Wednesday 27 April 2011

The Meaninglessness of Tasting Notes

Tasting notes are hard things to get right. Here’s some which don’t quite get the job done...

“Good bitterness levels...” As opposed to bad ones, presumably.

“The flavour has a good balance of malt, fruit and hops...” Any particular type of fruit? What about the malt and hops?

“Hoppy finish and aroma...” Phew.

“A strong copper coloured premium bitter with a good malty taste and full hopped aroma.” How to describe a beer I don’t want to drink.

“A well balanced and traditional brew.” That’s all you’re getting for this one.

Here’s one for the IPA police: “An authentic strong India Pale Ale, brewed to a traditional recipe. Beautifully pale with an intense grapefruit hop flavour.”

“A single delicate hop added...” Not one for hop heads.

“A sprung beer, triple hopped, with a complex fruity taste.” I love complex fruit.

“...a gentle bitterness.” They didn’t put enough hops in it then, did they?

“...this strikingly malty beer...” Strikingly malty?!

“Ideal for St George’s day.” With love from the Marketing Department.

“A smooth, medium-strong bitter, full of malt and hop flavours with a sweet aftertaste.” Mmm, I love those delicious generic malt and hop flavours.

“A speciality beer with fruit and hops on the aroma and in the taste. Dry and faintly astringent on the palate leading to a strong, dry and moderately astringent finish.” So it’s dry and astringent? Exactly what I look for in a beer.

There was, however, one note which stood above all the others as the epitome of a lame tasting note: “A gold-coloured beer with an aroma of malt and hops. Well-balanced malt and hops taste is followed by a hoppy, bitter finish with some fruit notes.”


These were all taken from the Planet Thanet beer list. With over 200 beers on for the weekend there are a lot of tasting notes to be compiled, written and edited, and it’s a difficult job given the limited word allowance for each. Aside from these, most of the others were good and gave some interesting information (A classic: “Pale, straw coloured. Strong citrus aroma. Well balanced bittering, long dry finish. A fruity, zesty character.”), so it’s not a criticism of the writing, because it’s a thankless job pulling those together, instead it’s a look at how meaningless some tasting notes can be when describing beers.

I’ve also noticed that I didn’t try any of the beers used as examples above. I wonder how many others didn’t order them because they had no idea what the beer would actually taste like. Ultimately, a tasting note has to make a person want to drink the beer, whether it’s a long form ode or just ten perfectly ordered words. If it doesn’t give some indication of what it looks and tastes like, or some push towards why you should try it, then it’s essentially meaningless.

What are the worst, funniest or most meaningless tasting notes you’ve read? (RateBeer and BeerAdvocate aside)

Last year I wrote about the 10 words used too often to describe beer and they are all on display here. I’m also sure that if you trawl back through the 450+ blog posts on here you’ll find some terrible examples which I’ve written. Consider them circled with a virtual red pen with the words ‘must try harder’ scribbled beside them.


  1. Writing about flavour is like dancing about architecture.

  2. Jeff one can dance about architecture — both are about shapes.

  3. My favourite is the description of Boddingtons Bitter that appeared for many years in the Good Beer Guide - "popular straw coloureed bitter"

  4. Oops - that should be "popular straw coloured bitter"

  5. I try and avoid the use of the words hops or malt in my tasting notes. Beer contains both hops and malt; it tells you nothing.

  6. I think fruit(y) is fine if you specify which fruit. Trying to describe how bitter a beer is is futile. That what BUs are for. The main problem with english ale is that most are very similar . I taste Budweiser for a living, we don't use the word hops. Or flavour.

  7. Well, there are beers that lack a lot of the hoppy character and others that lack the malty character or where the one really overpowers the other. And yet others where they are in balance. Sure, it doesn't really tell me much if they are in balance or if the beer is hoppy and malty, but for those just starting out with tasting notes or actually tasting beer (or both), one shouldn't really go out and say "Be more specific!" or "Don't use these words!". In the beginning it's hard to tell apart this and that and the other kind of hopppiness and maltiness. With fruitiness it's even harder. At least for me in beer. I can find the difference in the citrus of a wit, the grapefruit of an IPA and the mango of a citra-hopped beer, but trying to find the exact combination of fruit in a lot of British blonds and bitters is pretty difficult sometimes.

    Of course, if these are supposed to be professional/selling spiels, then they are really inadequate.

  8. "Mmmmm! Beer!" by Homer Simpson.

    Probably not intended as tasting notes, but as informative as many genuine examples I've seen. I dare the next beer festival to use that as the description of every beer on its list. :D

  9. Pretty sure none of those tasting notes are mine but I must admit writing tasting notes is not my strong point.

  10. My wife once described a beer as "beery". Strangely enough I knew what she meant. When many beers I drink have all kinds of interesting stuff going on, "Beery" just means it tastes like regular beer that regular people drink I suppose.

    Her other favourite is "roasty" and roasty does not have anything to do with roasted grains. I am not sure what she is talking about but I suspect it is something to do with lighter more delicate hops like saaz and other noble hops because it is usually in blond ales that she gets it.

  11. Oh and any tasting notes at a beer festival are always useless with the exception of the first one or two perhaps.....

  12. I like the Pictish approach to describing their single hopped range:

    "...frankly I can’t be bothered to write that many sets of almost identical tasting notes. Therefore if you need tasting notes for any of these beers they are;

    A pale, very hoppy beer brewed using [insert name] hops".

    Tasting notes are a pain in the arse. Brewers don't always want to supply them, organisers still feel the need to offer them, punters get confused by them. You don't need them in a pub, do you? The better ones will tell you where a beer sits on a light-dark scale and let you make up your own mind.

  13. Rick - Nothing wrong with awesome so long as it's got a qualifying statement with it - this beer is awesome because... :)

    Bumpby - I agree. Fruity is ok but it does need something extra. Bananas and apples taste very different but are both fruit... I'm interested in you tasting Bud for a living - is that you actual, paid-to-do-it job? If so, let me know as I'd like to chat to you more about it!

    MacMoney - All beers are both hoppy and malty and the terms mean nothing in isolation. It's like describing cheese as cheesy. But it is difficult to pull different flavours out, I agree. Even a simple 'citrus bitterness' or 'earthy bitterness' is better than hoppy. As for malt - bread and coffee taste very different, as does everything in between, so malty just doesn't mean anything. British beers are often much harder, I totally agree. I hate the word earthy because it doesn't mean much but Brit beers often have that...

    Michael - Haha! That would be funny!

    ToA - Roasty in blonde ales?! That is odd...

    Simon - That works well for tasting notes in my opinion and it is made right by the word 'very' used in front of hoppy. That makes it ok with me!

  14. Fully agree - as a beer nerd - but what about the casual drinkers? Surely they just need something to nudge them in the right direction.

  15. "Writing about flavour is like dancing about architecture" - have I ever shown you my interpretive flavour dance? Jazz-hands represent hops (and acid in lambics), stompy tap represents the malt. It's particularly effective, as it encompasses the temporal aspect of beer flavour. I showed it to Ben Macfarland once - he was appalled.

  16. Zak - that's a video blog I'd actually watch.