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Everyone knows how to drink beer, but it seems like it's an acquired skill to be able to differentiate (and articulate) different flavors. Whereas someone just turning 21 might say "this beer tastes... dark", a more experienced drinker might describe it as "nutty and chocolatey, with mocha overtones and black currents in the aftertaste."

What are some good strategies for moving from the first quote to the second? That is to say, how does one train their palate for beer tasting?

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    I'm will post an answer when able. To start get to know the ingredients. Hops have different aromas and impart different flavors (on top of giving a buttering quality). You can also pick beers that are know for being "chocolatey" or "x" and start to distinguish subtleties on your own. Never hurts to talk to local specialty shops and see if they are doing tastings. Groups like that love talking beer. – BryceH Jan 25 '14 at 22:20
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Flights!

I didn't know much about beers until I moved to San Diego, where I was introduced to beer flights:

                enter image description here

Somehow, I'd never heard of or seen them!

A flight is 4 or 5 small servings of beer, typically in 4.5- to 5-oz. glasses, usually served on a "paddle." At least in San Diego, a flight costs as much as a pint on draught, so often it's a no-brainer to get flights if you want to taste a variety of beers. When you order a flight, you of course get to choose what 4 or 5 beers you'd like to have. I often select similar beers—a set of stouts and porters—or a bunch of IPAs (and doubles)—so I can really get a chance to taste what distinguishes specific brands and subtypes.

When a friend of mine flew in from New York (also never having heard of flights), he was enthusiastic about getting two flights and sharing all 10—doing blind tests on one another. He went from saying, before we got to the bar, "All beer tastes the same to me—I can only taste dark or light," to, "Oh man, I didn't know I was even capable of tasting such little differences!"

So, beer flights are an effective yet casual and fun way to get yourself or anyone to appreciate the multifarious tastes of beers.

I think trying to start with all the ingredients, brewing processes, and the (dizzying) gamut of terminologies for all the subtle tastes, might be like teaching someone to drive by starting with the difference between torque and horsepower—they can't fully appreciate the meaning of words until they've experienced the sensations they describe. By contrasting beers side-by-side, we build an internal, as-of-yet-wordless "vocabulary" of tastes, e.g "This beer has more of... that thing, whatever it's called, than this one," and then we learn terminology (and ingredients and processes) as a means of filling those voids in words for senses we've experienced. Otherwise, we're storing abstract definitions, which we don't retain very well.

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In a word, practice.

Most people drinking beer don't actually "taste" the beer properly. They just drink it. Of course, you do get some impression of the beer just from casual drinking, but it's not on the same level as if you are properly tasting it.

So, the first step to getting from the first quote to the second is learning how to taste the beer correctly and completely so that you can pick up all the nuances in the flavor and aroma. How to sample a beer properly? I think that's a good candidate for a new question!

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Take Tasting Notes

It's easy to "just drink it". If you want to really pay attention to the beer, there's nothing better than forcing yourself to write it down. The format doesn't matter much, but I prefer a multi-part tasting form to force me to think about each part of the beer. For example, I usually break it down into 4 sections:

  • Appearance: How much head? How long did the head last? What color was it? What color is the beer itself?
  • Aroma: What do you smell? How strong is the smell?
  • Taste: What do you taste? How does that compare what you smelled? How's the aftertaste?
  • Mouthfeel: Usually just watery, oily, or creamy.

Tasting notes like this force you to really concentrate on the taste, which helps improve your palate. They're also nice because you now have a record of your thoughts on that beer to refer to later (maybe to compare to other beers of that style).

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