One of the things that can be hardest when exploring the wonderful world of beer is how to describe the different flavours you find across different styles and brands of beer, and knowing how to describe what you like and don’t like. Firstly, taste is subjective, and different people taste flavours differently, and like or dislike flavours differently. Secondly, when compared with wine and spirits, there is less of an established and consistent language for talking about flavours in beer, which often makes it hard to explain your preferences, and can be challenging when exploring new styles or brands. Beer can be an extremely complex beverage in terms of flavours – professional tasters can pick out hundreds and thousands or different flavours in beer, far more than in wine. You can find ‘professional’ tasting wheels online (try this one: http://beerflavorwheel.com/) but for the average pair of taste buds, this is far too technical and difficult to use.
So we’ve developed a very simple, very basic flavour matrix that we think will be a helpful guide to the complicated world of trying new beers – the chart below shows how we’ve plotted a range of different beers. View PDF here
We’ve gone for two simple measures. The vertical axis is a rough guide to intensity of flavour – from complex beers that are best for savouring, to clean, refreshing, quenching beers. The horizontal axis describes whether the dominant flavour of the beer is driven by the hops, or by the malt (or wheat). Being on one side or the other doesn’t necessarily mean that a beer is more or less hoppy or malty, simply that hops or malt is the dominant flavour – remember that the vertical axis also helps describe how strong the flavour is in general.
As with our classification of beer styles, our flavour matrix is unashamedly a simplified version of something that is very complicated, and should be treated as such. It is definitely not meant to be the oracle in terms of beer flavour – but it will help you figure out roughly what a beer you haven’t tried before tastes similar to.
We haven’t tried to plot the beer styles on this matrix, mainly because there is such variety across different brands within a style. In wine and spirits, people often have a very defined view of what they like an don’t like: “I drink chardonnays and vodka, and I don’t like merlots or whiskeys”. These broad principles can be helpful, but they can also be limiting. We reckon that in beer, because the categories are less well established, it is better to talk about what flavours you like than pigeonholing yourself to certain categories. For example, if you feel like an intensely flavoured hoppy beer, then you might choose some Pilseners and not others, and some Pale Ales and not others. Or if you like malty, sweet flavours but want something quenching and easy-drinking, you might go for a different Dark Beer or Other Ale than if you fancied something complex and challenging to sip and savour.
If you don’t agree with where we’ve put different beers on the matrix, well, that’s expected and perfectly natural. Don’t treat it as gospel, use it as a guide. Everyone tastes things differently, and flavour is a very subjective concept. There were lots of great arguments while pulling together this version of the matrix, and everyone who worked on it had a slightly different opinion – that’s part of the fun!