It is almost without fail. I tell someone I work in the quality lab at a brewery and the response is a chuckle and something along the lines of “So you just sit around and drink beer all day, yeah?” Above and beyond the fact that there is a lot more involved in beer quality, there’s a distinction that I think gets lost on the public. The difference between drinking beer and tasting beer.
Often, when I taste beer at my job, the purpose is to make sure the beer is holding up well over the course of it’s shelf life. So, we’re talking about beer that’s been bottled 90 to 120 days. Not bad, but it’s not fresh. Some beers hold up better than others and that’s exactly what we’re testing for. Another common occurrence at work is tasting a beer that’s been intentionally spiked with an off flavor. Sometimes they tell us, sometimes they don’t. This accomplishes two goals. If the spike is known, the idea is to give us an idea this is what <insert off flavor> tastes like. Some, like clove or banana are not that bad. Some, like papery, solvent or metallic are not at all pleasant. If this spike is not disclosed than the goal is to see how many people pick it up and at what levels. This is called threshold testing. Some people can’t taste certain things like diacetyl and that’s OK, but as someone running a sensory program you want to know those kinds of things. If 9 out of 10 people ding a beer for diacetyl and the one who doesn’t is known to be diacetyl blind, then that’s pretty much 100%. That’s not to say test panels can’t be fun, but they are work, and also a very small portion of the overall program.
Judging beer, as a BJCP judge has been a very similar experience. When I told people I judged beer competitions the same reaction of “Wow, that must be great to just sit around and drink beer all day.” While I really enjoy judging, a good portion of the beer that crosses your table is not very good. That’s not meant to disparage those who enter the competitions, rather the main point of a competition is to get feedback. You want to know how true your beer is to the style you were going for, but also if there are any major flaws in it. Some people will enter a beer that they know has an issue but they can’t put their finger on it. A more experienced brewer or an experience judge may be able to figure out the problem and offer a possible way to correct it. As I’ve mentioned in past posts, someone told me that pro beer was the same way, more bad than good. Two years of judging Best of Craft Beer have pretty much proven that true.
The flip side of this is an “ignorance is bliss” approach. Some people don’t want to know about flaws and off flavors. Perhaps they like a certain flavor that a hardcore judge would find offensive. Maybe they just want to sit back and enjoy a pint. There’s nothing wrong with that! I’ll admit, judging has messed with me a little when I’m just sitting around drinking a beer. As long as the flaw is not so horrible to make the beer undrinkable I try to turn that part of my brain off and just enjoy it. Sometimes that’s easier said than done.
So the reality is “tasting” beer is not nearly as glamorous as it may seem, especially if you’re confusing it with drinking beer. But it’s not without it’s merits.
Whether you drink, or taste, enjoy! Salut!