One thing I find absolutely fascinating is when people have very highly developed palates, and it is one of the skills to which I most aspire. For example, there was a homebrewer in one of my old homebrew clubs who could tell me, from one sip, the entire recipe of my black IPA, from the malt to the hops to the yeast.
The most obvious (and fun) way to train your palate is to drink a lot of commercial beers and learn to pay attention to what you're tasting as well as the common flavor descriptors used to describe what you're tasting. As I mentioned in last week's I Tried It, the best way to learn what a style of beer is supposed to "taste like" is to buy commercial examples listed in the BJCP guidelines and read over the guidelines as you sample the beer styles.
While I'm getting better at identifying malt flavors and sometimes yeast flavors, I still find identifying the layers of hop flavors in beer to be somewhat of a challenge at times, particularly in beers that don't have a prominent hop profile. If you aren't familiar with the roles hops play in beer, adding flavors and aroma is one of them. For example, when you smell or taste an American IPA, most of what you will taste and smell comes from the types of hops used.
Beers made with just one type of hop are not common - it's like a chef making a dish with just one kind of spice. Single malt and single hop beers, known as SMaSH beers, are sometimes made commercially, but there are not enough made all at the same time to be able to taste a variety of them. Luckily, because it is difficult to find either single hop beers or SMaSH beers, there are several methods we can use to learn about the different aromas and flavors different types of hops impart to a beer. Unluckily, I didn't really do much research on all the different methods until after I did my experiment. Not that the experiment wasn't helpful (it was), but some of the other methods about which I learned seemed like they are better alternatives.
The method I tried was brewing teas out of nine different kinds of hops using a coffeemaker. To do this experiment, you'll need a small coffeemaker, coffee filters, and as many different types of hops as you like. I did nine types of hops because that's what I had available, and I was able to divide them up into three groups of similar hops (more on that below); however, toward the end of the experiment, I was sick of drinking hot hop water, so I would recommend trying out a smaller number of hops at a time, probably no more than six.
I bought a $15, 5 cup coffeemaker for this experiment because it is a relatively inexpensive purchase that ensures coffee made in your everyday coffee maker doesn't taste like hops and your hop teas don't taste like coffee. Prior to the experiment, I ran plain tap water through the coffeemaker several times to make sure there wasn't any residual plastic or new appliance smell or taste when I brewed my hops. Another pro tip: make sure you have enough coffee filters to use a new filter for each type of hop and still have enough to make your coffee the next day.
The hop varieties I used for my experiment were Warrior, U.S. Saaz, Santiam, Australian Sylva, U.S. Northern Brewer, German Select, Cascade, German Hallertau Blanc, and El Dorado. Some of the hops we already had on hand and some my husband found on sale in 1 ounce bags at our local homebrew shop and bought for me. You really only need about half an ounce of each variety, so this experiment is also great for using up any odds and ends hops you have laying around.
Side note: I used hop pellets for this experiment because they are the most commercially available and least costly. Hop pellets are made by grinding up whole hop cones and pressing them into pellets. They look a little like rabbit food pellets.
Once you have your supplies, the rest is pretty easy. I filled my coffeepot with enough water for two cups of coffee, put about half an ounce of pellets in a filter (half in ounce is roughly enough pellets to cover the bottom of the filter), and turned on the coffee pot. After the hop tea was brewed, I started another batch.
I grouped the hops together by similar aroma and flavor profiles:
- Warrior, U.S. Saaz, and Santiam
- Australian Sylva, U.S. Northern Brewer, and German Select
- Cascade, German Hallertau Blanc, and El Dorado
With each sample, I first evaluated the aroma by smelling the sample and writing down what notes I smelled and then evaluated the flavor by taking small sips and writing down what flavor notes I tasted. For most of the samples, I could detect some of the aroma and flavor notes, but some just tasted like super bitter hot broccoli water. I was surprised by how well the evergreen, wood, and mint notes showed up in the U.S. Northern Brewer hops, which I found to be very enjoyable. Northern Brewer hops are a classic American hop, but aren't as sexy as a lot of American hop varieties, so it gets overlooked a lot, including by me. I was also reminded how fantastic Cascade hops are - the aroma and flavor were big, juicy, and citrus-y and reminded me of how effing great some American Pale Ales are because of this definitively American hop variety.
While this experiment was helpful, it wasn't particularly enjoyable. Hot hop water is not good, everyone. It is incredibly bitter, so small sips are necessary. However, it was a good exercise in focusing on specific types of hops and putting the aromas and flavors I was experiencing into context with the beer styles in which the hop varieties are typically used. A more sophisticated way I read about (sadly) after making my hop teas involves dissolving some DME (Dry Malt Extract) into hot water and essentially making a mini-beer, which I will probably try at some point.
Overall, making hop tea this way to learn more about hop flavors is kind of an outdated way to learn about hop flavors. It was helpful, but wasn't the "Ah-ha!" experience for which I was hoping.
Aw man, I guess I have to drink more beer!