How to taste beer

You are probably familiar with some of the basics of wine-tasting; have heard about it at least or may even have attended a formal tasting at some point.  But what about beer? How do you taste beer?  Do you sniff, sip and savour your beers or do you scoff them down without a thought?

Good beers deserve some time for reflection, if for nothing else than to start learning what you like or don’t like about different styles.  This in turn will help you better pick your next pint.

Although similar to wine tasting, with beer you are looking for, and judging, some slightly different things:

  1. Colour – Hold the glass up and take a good look. Beer colour is the result of the creative combination of malted grains, roasted to different levels. Is it very pale and golden, or richer and more amber? Are there hints of red or is it so dark you can’t see through it?  Colour gives you a hint as to what flavours may lie ahead.  Red can indicate some malted rye in the mix while other darker colours suggest the inclusion of caramel, chocolate or other darkly roasted malts which will impart more flavours to the beer.
  2. Conditioning –– Basically, check out the bubbles – eg. the carbonation of the beer. Some styles are meant to have more or less carbonation.  The amount of bubbles can be influenced by the temperature of the beer and even imperfections in the glass surface.  Carbonation can help balance out the flavours in a beer by brightening and lightening it.  Other times it may be too much and keep you from tasting the flavour in the beer. While bubbles are good, if they are too big or all at once, your beer will get flat before you’ve finished your glass!
  3. Head – beer is the only alcoholic liquid that can hold a foamy head. Does your beer have a rich creamy head that lasts until you have finished, or does it disappear almost as soon as you’ve finished pouring? A glass with detergent residue can kill your head. Some tricks of the trade include adding a small amount of wheat in the grain mix to produce a better head.
  4. Aroma – Cover the glass with your hand and give it a good swirl. Open up and take a nice open inhalation.  What do you smell? Hops – IPAs and other hop-heavy beers will generally have a strong hop aroma. Hops can contribute quite different aromas and flavours.  There are loads of varieties out there, from the punchy tropical fruity American hops, to the more subtle spicy English hops. Malts – in less hop-heavy beers you can smell some of the malted grains.  This can include biscuit, toffee, toasty smells, or a rich chocolatey /coffee smell.  Brewers are getting more and more creative with their beer making and now you can commonly find beers made with smoked grains or fermented in wood barrels.  All of these will, of course, have different impacts on the aroma (and flavour).Yeast – Depending on the variety used, sometimes you can even smell the yeast.  Belgian and Farmhouse styles are typical examples in which the yeast imparts a spicy / clove or even banana smell.
  5. Taste – Enough teasing already!…. Go on and taste the beer.  Let is swirl through your mouth while you breathe.  What do you taste?  How does it feel in your mouth?  Light and dry?  Full and smooth?  Coating your mouth with a syrupiness?  What is the bitterness level like?  Does it balance the other bits, or over-power them? Swallow and try to inhale a bit while/ after swallowing.  Can you sense the aroma toward the back of your throat?  How does the beer finish?  Are there any lingering flavours?  Is there any harsh bitterness, or strong after-tastes? Or does it disappear and have nothing at the end like a glass of water?  What do you think?  And most importantly, do you like it?

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© Home Brewtique Ltd. 2016

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