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Learning to Taste: Tannins

Updated: Dec 4, 2022

Tannins are often associated with the wine world and are used when describing those big and burly red wines that leave you with a dry-mouth feeling. Sommeliers, wine makers, and wine enthusiasts all know the benefits of tannins in the correct setting, and lots of people ask for a "tannic wine". Despite being synonymous with the wine industry, tannins as a concept can apply to any beverage made with plant material which includes beer, coffee, and tea, and if you can understand what tannins are and do at a fundamental level, you can learn to enjoy them (or despise them) in everything you drink. After all, why limit yourself to one drink?


Learning about tannins starts with understanding what they are and do. Tannins are responsible for that dry-mouth feeling you get when you drink an over-steeped tea or burley red wine, and while they don't actually add much in terms of flavor, they're a big part of the mouthfeel. They add a lot of value when it comes to food especially with fatty dishes like steak and rich pasta because it cuts through the oils and gets you ready to take another bite.

Wine is the classic example of an appropriate place for lots of tannins, and you can find plenty of them in Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, and Petit Sirah for starters. You'll notice that people bring up few (if any) white wines. Tannins exist in grape skins, stems, and seeds, and when wine makers make white wine, they only use grape juice and leave the tannins behind with the rest of the grape. Red wine, however, uses the entire grape during its production and that's why they have that tannic grip.


Beer can also have plenty of tannins, but when you get that mouth-drying sensation with a beer, it's typically a sign of a problem during the brewing process. Beer gets its tannins from the grains the brewers use to make the beer. Those grains are soaked in water giving the water flavors, sugars, color, and other things (like tannins). If the brewer allows the grains to seep for too long, the grains will add too many tannins and give the beer an unpleasant mouthfeel just like with tea. However, spontaneous fermented beer sometimes gives tannins a chance to add to the complexity. Because spontaneous beer is fermented with whatever yeast and bacteria that happens to be in the air, it can have all kinds of sour and funky flavors. The acidity that's already present in these beers plays well with slight levels of astringency from the tannins.


Wine isn't the only drink with tannins, and if you can understand how they work in wine, you can look for them and appreciate them in other drinks. Better understanding what you're drinking can improve the flavors and help you find more of what you like.


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