“Craft Lager” – Some Lessons on Tasting

A few weeks ago two friends that work in the beer industry, a Sommelier and I (Certified Cicerone) decided to punish our egos. We did a semi-blind tasting of 8 different “pilsner-style” beers comparing a new wave of “craft lagers” to each other, but threw in some mass-market lagers for painful fun. We knew the group of beers we were choosing from, just not which was which. The goal initially was simply to point out differences between them. Because we knew the lineup and knew some rice/corn-based beers were in there, it quickly turned into a scenario where we wanted to try and guess which beers were which. The tasting process itself wasn’t much to speak of, but the fact that none of us guessed more than 3 out of 8 correctly taught us a lot. Here are a few things we thought of during the process:

glasses

Go With Your Gut – Though I feel like this is something that has constantly been discussed before, it bears repeating. Aromatics in beer can sometimes dissipate quickly and the assessment needs to be made without too much swirling and thinking. I second guessed myself on several of the beers I was tasting, possibly because I went back and tasted them a second or third time. After revealing the beers I went back and looked at my notes. The aroma and mouthfeel descriptions I made initially should have led me to a better conclusion than I tricked myself into believing. I ignored my palate and was “guessing”. Which leads me to my next point…

 

Fully Blind is Better than Semi-Blind – Knowing what beers we were tasting was detrimental. After the first pass through the glasses I found myself looking at the lineup and guessing at what flavors I should be finding. “One of these should be ‘Corny’, and one of these should be full of Acetaldehyde” etc. In the end this threw me off my notes and persuaded me to taste flavors that were not actually in the beer.

 

This is Actually Difficult! – This isn’t like the Certified Cicerone test where you’re trying to pick between differing styles, all of these beers were within the first two BJCP categories. If we were doing this blind and strictly trying to pull out defects or flavor descriptors, this would probably have been more straightforward and not as noteworthy. Trying to guess which beers were which from nothing but sensory memory (sometimes from a long time ago) is difficult.

 

Where Does Quality Reside? –  This is a huge issue that I’m not going to tackle here, but if a “craft” lager doesn’t taste too dissimilar from a mass market lager, what exactly are we judging besides the label? There’s a strong case to be made that new craft brewers have a lot to learn and if we’re really judging beer quality and not the brand, a lot of the beers tasted in this panel would have been out-scored by macro beers.

We hope to do this sort of thing on a more regular basis, and as we learn, I hope to post more similar entries.