As the craft beer market continues to steal market share from the big guys (oh yeah!), we wanted to give you a quick crash course on the proper way to taste a beer. There are constantly new beers being released, new hybrids, new collabs, etc., and we want to be sure you know the best way to taste, evaluate, and choose your latest fave.
Color will be the first thing you should notice as it can tell you about the style of beer and the type of malt used. The color range includes:
Pale yellow – Pilsner, Helles, Kolsches
Golden – Blonde Ales, Tripels, Wheat, Marzens, Saisons
Amber – Amber Ales, Pale Ales, IPAs, Maibocks, Altbier
Red – Red Ales, Flanders Red Ales, Fruit Beers
Light Brown – Brown Ales, Dubbels, Bocks, Scotch Ales
Dark Brown – Porters, Barley Wine, Dubbels, Quadrupels, Doppelbocks
Black – Stouts, Black IPAs, Schwartzbier
Another important property is clarity, which is better evaluated in lighter beers. Unfiltered beers with yeast still suspended in the liquid will appear cloudy, while filtered beers should be transparent. Pay attention to the head (or foam) on the beer – is it thick and sturdy, or does it dissipate? Don’t sip yet!
Note: Remember to use the correct glass! No, it isn’t a marketing tactic. It’s where science meets presentation.
Scent is one of the most important ways to analyze beer. Take a few deep inhalations to open up your nose. The more noticeable aromas are from the hops, which can impart a wide range of notes including grassy, floral, citrusy, piney, and tropical fruit. Malt aromas range from biscuits and crackers to toffee and caramel, to chocolate and coffee, to raisins and smoke. Yeast comes into play with aromas of banana, clove, pineapple, and spiciness. With higher ABV beers (10% and up), you can even smell the booziness of the alcohol.
After a good sniff or two, it’s finally time to drink…slowly. Take a decent sip and work it around your mouth to get all of your taste buds involved. For the most part, the flavors will agree with the identified aromas, but there are a variety of tastes that cannot be picked up by scent. For instance, bitterness (commonly an earthy, peppery, or dry taste) from the hops will only become apparent upon tasting the beer. Sugars will create tastes of dates, molasses, and candy. A telltale sign of wild yeast or lactobacillus bacteria is the immediate tartness of a sour ale. Barrel-aged beers will also contribute flavors like wood and leather. It is also worth noting that very cold beer tends to mask these flavors, so it’s best to let your beer warm up just a bit before tasting.
Mouthfeel is a commonly overlooked and underrated aspect of the beer drinking experience. Take another decent sip and allow the beer to roll around on your palate. You should be able to identify the beer’s body, with descriptions ranging from thin and astringent to smooth and thick. Alcohol will only be perceptible to most people in higher ABV beers, which will provide a distinct warming sensation.
A NOTE ON STYLE
When you’re evaluating a beer, remember you’re evaluating is as an example of a particular style of beer – not just another beer. So, there should be some understanding of at least the most common styles and their characteristics prior to an evaluation. Having this knowledge will allow you to determine if the beer is a good example, poor example, or an innovative example. Read our Craft Beer Styles post to learn more about the most popular styles of beer around.
Try not to learn too much about a beer’s flavor profile before trying it for yourself. It’s important not to have too many expectations that will compromise what you genuinely perceive in that particular brew. If someone tells you they detect notes of jasmine in an IPA, chances are you will too but only because you were already thinking about it. Where’s the fun in that? The best way to discover these flavors (however subtle) is to experience them in your own unique way.
-Max Boettcher, South Carolina Beer Curator