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A beer expert talks tips and tricks for tasting craft beer

A noted beer author gives tips on tasting craft beer

Randy Mosher has had an enormous impact on the craft beer culture in America. He’s designed labels for fan favorite breweries, like Three Floyds in Indiana and California’s own The Bruery. He's a part of two exciting Chicago-area breweries (5 Rabbit Cerveceria and Forbidden Root). And he’s an acclaimed beer writer with work in just about every beer-focused publication along with a shelf full of influential books.

Mosher's two new works, "Mastering Homebrew" and "A Beer For All Seasons," join 2004’s "Radical Brewing" and "Tasting Beer" from 2009. The latter is one of the most recommended books on craft beer, and it’s a foundational text in Ray Daniel’s cicerone program (think sommelier, but for beer). It's become required reading for any beer geek.

We sat down with Mosher before an evening of book-signing at The Bruery’s tasting room to talk about tips and tricks to develop your palate for craft beer, and how flavor stimulates the primitive side of our brains. 

What’s the difference between drinking beer and tasting beer?

Really it’s about focus. What are you really trying to do when you're drinking a beer? You want to have a pleasant flavor in your mouth. You want to have whatever you're in the mood for, whether it’s refreshment or intensity or richness or sweetness or bitterness. Are you doing quality control, are you looking for problems? Are you evaluating by style? Are you just wanting to get your head inside the beer?

When you do it enough, you get to the point where you start to recognize individual malts, certain families of hops, certain flavor groups and even flavor chemicals. The biggest thing is opening yourself up to whatever comes across your palate.

How can you improve your beer tasting skills?

I recommend to everybody who wants to be a beer professional to get into a home-brew judging program and judge home-brew competitions. Sitting down at a table and focusing all day on beer with people who probably know more than you do is a great way to learn.

How much beer knowledge do you need to enjoy craft beer?

As much knowledge as your friends will allow you to get away with without making fun of you! When you’re out drinking with a bunch of people, there’s always that one in the group. Maybe he’s a home-brewer. maybe he’s a super-enthusiast, so he’s going to tell you — like me, I'm going to tell you whether you want to know it or not.

You can get by. People can just go and drink IPAs or whatever and not think about it too much. Craft beer is ubiquitous enough now that you can get it and not have to pay that much attention to it. But a lot of the flavors kind of force you to [pay attention], and when you look at a menu it’s like, “I may not like all of those things.” That means you need to know about styles — Like what’s an Irish red? Is that bitter? Is that hoppy? Is that strong? You can always ask, but it turns into a lot of questions and the servers don’t always know. Sometimes it’s a little tough.

What’s the difference between a good beer and a great beer? 

Certainly a beer that's free from distractions, free from rough flavors. But one thing i'd say is, does the brewer have an idea? Does the beer showcase the brewer’s intentions and idea? For me, the question I always ask is: Will i remember this beer tomorrow? Or in a year?

Any tips for someone who wants to improve his/her craft beer tasting skills?

Know that when you get in a tasting state of mind, you just need to pay attention to those inner voices. Write descriptions down. Don’t edit yourself. Don’t think, “Oh, that couldn't possibly be [what i’m tasting]” because if you get into a place where an aroma or a flavor is giving you a little memory of your childhood or something in your past, you’re on the right track.

It takes practice. Flavor vocabulary is hard. Our brains are not good at coming up with language based on aromas and flavors. To me, that’s the most exciting thing about tasting — just how in touch with that different part of your brain you get.

Mosher’s new "Mastering Homebrew" and "A Beer for All Seasons" (which he described as “like five more chapters of Tasting Beer) are available now.

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