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Beer should never be boring

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All drinkers can tell whether they like the taste of a particular beer, but only a beer taster can uncover the more subtle nuances and assess the quality. Pavel Čejka, quality manager at the AZL Beer and Malt Research Institute, a.s. in Prague, talks beer tasting:

What abilities must a good taster have? How much of it is something you are born with and how much of it can you learn? How do you discover that you the abilities to become a beer taster?
Every evaluator has to fulfil certain physical, psychological and technical conditions. The physical conditions are mainly something you are born with, and they change as you grow older. It’s interesting that there are very big differences in how different people perceive different tastes and scents. Various tests prove this. The qualification of a taster begins with a taste test. Tasters must be able to distinguish and identify all the basic and some of the special brews and scents and prove that they have a good memory for tastes.

The psychological requirements have to do with work on the tasting committee. The taster must be intelligent, have a good work ethic, a tolerance toward the opinions of other people, be practical thoughtful and confident. Unsuitable characteristics include indecisiveness, superficiality, pedantry, irresponsibility, lack of organisation skills. Smokers and people with inclinations toward alcoholism should also not be allowed to be on the tasting committee.

What sorts of things does a taster look for? What can you uncover in beer?
There are several tests that exist for the sensory evaluation of beer. The most commonly used are the European Brewery Convention tests.

After receiving a beer sample (usually 100 to 150 ml in a glass that is only half full), the taster waits for a concentration of aroma to form near the beer’s surface. He then evaluates the overall intensity of the scent. A beer should smell like several ingredients –that is, malt, hops – and Czech beers can also have a light fruity and yeasty smell that comes from the fermentation process. Other smells in the beer are identified as foreign. The sample is not stirred at this point so as not to upset the carbon dioxide bubbles. Then it’s time for tasting. The first sip helps with the evaluation of the beer’s sharpness (this is determined by the amount of bubbles). Then the taster can slightly swirl the contents of the glass and go back to identifying the smells. The second sip is to evaluate the fullness of the flavour, which is typical for Czech beers, giving it a characteristic thickness in the mouth. The third sip is for assessing another characteristic of Czech beer: the bitterness. Here one must evaluate not only the intensity, but also the harshness and how long the bitter taste persists. Sometimes the taster also evaluates the sweetness, the acidity and the tartness of beer. With a dark beer, one also examines the intensity of its caramel flavour and its sweetness. Finally, one must also identify all the foreign tastes, which are often related to foreign scents. A good taster should be able to detect 20 to 30 different tastes and smells.

I’ve read somewhere that there are more than 70 types of smells in beer.
That ‘s true, a total of 122 different tastes and smells have been scientifically described in beer. But it’s important to add that while in Czech beer – a label that, as many well know, was recently accepted by the European Union as a Protected Geographical Indication – most of these tastes and smells are unacceptable, there are beers made in different parts of the world where some of these characteristics are part of a particular beer’s typical character.

Can you name some of the tastes and smells in beer?
Some examples: fruity, yeasty, caramel, ester, diacetyl, oxidative, wheaty, sirupy, hoppy, autolytic, musty, sulphurs, metallic, fennel and medicinal.

And what happens when you encounter some foreign smell that does not belong in beer?
If a beer contains stronger traces of a foreign taste than is acceptable, the degustation itself will probably not be enough. The sample is sent for a detailed chemical analysis. Then we can uncover the source of the foreign taste.

What rules must be followed during a degustation?
It is incredibly important to get objective results that can be replicated. Certain rules must be followed very closely. This has to do with the degustation room, the degustation glasses, the amount and the temperature of the sample, the amount contained in a single sip, blind tasting and the evaluation system.

What does a taster do when not sitting on the committee of some beer tasting competition? What does a typical workday look like?
In this country, at least, beer tasting is not a full-time profession. It is not possible to make a living just tasting beer. Not to mention that after a long beer-tasting session, the taster grows tired and the degustation abilities decrease. There are degustation committees in breweries made up of people involved in the production, lab workers and sometimes even people in marketing.

How many beer tasters are there in the Czech Republic? Is this profession taught at schools?
This profession is not taught on its own, but can be part of high school or university brewmaster studies. But every committee must train regularly in order to keep improving. In some countries, there are specialised commercial firms teach degustation techniques. In the Czech Republic, the Beer and Malt Research Institute holds degustation seminars.

How should you drink beer so that you fully appreciate the experience? What should you pay attention to?
Beer should not taste like alcohol-flavoured soda water. It should not be boring, and after the first taste, it should make the drinker want to take a second sip. It should be interesting, and it should bring pleasure.

Does a beer taster ever go out for a beer? What type of beer?
Probably as much as any other beer drinker. The difference is that beer tasters are more discriminating and they like to try tasting various specialty beers, be they local or foreign. One difference is a certain professional deformity: They subconsciously analyse the tastes even when they are just out having a beer.

Are there any women beer tasters?
Of course: When it comes to some tastes, women can be more discerning than men.

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