How to taste beer

10 mins read
Michael Jackson, aka The Beer hunter, was an expert in tasting beer and shared his knowledge in several books
Michael Jackson, aka The Beer hunter, was an expert in tasting beer and shared his knowledge in several books

Do you know how to taste beer? Before you accuse me of smoking something illicit, I’m not asking if you know how to drink beer. Anyone with a mouth can drink beer but do you know how to taste beer?

I guess a better question might be do you know how to evaluate the taste of beer? You’ve probably seen beer reviews on various sites around the web, even here on Beer Utopia, and they generally use a similar set of criteria for evaluating a beer: appearance, smell, taste, mouthfeel, and drinkablity.

So why would you want to bother evaluate your beer instead of just drinking it? It’s the difference between looking at a pretty picture and appreciating a work of art. It’s the difference between watching the game on TV and experiencing it in person. It is what separates true beer lovers from those who just like to drink beer. Evaluating these five characteristics will give you all the information you need about any particular beer and being able to recognize and describe these characteristics will qualify you as a true beer geek.

The appearance of a beer includes its color, head, clarity, and carbonization.

  • Color: Common descriptors from light to dark are straw, yellow, gold, amber, deep amber/light copper, copper, deep copper/light brown, brown, dark brown, very dark brown, black, and opaque. In competitions color is often evaluated using the SRM (Standard Research (or Reference) Method) scale. Pilsners will have and SRM around 2 or 3 while stouts will be over 40. It is not necessary to know the scale but the color can give you a hint about the style.
  • Head: Some beer produces a bigger head than others, assuming it is poured correctly and the glass is clean, and is often measured in “fingers.” For example, “the beer produced about two fingers of head,” which means the head was about the thickness of the width of two fingers. A good, thick head is generally a good sign while a thin head can indicate there is a problem with the beer. “Lacing” is related to head and describes the way the foam clings to the glass as it is emptied. Lacing indicates a beer’s ability to maintain its head.
  • Clarity: This refers to the cloudiness of the beer. Some beers, like pilsners, should be very clear while others, like hefeweizens, should be hazy.
  • Carbonization: This is pretty self-explanatory. Are the bubbles fine or course? Do you see a lot of bubbles or just a few?

A big part of what we taste actually comes from smell. That’s why kids hold their nose when they have to eat something that doesn’t taste good. The best time to smell the beer is immediately after you finish the pour and you must pour the beer into a glass to be able to accurately evaluate it. The carbonization carries the smell up and out of the beer and immediately after the pour is when you will have the most bubbles. This is one reason why a good head is important on a beer. However, if the head is too thick, it can actually prevent the aromas from escaping the glass. If you don’t smell anything, or smell very little, let the beer sit for a minute or two; often the aromas will be stronger after the head dissipates a little. Beer that is too cold will have little aroma. Allow the beer to warm a little and see how it “opens up.”

So what exactly are you trying to smell? Beer is a very aromatic beverage. Every variety of yeast, grain, and hops has its own particular aroma, though hops tends to contribute the most to the bouquet of beer. Fruity, banana, bubblegum, biscuit, bready, malty (sweet), smokey, spicy, herbal, floral, grassy, and resin are all common descriptors for beer aromas. Perception of aroma is very subjective; you may smell something different than someone else and that’s okay.

Finally we get to taste. Here again, temperature can make a big difference. If the beer is too cold, you won’t taste much. Take a drink and hold the beer in your mouth. Pay attention the different flavors on your tongue. Your taste buds are localized to different regions of the tongue: sweet at the tip, bitter at the back, and salty and sour on the sides. Good beer is complex and will exhibit multiple flavors. You need to hold the beer in your mouth for several seconds to discern the various flavors.

Then swallow. “Cork dorks,” wine drinkers, often spit out the wine during tasting but with beer you must swallow to experience the full flavor. The aftertaste is as important as the initial taste sensation on the tongue. Beer can be dry (lacking in sweetness), often leaving a bitter aftertaste from the hops, or have a lingering sweetness from the malt. Or neither. Or both. The aftertaste should compliment the initial taste but beyond that, the possibilities are endless.

Also note the balance of sweetness and bitterness. Whether you like sweet, malty beers or bitter, hoppy beers is a matter of personal preference but the balance is an important characteristic to note when describing the taste of a beer.

Notice how the beer feels in your mouth. This is primarily a description of the body of the beer. Does it feel full-bodied and thick or thin and watery. Beers brewed with oatmeal often have a “slick” or “slippery” mouthfeel. Generally, lighter beers have a thinner mouthfeel, with industrial light lagers being at the extreme end of the scale, while “bigger” beers brewed with a great deal or malt, like Imperial varieties, are at the other end. However, this is not a hard-and-fast rule. How the carbonization feels on your tongue also contributes to mouthfeel.

Not all beer reviews refer to drinkability and it is definitely the most subjective aspect of beer tasting. Drinkability basically refers to how many of the beers you feel you could drink in succession. Big, high-alcohol beers or those that are overly sweet or overly bitter aren’t usually beers you would want to drink one after another in a single sitting or “session.” This does not necessarily mean they aren’t good or that you don’t like them but some beers are better for drinking only occasionally.

There a few things to keep in mind when tasting beer. Colds, medication, cigarettes, and spicy or sweet food can all affect your taste buds and how you perceive certain flavors so avoid these if possible before tasting beer. Also, each beer you drink will affect how the next one tastes. Drinking more than one kind of beer in close succession (like at a beer fest) will make it difficult to get an accurate idea of how each beer tastes. I often find that I need to drink more than one of a particular beer before I can describe its subtleties accurately.

Finally, make sure you have a clean glass. Hand washing will help insure there is no soap or detergent residue on the glass that can affect taste and head retention. Also, using the proper glass for the style you are drinking really does make a difference, particularly when it comes to aroma.

So the next time you drink a beer, don’t just drink it, taste it. You may be surprised at what you have been missing by not paying attention to the finer details of your favorite brew. Taste a lot of beers (tough assignment, I know) and you will find that your ability to evaluate the subtlties of our favorite libation will grow along with your appeciation and love of beer in general.

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