Why Beer Tasting Is Unique
Now that Dan and I have thrown a few Beer and Biltong tastings we decided to share our secrets of success.
The first step is to understand what you are tasting. In biltong you are tasting a hearty, salty, and earthy flavor. In beer you can have a wide variety of flavor profiles. You can have one that is light and refreshing, or you can have one that is thick and almost like a meal. However, on the whole, beer is a yeasty and heavy beverage. If you have ever been to a college party, you know that even a cool Natural Light can be filling. For this reason, beer tasting is very different than wine tasting. Along with all the flavors, you have to consider the different weights and textures.
I’m not saying you have to be an expert, but doing your research definitely helps. Lucky for you we have already done that. So, I’m going to try and give you a crash course on the different types of beers and their respective flavor and texture profiles. In order to simplify it I am going to generalize and group a lot of different categories together (beer snobs please don’t kill me).
Lagers and Pilsners
The least complex of all beers are the Lagers and Pilsners. I group these together because when you think about this category, you should be thinking light. Both Lagers and Pilsners are typically light in color, light in flavor, and, more often, light in calories. Some examples of good old American Lagers are Budweiser, Coors, and PBR. My favorite pilsner and probably most famous (or infamous) is of course, Natural Light. You can’t beat that smooth pilsner taste. The one side note here is that there are also darker lagers, for example Amber Lagers. The most popular brand in Pennsylvania is Yuengling, or in Boston you have Samuel Adams Lagers. Although darker lagers can have a little more flavor and sit a little heavier, the same rules and tastes generally apply. Because these beers are so light in flavor and texture you really do not want to pair them with something bland. Instead, you want a lot of spice. Think hot wings or mexican food. These kinds of beers are can easily wash down a lot of intense flavors. Don’t expect them to really heighten the flavors and spices with your meal. In addition, because they have a light feel, lagers and pilsners are often paired with heavy and fatty foods. These types of beers are everywhere in America and Germany, because, to be honest, that’s what they eat. When you are eating a big cheese burger, or pizza or ribs grab a pilsner or a lager. It’ll keep the grease from sticking to your mouth, and deliver it to your stomach where it belongs.
Belgian and Wheat Beers
Next up on the complexity ladder are Belgian and Wheat beers. For the longest time I chalked these two up as being the same thing. To be honest, I wasn’t really that wrong. The small differences are that with Belgian style beers you might get a little more variety and some more malt flavor, whereas wheat beers taste bready. Bready may not be a word but it is perfect for describing them, because when you drink enough wheat beers in one night they start to taste like liquid bread, i.e. why it’s called wheat beer. Some well-known examples are Blue Moon and Hoegaarden. This category is a little heavier than pilsners and lagers and have a touch more flavor. However, this small difference can make a huge impact in how you drink them. Because these beers don’t have too much flavor by themselves, they can still handle a little bit of kick from a pairing. You have to be somewhat careful though, because there is a small bit of added bitterness which can ruin the pairing. With this combination of being a somewhat heavy but still having a lighter flavor profile, Belgian and Wheat beers can be paired with citrus and fruity accents to brighten them up. Hence, the idea of Blue Moons and oranges. These beers also go very well with meats, especially poultry, but try and keep it lighter than the bacon cheeseburgers from the previous category.
Stouts and Porters
Now comes the Stouts and Porters. Again, these were two types of beers that I used to think were interchangeable. They are both thick dark beers made with roasted malts and utilize top fermentation. Stouts are typically more sweet and have a seriously thick creamy head. Stouts have more of a roasted malt flavor that adds a little more bite, but are mixed with other earthy flavors, like coffee and chocolate. By far the most famous beer in this category is Guinness. If you have not heard of Guinness, this would be the only time I would ever tell you to get off this website, because you need to either look up what Guinness is or run out this instant and try some. There is not much that you can pair with stouts or porters because they are both almost meals by themselves. This is especially true for oatmeal or milk stouts. However, this category is one where you want to pair similar with similar. For example, a stout and a brownie, or a porter and a tiramisu. That last one actually sounds really good. Be warned though, these are very decadent combinations. There is such a thing as too sweet.
Last, but definitely not least are the Pale Ales. Flavors of Pale Ales can vary dramatically, and are usually the most intense. India Pale Ales (IPAs) in particular pack a punch. IPAs have absolutely exploded in the American beer market. Common brands here are Lagunitas, Harpoon, or Sierra Nevada, but there really are thousands. Anywhere there is beer there will be IPAs. IPAs are made with loads of hops, if you're brave you can get a double hop IPA (DIPA). Personally, I don't reach for a casual double hop. It's like getting punched in the mouth with hops. One good thing that comes with all this flavor is that Pale Ales have the highest alcohol content. Before I got used to their taste that was pretty much the only reason why I drank them. This past summer I tried a Dogfish Head 120 Minute straight from the brewery, very rare. It was labeled as 15- 20% abv, and I definitely felt it after one. It can be really difficult to pair Pale Ales with foods because of how complex they are on their own. The big tip here is that whatever flavor you are eating, the pale ale will amplify. I would not suggest eating spicy food and drinking an IPA because it would be taste-bud overload (unless you like that sort of thing). On the other hand, a well paired IPA can exponentially enhance the flavors in food. Even though it has spice, the rich aromatics of Indian food pair fantastically with IPAs (one of reasons why it was created in the first place). Sharp flavors like vinegar, lime, or cilantro, even when only subtly added, can become vibrant and mouthwatering with an IPA.
For The Show Offs
If you really want to impress someone at a party start talking about how you are “all about” the new wave of American Sours. Sours are definitely spreading in popularity. Most classical beer drinkers probably won’t like these, or even know too much about them. However, they are good in their own right and can be very refreshing. They have a huge kick of flavor that comes from a different combination of bacteria in the fermenting process. They taste exactly like they sound, sour. The flavor is almost the same as any citrus fruit. Unlike any of the previous beers that have fruity highlights or pair well with citrus, these beers basically take the place of the fruit. They ARE the fruit. Even though it seems weird to have a beer and a salad, this would be the beer to do it with (yes it actually tastes really good). One of my, sort of strange, favorites is a sour beer and a hard cheese. I’m genuinely not sure why, but it works.
If you take anything away from reading this article it should be to not be afraid to try new combinations. You might be surprised what you end up liking. Worst case scenario is you have an extra beer to wash it down and move on to the next flavor. I'm sure you are going to have as much fun trying these out as we have. Thanks for reading.