My first beer tasting - spicy blondes, fruity ales, and a helping of fried courgette

26th Mar 19 | Lifestyle

A regular drinker of the pint, Luke Rix-Standing attends his first ever beer tasting, and finds it unexpectedly illuminating.


I confess that I approached my first beer tasting with, if not scepticism, then at least a little trepidation.

I tried wine tasting once, and remember well the look of disappointment in the eyes of my host amid my woeful attempts at ‘observation’. Tens of tastings later the withering look remained, though perhaps aimed more at my poorly-disguised inebriation than my sub-par attempts at oenology (aka the study of wine).

A laid table ready for beer tasting
Tasting’s afoot (Luke Rix-Standing/PA)

I have never felt compelled to put my favourite beers through such treatment, but an invitation to a Heineken event tasting their range of international beers, piqued my curiosity. Armed only with a love of lager and a fear of sommeliers, I approached the tasting with no real idea of what to expect…

Think before you drink

We kick off on the stroke of five, so sensibly start with a non-alcoholic Birra Moretti – a newly launched product available only in the UK and Italy. It still tastes like Moretti, and since that’s far from a given with zero-percenters, in my book that’s a win.

Dark and light malt
Dark and light malt – surprisingly munchable (Luke Rix-Standing/PA)

The tasting is hosted by Heineken master brewer, Jeroen Stoffels, who starts by introducing us to his raw materials: Malt, hops, yeast, and different varieties of water (“Not all water is created equal”). On the table are bowls of dark and light malt, which we’re encouraged to try. The light tastes entirely nondescript – despite my preference for light beers – but the dark I would happily wolf down as a bar snack.

I’m intrigued to discover beer tasting does indeed have a technique to it, not a million miles from tasting wine. Step one is to observe your beer, appraising the colour and texture; step two requires a gentle swirling to release the aroma; and step three is to deeply inhale the smell. I’m relieved to learn this is where the similarities with wine tasting end – beer tasters are not expected to spit out their sips in order to keep a clean palate.

A tasting card for Birra Moretti
My Moretti tasting card (Luke Rix-Standing/PA)

Next we are handed tasting cards to guide us through the waiting brews, with notes on aroma, taste, and food pairing. Our beers are served by the bottle, and with accompanying dishes to “increase intensity.”

Taste in moderation

Initially, I’m a little nonplussed. Our opening offerings are Sol, Amstel and Moretti (the alcoholic kind), the last of which I’ve been ordering at the pub for most of my adult life. It feels slightly portentous to sniff a glass of Moretti as though it’s Chateau Lafite 1945. My tasting card reads “slightly hoppy”, with “blended-in bitterness”, but all I can taste is last Friday night.

Things pick up, however, as we move away from the high street. Affligem Blonde is hardly microbrewery fare, but no one present has tried it before, and it seems a favourite of our host. A Belgian beer that can apparently trace its history back to 1074, there are approving nods around the table, and the accompanying smoked salmon rusk washes down nicely.

Fried zucchini and a mini burger
My Amstel and Moretti pairings – fried courgette and a small, mysterious burger (Luke Rix-Standing/PA)

More intriguing still are the pairings, which manage to confound my scepticism. The fried courgette goes well with the smoothness of Moretti, and the maltiness of Amstel is offset nicely by some meat. The clear highlight is the Sol, which we are served with bite-sized chunks of sweetcorn fritter. The lightness of the beer and food makes a natural match, and there are numerous requests for seconds.

I’m starting to enjoy myself – and not just because of the half-empty beer bottles – but with the next round they lose me. Out comes a tray of Lagunitas IPA – a perfectly pleasant, if slightly overpowering ale – accompanied by what looks like a tray of steamed cauliflower. A moment of silence falls around the table, as we collectively process the bowls of little green stalks (turns out it’s romanesco). “It’s an unusual combination,” says the gentlemen opposite.

The pairing suggestion reads: “Desserts with chocolate are a great option”. I feel robbed.

Beer and cauliflower
But why (Luke Rix-Standing/PA)

Next up is Desperados, and I have a confession to make. These tequila-infused beers made up the bulk of a particularly gruesome night of teenage drinking in Berlin, and I haven’t touched the stuff since. I tell the master brewer, who nods sagely: “We all have one like that, for me it was rum.”

With most of the tasting cards behind us, a pattern emerges – I can reliably detect around half of the tastes and aromas they suggest. The Desperados are sweet, but I’m not sure they’re acidic; the IPA yields a whiff of spice and pepper, but I cannot find a trace of white wine; the Affligem tastes decidedly fruity, but the vanilla wholly passes me by.

Four half empty beers
Work never stops (Luke Rix-Standing/PA)

Our final round brings the return of the zero percent Moretti – a wise move perhaps, as some of my companions are beginning to look a little flushed. My tasting card tells of a “breadcrust aroma leaning to malty yellow, fruits,” and suggests a menu of focaccia, quiche, chicken salad or sushi.

Given that the purpose of zero-percent Moretti is surely to taste like normal Moretti, this feels a bit of a reach, but I’m inclined to forgive the card its excesses. It goes rather well with pretzels.

In conclusion

I came away not wholly converted to tasting – as opposed to just drinking – my beer. But I expanded my horizons, found that food pairing is not the sole preserve of the wine bottle, and no one looked at me with disdain when I admitted I couldn’t smell the lemongrass in the Lagunitas.

Putting my pub staples through highfalutin tasting rituals still felt a little strange, but with craft beers taking on the market at every turn, this might be the way the wind is blowing.

That would be quite alright with me. The end result is simple – more beer.

© Press Association 2019