The craft beer industry is exploding. Increasingly, beer drinkers are expecting more from those who make their favorite drink. Complex flavors, adventurous ingredients and a wide variety of styles are appearing on lists of brewery offerings as well as tap handles in bars and restaurants across the country.
In fact, according to the Brewer’s Association, variety is a hallmark of craft beer consumption. According to a recent survey, 60% of craft beer drinkers responded by saying that variety was their primary motivation behind opting for craft brews. Of those varieties, India Pale Ales (IPAs) reign, accounting for approximately 25% of all craft beer varieties.
With the rise of craft beer varieties as well as increased interest from beer drinkers, another trend is growing: that of sophisticated beer tasting.
In the past, swirling, quaffing and flavor notes were all associated with wine. However, increasingly, drinkers are taking a similar approach to beer. It makes sense, considering the wide range of flavors and ingredients available to brewers.
While many argue that there is no right way to taste craft beer — the perfect beer is the one you enjoy — if you truly want to pick up all the nuances of the amazing beers being brewed all over the world, there are certain things you need to do. So if you’re interested in graduating from merely drinking beer to being a professional-grade beer sipping sophisticate, this guide to tasting craft beer is for you. We will unpack all of the steps to tasting craft beer: uncovering all of the wonderfully complex flavors, sensations and visual beauty of the world’s most popular brew.
The Steps to Tasting Craft Beer
We will now break down the various steps for properly conducting your own beer tasting. If you peruse professional reviews of different craft beers, these are the method used. While you may adjust your approach to better tailor your experience to your personal tastes, know that standardizing the tasting process is how professional beer tasters and reviewers come to more objective conclusions. By following these steps, not only will you be exposing yourself to the beautifully varied experience of craft beer, but you also are able to enter rewarding conversations with other beer lovers and hop heads around the world.
Before you start tasting your beer, you need to start with a proper pour. To properly judge a beer, you must first put in a glass. Sorry, pros don’t drink a beer straight out of the can!
Start by picking out the proper glassware. Depending on the style, the shape of the glass will enhance the experience. Many craft-brewers are even printing a picture of the preferred glassware on the labels of their bottles.
For example, pilsners and wheat beers are best served in tall, slender glasses. These are beautifully golden, heady beers, so a tall glass enhances that experience. On the other hand, a tulip shaped glass, which is round like a goblet but has a wider rim, is perfect for both Belgian style beers and IPAs. Both of these styles put a lot of emphasis on aroma, so the wide rim emphasizes that experience.
It’s also important that your glassware has been properly cleaned. Oils, residues and soap scum left on the inside of the glass will cause carbonation bubbles to stick to the glass.
To pour your beer, you want to tilt the glass at a 45-degree angle and aim your pour at the middle of the side of your glass. When you have filled your glass about halfway, start to tilt the glass upright, pouring the beer into the center of the glass. Make sure not to pour too fast. When you are done, you should have between an inch and an inch and a half of head to your beer.
If you pour too fast, you will be left with too much head to your beer. However, some head is important, which is why you pour your beer in the first place!
It is also important to note that, unlike certain advertisements about mountain ranges and freezing temperature, beer should not be served ice cold. While a very cold beer is refreshing, at lower temperatures many of the subtle, interesting flavors are muted. Many people have certain beers that they prefer cold after a hot day of yard work, but if you are doing a tasting, you should let your beer warm for just a little bit after taking it out the fridge. And while it is a time-honored tradition, avoid using a frosty mug.
Look at your beer:
Before you bring your beer to your lips, you need to taste with your eyes. Things like color and head retention are important. Depending on the situation in which you are tasting, bring a pencil and piece of paper and make notes.
Start by looking at the color of the beer itself. Is it golden, caramel, amber or black? The more descriptive you can be of the color, the better. There are a lot of variations of yellow, red or brown.
Next, look at the beer’s clarity. Does the beer appear bright and brilliant or is it hazy? Depending on the style, too much in either direction could be a bad thing. For example, an unfiltered beer should be somewhat hazy, but if the beer instead appears turbid, it might be visually off-putting.
Finally, inspect the head of the beer. Is it cloudy and billowy, with the top maintaining peaks almost like whipped cream? Or is it thin and quickly dissipating? What color is the head? Is it a tan color or is it brilliant white?
Give your beer a swirl. Gently twirl your beer so that it is agitated against the side of the glass. This technique will test head retention. It will also give you a chance to observe the carbonation bubbles. Are they tight like champagne? Or are they larger and quick to dissipate? If you are drinking a nitrogenized beer, such as Guinness, the bubbles will appear much smaller, and the head will be a lot creamier.
We mentioned that swirling your beer will demonstrate its head retention and carbonation. But that gentle swirl also aids in releasing a beer’s full aroma.
It’s important to remember that 80% of your taste perception comes from your sense of smell. By testing the fragrance and bringing out the subtle undertones, you will greatly enhance the complexity of your beer.
That’s because there are the obvious flavors — malty sweetness, spicy yeasts and bitter hops — that everyone associates with beer. But behind those forward flavors are a wealth of other fascinating and subtle tastes and aromas. A hoppy IPA may be piney, or it may smell more like stone fruit. When brewers agonize over what hops to use in their beer, it’s because they are deciding which of these aromas and flavors to include in their beer.
If you pour your beer and chug, you will miss that. But if you stop and smell the aromas, you have primed your palate to taste them when you take the first sip.
Just like with noting the appearance, you want to be as specific as possible. You may be surprised at what aromas you catch and even more surprised that you enjoy them. For many people, grassy aromas might not seem appealing at first, but if they appear in well-balanced beer, they can be quite incredible.
