Learning to taste beer

You’d think tasting beer would be as simple as:

  1. Pour beer into mouth;
  2. Enjoy;
  3. Return to step 1.

And honestly, for most people this is enough. One of the many things I love about beer is how accessible it is. You don’t need to train your palate or study for years to appreciate the diverse range of flavours, aromas, and textures beer can offer. You just pick a brewery you like, or a style you particularly appreciate, or even just the one with the prettiest label and get stuck in.

There are some beer geeks, however, who want to take things a step further. For them, the first step may be a taste training course with the Campaign for Real Ale, CAMRA.

Who is CAMRA tasting panel training for?

Ultimately, CAMRA uses this session to train people to submit descriptions and scores for the beers they drink. Those descriptions are what you’ll find in materials such as the Good Beer Guide. And the highest rated beers of each style can end up competing to win Champion Beer of Britain.

Required knowledge for this session is pretty minimal. A keen interest in beer and a willingness to learn is far more useful than any facts you could memorise beforehand. It’s helpful if you’re familiar with a few different styles of beer – but if you’re the sort of person signing up for beer taste training, I suspect you’ve tried a variety already.

The session I attended had a real mix of people, ranging from long-in-the-tooth experts back for a refresher to people who know what beer they like, but not how to describe it. The session had an even split of men and women and a mix of different ages, though it did skew a little on the older side.

What does the training teach you?

The course synopsis says it will teach how people taste, the basic aromas and flavours found in beer, how CAMRA assesses and scores beers for tasting cards and the Champion Beer of Britain competition, and how to write a beer description.

Even if you decide later you don’t want to join a CAMRA tasting panel, the experience is still useful. The structure that tasting cards bring is really helpful for understanding and reviewing beers. It’s something I’ve started to apply in my beer reviews since.

How much does CAMRA tasting panel training cost?

The training sessions running now are interim sessions over Zoom. That means the course itself costs nothing and there’s no travel cost to attend the session.

You will need to be a CAMRA member to sign up for the session, which generally costs £26.50 per year. You’ll also need to buy the three beers for tasting on the session: Spitfire, Proper Job, and Old Peculier. In total, those should set you back less than £5.

What was CAMRA tasting panel training like?

The first thing that surprised me about signing up for this training session was just how organised it all was.

Organisation at beer-related events is something of a mixed bag. That may not come as a surprise, given the central theme of these events.

However, on this particular occasion the event was run by Christine Cryne, a powerhouse of efficiency. Having run the Great British Beer Festival and the London Drinker Beer & Cider Festival, distributing flavour kits to every corner of the country in time for a Zoom training session must have been a walk in the park.

The second thing that surprised me about this training session was the highly illegal-looking, taped up envelope filled with suspicious sachets. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your weekend activities) these just contained samples of malted barley, spices, and dried fruits to help us learn to pick those flavours up when drinking beer.

Apparently the brown powder leaking from one of the sachets is ground clove, not heroin.

The third thing that surprised me about this training session is that we ended up happily talking for a couple of hours without cracking open even a single beer. And we could have gone on for longer: learning about the different flavour profiles that different yeasts can bring to a beer, tips on the aromas characteristic of specific hops (Bramley Cross for blackcurrant flavours, for example) and a deep dive into water chemistry could have kept me chatting for hours.

Admittedly this may have more to do with me being a massive nerd than anything else.

The session starts quieter than I was expecting. There’s only seven of us on the call, six if you don’t count Christine who’s running the show. That’s a downside of running remotely: normally these events run with dozens of people split into even groups of around six people each, which explains the low headcount.

There was no danger of us being quiet by the end of the session. Another upshot of running this event remotely is that we’re stuck with a full bottle of each beer we taste, rather than ordering much more sensible halves or thirds. After writing up the notes for beer number three I feel confident navigating a CAMRA tasting card, inspired to write more descriptive beer reviews, and in desperate need for a plate of chips.

It’s not quite the same as the real thing, I’m sure. But I’m glad I attended this tasting training, even if it’s only a stopgap until a session in real life. If you’re interested in joining an online beer tasting, you can find a selection on CAMRA’s events page here or you can trawl their feed on Twitter for new events as they’re announced. And if you’re keen to find out what Christine’s up to, you can find the latest on her website.

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