Surprisingly few people realize that a beer tasting can be just as serious – and fulfilling! – as a critical wine tasting. And why not? The beverage has been around for even longer than fermented grape juice has!
To help you get the most out of your beer, let’s break the tasting process down into four simple qualitative categories:
The most important part of your tasting begins before you’ve poured a drop of beer! Clean glassware is crucial not only because dirty or soapy glasses can taint your tasting experience –the resulting uneven carbonation sticking to the sides will also make your beer look very unappealing.
Once you’ve selected a clean glass (ideally one with a tapered rim, to maximize aroma!) it’s time to pour your beer with vigor – don’t be afraid of a thick and foamy head, which will help deliver aromas to your nose. Take notice of the beer’s color: is it dark, or light? Orange, yellow, red, or another color altogether? What shade? Generally, the color will tell you quite a bit about how deeply roasted the malts were used to make it.
Next, note the clarity of the beer: is it transparent or hazy? Perhaps opaque? This is generally an indication of whether or not the beer is filtered — and if not, suspended protein or yeast particles could affect the flavor or mouthfeel.
Most beers have a much lower ABV (alcohol by volume) than spirits or even wine – so feel free to cram your entire schnoz into the glass and take a good whiff. Try opening and closing your mouth while you do, noticing the differences. Don’t worry about what you should be smelling — think about what the aromas actually remind you of. Often, we’ll get even more information from nosing a beer than we will by tasting it, so take your time!
You can also gently agitate the beer by swirling it slowly in your glass. This will help the carbonation to deliver further aromas, just as a healthy head will.
Now that you’ve had some time to take in the beer’s aromas, it’s at last time to take a sip. When you do so, try to subtly swallow a bit of air with the liquid (just short of slurping) in order to agitate the beer further with the addition of oxygen. Those flavors should open up even more.
When labeling the flavor profile, it might help to think about the flavors within the following categories:
Fruit (e.g. mango, orange, banana)
Spice / Herbal / Earth (e.g. pepper, vanilla, pine, grass)
Malt (e.g. nuts, toffee, caramel, cocoa)
Sour (e.g. funk, vinegar, citrus tart)
Before you swallow, take note of the way the beer feels in your mouth, too. Is it thick and viscous, or light and somewhat diluted? Is it silky and smooth, or crisp and effervescent?
Finally, take note of the beer’s finish as you gulp it down. Unfortunately for those in the habit of spitting wine, beer is dissimilar in that you must swallow it to fully appreciate its profile, as its bitterness will only be detected by the back of your tongue!
Notice how the beer tastes after your mouth is empty: Are you left with a lingering malty sweetness? Or does a hop-driven bitterness prevail? And how long does this finish last?
Use the above guidelines for tasting, and you’ll be on your way to appreciating beervana – or quickly recognizing you need to up your brew game!