Of course, you may encounter aromas that are not appealing, which is a signal that either the beer is not well made, or something went wrong between bottling, shipping and arriving in your hand. Medicinal, metallic or vinegary aromas are all signs of a beer that has gone bad in some way or another.
Sometimes it can be hard to pick out specific aromas when you are tasting for the first time. Luckily, many breweries provide aroma and tasting notes. You can use these as a starting point. If they claim that you should smell hints of banana, see if you can find that aroma. If you can’t, trust your nose. Remember, breweries are trying to sell their product and are prone to exaggerate. If you are supposed to smell banana, and you don’t, that’s the kind of insight that a professional taster will make!
There’s a special technique to sniffing aromas. After swirling the beer, put your nose in the glass and take two sharp sniffs. Next, take a long normal smell and then finish with another long sniff with your mouth open.
Of course, you should do your best to smell your beer in a place without a lot of extraneous odors. Now is not the time to light a scented candle!
Taste your beer:
Ahhh, the point you’ve been waiting for; now’s the time to taste your beer. Don’t take a big gulp! You want to make sure that you sip just enough beer that you can explore its various aspects, but not so much that you are overwhelmed.
When you sip your beer, the key is not to swallow right away. You want to move it around in your mouth and coat as much of your tongue as you can. This technique will allow the various regions of your tongue — with different taste receptors — to bring out the various aspects of your beer. Because beer is a combination of malty sweetness and hoppy bitterness, you want the beer to be on both the tip and the back of your tongue.
Because you’ve already primed your palate with the aromas of your beer, seek out those same flavors. If you smelled coffee, try to find the coffee flavor. Again, consult a beer’s tasting notes if you want a little guidance on what you’re looking for.
Keep in mind; beer typically gets its flavor from three sources. There’s the malt, which is the sweet grain base that the yeast eats to make the alcohol. Flavors from malt may be bread-like or biscuity, or they may taste of coffee, toffee or caramel. Next, there’s the actual flavor of the yeast. Depending on the style, a brewer may use a nearly flavorless yeast because they want the malt or hop flavors to be the centerpiece. However, some yeasts, especially those used in Belgian styles, impart a lot of flavor, much of it spicy or funky. Finally, there are the hops used to bitter the beer. Hops come in a wide variety, and much like grapes, are famed for their various flavors. Some taste like pine while others are very citrusy. Some are juicy tasting while others are dry. In addition to these three standard flavor sources, brewers will also use adjuncts. An adjunct is any ingredient that is not the standard grain, yeast or hops. Some brewers add fruits, especially in summer beers, while pumpkin beers are popular in autumn.
You also want to pay attention to the mouthfeel. Depending on the beer, it will feel differently in your mouth. Is it creamy like a milkshake? Or is it dry and crisp like champagne? Again, brewers design their beers with mouthfeel in mind. One way to emphasize mouthfeel is to exhale while moving beer across your tongue.
Also, pay attention to the intensity of the flavors. A beer may be bitter, but is that bitterness subtle, growing in strength gradually? Or is it assertive, making its presence known the moment you take the first sip? Some beers are refreshing, while others are robust. These sensations typically derive from the intensity of the flavors.
Finally, after swallowing your sip, pause and wait for the aftertaste, or the finish. Some beers finish with a strong taste of alcohol while others finish sweet. Some may leave a dry, crisp feeling in your mouth while others may leave a lingering wetness.
Once you have made a note of all of these flavors, guess what — you get to do it again. Run through the whole process as many times as you want. If you missed a flavor that you were told was supposed to be there, give it another shot. Maybe you will pick it up the second time. Even if you don’t do every step — the swirling, the sniffing and the open mouth exhale — you will find that the things you picked during the initial tasting process will jump out as you enjoy your beer!
There is a lot of jargon in beer drinking, so let’s take some time to look at some of the terms that are common among beer tasters.
- Bouquet: We used the term aroma above, but sometimes you will hear people talking about bouquet. They may or may not be showing off.
- Big: If you hear someone talking about a big beer, it’s not that they are ordering a whole liter like they serve at Oktoberfest. They are talking about a beer with a high alcohol content. This addition will transform the flavor, and only certain styles taste great as big beers.
- Sessionable: These are beers that have low alcohol content and thus are suitable for a long day of drinking — a session. They have become increasingly popular, and a lot of beer drinkers are seeking out complex beers that are also sessionable.
- Funky: No, this is not a beer with good rhythm. There is a flavor in Belgian beers that is often referred to as Belgian funk. Frankly, these are flavors that seem like they’d be terrible, but are quite delightful. They are especially present in wild beer, which includes microbes that aren’t standard in most beers. It’s really hard to describe, but if you’re drinking a Belgian style, and you think you taste “funk,” then you are tasting funk.
- Skunked: This refers to a beer that has been damaged by light exposure. It tastes faintly like a skunk smells. It is not good.
- Imperial: This is an official designation that brewers give to their big beers. Many styles also have an “imperial” variety, like an imperial stout or an imperial IPA.
- Bugs: Certain microbes are used to make sour beers. While most microbes would ruin a beer, a small handful actually make a beer interesting and wonderfully sour. Some brewers are experimenting with taking the standard styles and adding these microbes. They will often refer to the proper microbes as bugs.
- Trappist: Certain Belgian beers are made by specific monks authorized to brew by the Pope himself. These are some of the most sought after beers in the world, and only a select few are allowed to be called “Trappist” beers.