How good are your tastebuds?

A hop flower (from Wikimedia Commons, photographed by LuckyStar).

Can you drink a beer and guess which hops are in it?

We are the first to admit that we are still learning our way around beer. One thing we’ve been working on is our ability to spot varieties of hops in beer — useful when you want to brew your own version of a particular beer, or borrow some element of its flavour or aroma. Or when you want to show off to other beer geeks.

So far, we’ve got the basic stuff sorted.

  • Citrusy American hops are easy to spot.
  • Goldings often make a beer smell of oranges.

But that’s about it as far as our own senses go.  We usually have to resort tog to scouring the internet for expert analysis and comments from loose-lipped brewers.

If you’ve got super tastebuds and or a super nose, were you born that way? Or did you train yourself? Any tips would be much appreciated…

8 replies on “How good are your tastebuds?”

Practice is the key for me (like I need an excuse!)

I can spot Bramling Cross quite easily, they have a very soft floral taste in my experience (Acorn Bramling Cross IPA)

Challenger are a touch more assertive with a real piney aroma (Coniston Bluebird)

I can pick bobek / styrians when they’re used as aroma hops but they’re more dificult to describe being floral and lemony at the same time (Cocker Hoop and possibly Cumberland Ale)

I’m really just learning what its all about myself, that’s why we keep The Brew Club at a really layman level. I think most folks know the difference between a lager and an ale, but as far as pinpointing ingredients, most don’t. Its a learning process, and a fun one at that!

It is a very tricky skill to pick up and one that I am certainly yet to master. I reckon I could spot a Cascade hop at 20 paces now though and the Saaz hops often used in real lagers are quite distinguishable. Is it me or are they a lot easier to identify in pale golden beers than darker ones?

I’m not much further along than you, but have been known to be able to identify East Kent Goldings, which has a very characteristics earthy pea-like aroma. Simcoe I can also pick up at times, because of its catty rubbery aroma. Saaz I reckon I should be able to recognize by now.

The trouble with this is that the aromas of the different hop varieties tend to be very close, so that even if you pick up a spicy citricity that doesn’t need to mean that there’s Cascade hops in the beer. It could be one of the many other hops that smell very like Cascade.

In general I think the only way to do this is to train the nose, and preferably with homebrew, where you know what hops have actually gone into the beer. (To pick a nit: note that super tastebuds won’t help a bit, since they can only distinguish the five basic tastes. It’s the nose that does the work.)

Thanks to certain beers, I feel like I’m able to notice a particular type of hops if they’re featured strongly enough in other beers. For instance, Weyerbacher’s Double Simcoe IPA from Pennsylvania obviously features that strain prominently. Zatec or other Czech offerings paint a clear picture of the spicy and delightful Saaz. I try to pick up on that and spot them when I can, but combine a couple types of hops and I’d probably be completely lost.

American hops do tend to lean toward the citrusy side but, like Lars, I’m not sure I could pick out the subtle differences between Cascades, Columbus, Centennial, Chinook, etc. I really dig the floral and earthy notes of Fuggles and East Kent Goldings, can’t get enough of them. But at the moment, I couldn’t tell the difference between the two, since many English beers I’ve tried use both.

All this is has given me the sudden urge to hit the local homebrew shop.

It’s interesting that what’s obvious to one person isn’t to another. I don’t reckon I could taste the difference between the hops used in lagers, even the good ones. More brewing and more drinking is clearly required.

Often with hops it’s the combo that can throw you – eg Challenger being used with typical English hops to finish seems to give quite a different effect to Challenger + Cascade.

Then of course there are the other ingredients. We’ve noticed since we’ve been using liquid strains since December that some strains are really distinctive, and you can change the grist and hop profile completely and still taste the underlying similarities caused by the yeasts.

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