One of the key elements of tasting beer is refining the palate. This is particularly important for beer, as some of the taste elements of different beers are nuanced, and a person needs some experience in tasting beer before they are able to pick up on these tastes. It is particularly important for homebrewers to take every opportunity to develop their palates, as this will help them to understand their own beer better, as well as the beers of other people.
Plus, hey, who doesn't like to look like a pro and be able to identify all kinds of cool things happening in complex, awesome beers?
Going Back and Forth
When you try beers at different times, it can often be challenging to tell the difference between the two, particularly if they are the same style. The time gap makes it difficult to remember the nuances of the beers, making comparison challenging.
An effective way of refining the palate, as well as becoming more aware of the differences between specific beers, is to drink two of them at the same time. This doesn’t mean finish one beer then finish the other. Instead, it means sitting down with two beers (the more similar, the better) and drinking out of one then the other, going back and forth between the two.
By doing this, the differences between the beer become more noticeable, as any change will be immediately obvious. This will help you to pick out some of the subtle flavors in beer that would not have been obvious otherwise.
I know this from personal experience. The first time I drank an alt beer, I had no idea what “toasty bread” was supposed to taste like. I also didn't like it much. But then I had my pumpkin rye, and immediately followed with Hangar 24‘s alt beer. I was very surprised to finally understand what the hell they meant by toasty bread. As I drank that second beer, it became less and less obvious to me, but the idea of moving back and forth between beers has stuck with me ever since.
Focus on Variety – Both in Food and In Drink
To refine your palate, it is important to have a broad experience in food and beer.
In relation to food, this means trying as many different types of food as possible, even food that seems unappealing. The greater your experience with food is, the more information you have to use to compare with beer. As a person’s food experience grows, their ability to tie flavors with specific foods also grows, and it becomes much easier to pick out individual flavors within beer.
After all, it is much easier to notice a flavor if it is already familiar to you.
The same applies to drinking beer. The more beer styles you expose yourself to, the greater understanding you have of beer. When you do this, understanding the ingredients in the style is also important, as this helps you to pick up more of these flavors when you taste the beer.
You may even want to try a different foods with one beer. While some of be better craft beers will include instructions on pairing, there's nothing to stop you from experimenting. Grab an IPA, and alt beer, and a porter, plus some chocolate, fruit, crackers, and whatever else you have around the house. You'll be able to compare, contrast, and flex your senses. I guess you could look in Google as well, I'm sure they have some info on which beers pair better with which foods. But isn't it more fun to make up your own? (click image for full size)
Drink Beers That Highlight The Same Qualities
Find some beers that use the same types of hops, malt, or other flavor additions. Pick up a couple of chocolate porters + stouts, and see which ones are bitter, sweet, fragrant, or what not. Grab some IPAs that highlight the same style of hops and see how they fit with different types of malt.
This is known as deliberate practice. You see athletes do it all the time – like when Kobe Bryant takes an hour and just does free throws, one after another. Or when a golfer practices just one aspect of his swing. The same applies here, except the sport is good BEER (best Olympic sport ever). By focusing on just one part, then a different part, next time you causally have a beer you'll be able to pick out specific flavors more easily.
Drink Beers That Highlight Different Qualities
Pretty similar to the example above, except this time you pick things that are different. Different hops, different types of malt, different brewing methods or slightly different styles. There needs to be some constant, so I don't recommend just picking up a bock and a Bud and going at it. Pick a high ABV bock, and a low one, or pick one with British malt, and one with American. I guess Bocks would typically use German hops, there maybe be some variety between breweries.
Do Your Research
Doing most of these things means you'll have to do your research. Unless you get some of these real “beer snob” type craft beers, they will rarely tell you details about the type of malt or hops used. I'd check the websites of the beer company, or even write them. You might have to search online for some clone recepis and see what the homebrewers have used, or check Rate Beer and see what those guys are saying.
I like to consult Beer Smith‘s beer guidelines on my iPhone app (super handy to have around).
Oh, and take notes. Keep the notes, then revise + review them later when you have the beer again. I know this sounds pretty intense and excessive, but if you want to learn something, you need to get academic about it at some point. Still enjoy your beer, but drinking just isn't going to make you a master beer aficionado… just another guy that likes beer.
Things that Hinder Taste
There are some things within modern diets and habits that make it difficult to pick up the individual tastes and nuances within beer.
One example of this is salt, which is prevalent in a lot of foods, particularly foods that are highly processed. Salt does taste very good in food, but it has an inhibitory effect on taste. If you cut down on the amount of salt that you consume, you will start to notice tastes in food and in beer that you didn’t notice before.
Likewise, smoking can have an impact on the ability of people to taste, as smoking tends to decrease taste sensitivity, making it much more difficult to taste flavors.
The same applies for drinking. The more intoxicated people become, the less they are able to discern different tastes. After all, this is why party hosts tend to serve the best alcohol early in the night, and the cheap alcohol later on, as no one can tell the difference anyway. If you want to be able to taste all of the flavors and nuances of beer, then it is important not to get too drunk. It's kind of hard to avoid it though, so go with the flow. Enjoy yourself!