A Time and a Place: Blind Tasting
When I first fell in love with craft beer, I always thought that the concept of blind tasting, much like spit tasting, was only a tradition practiced in the wine world. It was not until I found the Cicerone® Certification Program that I realized there some people who cared about this sort of thing when it comes to beer. For anyone who is not familiar with this concept it is the practice of tasting beers making sure you do not know anything about the beer except what is in front of you in the glass, no can, no bottle, no label, no brewery name, no hints. The real question though is, what is the point? Why blind taste at all?
There are a few reasons to taste beer blind. One of the more popular reasons is to do a themed tasting of lots of different beers that are all the same style, i.e., all barrel aged stouts, beers that are the same style and all have vanilla added to them or all single hop IPAs that are all using the same hop. This is a great way to really see if a beer lives up to any hype surrounding it because in this format the beer speaks for itself, there is no label, no brewery, no tasting notes, if a beer is good it should not need any of those things, right? I think this is a practice that the world of craft beer needs more and more of. I know that Craft Beer and Brewing Magazine does tastings like this when they have their “best of” issues for particular styles of beer. I also find this to be helpful when tasting homebrews as well. When someone says “try my homebrew” the expectations seem to drop in our minds, but I would suggest buying commercial examples that are closest to the style you brewed and have folks blind taste all the beers side by side to get some unadulterated feedback and make sure you don’t reveal that one of the beers is a homebrew.
Another great reason to do blind tasting is to try and improve your tasting ability. I think that everyone who is a craft beer enthusiast should try this at least once or twice. I think many of us think that we are good tasters, but tasting blind is a humbling experience, at least it was for me. Even though it can be a humbling experience, it is something you can get good at and the thrill of victory is totally worth it. Improving your tasting ability is especially important if you are studying for any Cicerone® Exam beyond Certified Beer Server or are wanting to be a beer judge.
Now that you have decided to blind taste some beers what is next? The first thing you will need is a proctor. This person will be responsible for pouring your beer and keeping track of which beer is which, so when it is time for the big reveal you know what you were tasting. Your proctor does not necessarily need to be the same person that picks out the beer for you, but it certainly helps, and I would encourage anyone who plans on proctoring often for someone to practice purchasing beer and putting together the tastings themselves if they are up to the challenge. Blind tasting without a proctor is certainly possible, especially if you have someone who can provide you beer that is wrapped in foil or something to cover it, but even the knowledge of whether it is in a can or bottle or has a cork can give you context clues that in some situations could certainly give away the answer.
The next thing to consider is your environment. Tasting in an environment that is free from outside aromas is the most desirable situation. This means not lighting any candles, do not where cologne or perfume, same goes for your proctor as well, don’t use scented soap, lotions or cleaners before the tasting and if you can, definitely try to refrain from smoking. It is also good to have a fresh palate when you taste, so lay off the coffee, smoking, eating spicy food, etc. before your tasting and try not to taste on a full stomach if you can. Lastly, make sure to have a quiet environment with minimal to no distractions.
The next thing to think about is your setup and your format. It is helpful to have the same glass or cup for each beer that you will be blind tasting, again so the only thing that is different is the beer. Have a blank piece of paper so that you can take notes on each of the beers and a glass of water to refresh your palate between beers. You should not be in the room when the beers are being poured and shouldn’t be able to hear any corks pop or cans being opened, again because context clues can impact your choices. Then when it comes to format you need to decide how difficult you want the tasting to be, obviously the most difficult is full blind, you have the beers in front of you and that is it, this is the kind of blind tasting that is required for exams like the Master Cicerone® Exam. You could also have a certain number of options and choose between those, i.e., is beer number 1 an American IPA or an English IPA, which is used for the blind style distinction portions of the Certified Cicerone® and Advanced Cicerone® Exam. I would also suggest setting a timer that gives you an average of 5 minutes per beer to start and as you get used to the process give yourself less and less time until you can do 3 minutes per beer.
At the end of the day blind tasting is a fun exercise and I am a big proponent of people experiencing beer in ways that they find enjoyable. I think that there is a lot to be gained from the process and if you find it fun I must warn you, you will quickly find yourself doing whatever it takes to do it again.