does it lace your tongue?  Does it snipe at your tongue with bitterness?  A beer enters at the front of your mouth and exits out the back (unless it’s really bad…).  On that short journey it covers many areas of your tongue and has a varying interaction with each one.  But what flavours are being drawn out?  What’s the immediate reaction when it first enters?  Which are the flavours that lead the charge?  Do those flavours have company?  Are there other flavours which raise their heads only once the leading bold flavour has settled down?  And once it disappears down your throat, what’s left?  What’s the lingering flavour?  Is your mouth left feeling dry?  Are you craving another gulp?

Take it slowly, think through the layers of what you’re tasting.  Cast your mind back to similar food stuff, or similar experiences.  Often a flavour can remind me of an aroma I’ve experienced in my past and its drawing from your memory which is key to identifying flavours.  I know I used to feel like identifying flavours and reviewing beers was a fine art.  But whilst a good beer reviewer is a skilled and rare talent, the act of reviewing is actually quite simple.  All you’re doing is drawing on memories.  It’s about opening your mind to links from your past.  You can’t identify a flavour if you’ve never tasted it before!  Justin Mason (@1970sboy) is a great man to listen to for getting you delving into flavours of beer.  He is an advocate for exploring flavours in all things.  The more broad your range of past flavour experiences, the more nuanced your ability to identify flavours in your present.

The mouth may be the final piece of apparatus in the list, but it’s the most influential and powerful tool you have.  Let’s face it, you are only interested in beer because of your enjoyment of consuming it.  Beer is after all a drink and its main purpose is to interact with your tastebuds.  But don’t discount all the information you’ve received so far.  This is a big moment for a beer.  It’s at this point where all the expectation comes to a head and the final judgement is found.

Each and every beer has to face up to its own expectation.  It’s the single most influential driver on a drinker’s enjoyment.  If all the aspects in the build up to drinking create too high a level of expectation, the resultant beer may be viewed as disappointing if it doesn’t meet the high expectations.  On the flip side, sometimes you get that magical moment where you’re expecting very little from a beer but when you drink it, it well exceeds expectation.  And it’s that swing, for better or worse, which leaves the lasting impression on a drinker.  If a brewer can get that swing to be a positive, the drinker will happily return to buy the beer again, and will have positive things to say about it.

So don’t be intimidated by reviewing beers, anyone can do it.  Just remember the order: Ears, eyes, nose, mouth… and you can’t go too far wrong!

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