A beginner's guide to becoming a beer connoisseur

Taste beer like a pro!

Tshepo Tloubatla, Beer Culture Manager at SAB & AB InBev Africa, demonstrating how to taste beer like a pro by observing the colour, inhaling the aroma, releasing the volatiles (swirling) and finally taking a sip of a beer.

South Africa’s rich brewing history and long love affair with beer predates that with wine. Beer lovers who indulge in this legendary beverage are spoiled for choice, with more than 100 styles on offer.

“While the professional beer taster undergoes rigorous training to help them identify distinctive flavour profiles in the beer, you can imagine how this myriad of beers might be overwhelming for the beginner beer lover,” says Tshepo Tloubatla, beer culture manager at SAB & AB InBev Africa.

To help, SAB has prepared a step-by-step guide on how to taste your beer like a pro to help any rookie become a beer connoisseur.

1. Cleanse your palate

Anything you consume prior to tasting your beer can influence the taste, so cleanse or refresh your mouth. Cheese or crackers can affect your palate's sensitivity to the flavours of certain beers, so keep it simple and use water.

South Africa’s rich brewing history and long love affair with beer predates that with wine. Beer lovers who indulge in this legendary beverage are spoiled for choice, with more than 100 styles on offer.

2. Observe the colour

Observe your beer carefully. The colour will represent what type of brew it is – pilsners are a pale straw, American and English ales have a golden hue, porters and stouts are amber brown and black. If you are going to taste several different beers, it is better to taste from light to dark. This will help you focus on the developing flavour intensity and characteristics of the beer style. 

3. Get a whiff

After observing your beer, move the glass past your nose once or twice – this action is known as “the drive-by”. Your nostrils and tastebuds work together, so your sense of smell will give you vital clues about the type of beer you are tasting. You should be able to pick up roast notes typical of malts, or pine, citrus, pepper, and fresh cut grass from the hops, or perhaps even hints of yeast.

This is also when you would detect undesirable aromas, which are called off flavours. The most common one is a sulphur-type flavour, which can happen in beers which have been exposed to too much light. This off flavour is somewhat like percolating coffee, with some people likening its aroma to the smell of tinned tuna. Other off flavours are aromas such as vinegar and butterscotch toffee, which are undesirable in beer styles such as lagers.

Always sniff before you take the first sip – once you swallow a sip of beer, your ability to smell it will be slightly diminished.

4. Give it a swirl

Swirl the glass gently – this releases the volatiles, which are trapped and concentrated in the glass. Swirling knocks some of the CO2 out of the solution, causing it to foam slightly. Allowing the beer to mix with the air provides the drinker with a stronger scent of the various aromatic components such as hops and malt.

5. Take a deep sniff

Take another deep sniff – not too deep, to set the stage for you to have that long-awaited taste. This whiff should differ from the previous one, as now you’ll be able to get hints of the aroma:

  • Malts: should smell honey, biscuit, caramel, or baked bread flavours, but can contain hints of roasted coffee or in the case of stouts, a hint of dark chocolate.
  • Hop aromas: these are generally citrusy, floral, or perhaps grassy.
  • Yeast aromas: these will be fruity or sulphurous.

6. The long-awaited sip

Take a small sip, enough for it to run across your entire tongue, then let it slowly roll over your tongue for a few seconds before you swallow and breathe out gently. At this point you’ll taste both broad and subtle flavours, the former being what you mainly taste while the latter will be a hint of a flavour. Broad flavours range from sweet, salty, acidy, or simply bitter, while subtler flavours can range from cloves, fruit, caramel, coffee, nuts, chocolate, oak, and many more.

7. Food pairings

SAB has a range of beer styles to cater for varying palates. It is recommended to have something to eat in between your beer tasting. Here are some recommendations:

  • Stella Artois, a soft and creamy pilsner, goes perfectly with creamy food dishes and seafood, such as a lightly curried butternut soup.
  • Hansa Pilsner, with its crisp flavour, is best paired with light meals such as a green salad, steamed broccoli, or even a fillet of hake.
  • A great palate-cleanser between beers is Brutal Fruit Litchi, to give yourself a reset between the various flavours.
  • Carling Black Label is a full-bodied lager that is best paired with strong flavoured foods such as a peppered fillet of springbok with creamy mashed potato.
  • And lastly, Castle Milk Stout: the toffee, coffee, and mocha flavours found in this stout are perfectly paired with chocolate desserts but can also be paired with rich meat (oxtail and lamb shank) as well as other puddings made with chocolate and caramel. It's a perfect way to end off your beer tasting adventure.

8. The journey doesn’t end here

The key to building your palate rests in being knowledgeable about beer in general. In the process you’ll learn what marks the key differences between an ale and a lager, what IPAs or Hefeweizens are, as well as how to distinguish between characteristics of beers. Your beer-tasting journey can be as adventurous as you want it to be but remember, drink responsibly - and beer tasting isn’t a skill any under 18 should have. And when in doubt visit the SAB World of beer so you can experience a beer and food tasting.  Be bold.