A Beginner’s Guide to Tasting Craft Beers
This beer tasting blog post originally appeared on Hex and Co., an incredible destination for both board games and craft beer
A Wonderous Alchemy
Beer is an extraordinary elixir. On the one hand incredibly basic and simple – extra-ordinary, if you will – and on the other fantastically subtle and complex. Is it not wondrous how the alchemy of water, barley, hops & yeast can yield such intoxicating magic? Four simple ingredients forming the basis for an almost infinite experience of bitter, bubbly, toasty, tingly, sweet, earthy, sour, tangy, spicy, fruity, salty, bready, herbal, floral goodness…
As with most things, the more one delves into the world of beer and the art of beer tasting, the more one discovers how little one knows and how much more there is to learn. I used to think I knew a lot about beer, but I now acknowledge that my understanding and history with beer is but a tiny fraction of what is possible to experience – merely the tip of the iceberg poking up out of the ocean of beer knowledge. And particularly in this golden age of innovative craft brewing, I must be continually ready and willing to plunge below the surface and explore the icy, cold-filtered depths below, for there are sure to be innumerable treasures waiting to be discovered.
In this spirit of exploration and discovery, I invite you to take your own journey into the art of beer tasting. I’m delighted to share a brief outline of the tasting process and perhaps provide a bit of inspiration for you to dive in yourself.
Beer Drinking versus Beer Tasting
Before we begin you may wonder, “What’s the difference between tasting beer and drinking beer? Is there really a difference? If I start getting into the tasting thing, does that mean I can never just relax and enjoy a beer casually without having to think about it too much? And what exactly am I supposed to be looking for?” All very reasonable questions.
Well, yes – there is a difference. And not to worry, I don’t think you’ll have much trouble throwing down a cold one when the time is right. In fact, you might find your experience of beer tasting thoroughly enhancing the casual beer drinking experience. You can indeed simply appreciate and take in all those little nuances you’ve so meticulously observed. Beer will forever lend itself to simply being drunk, no matter how much time and effort we might spend analyzing and investigating it. So…how does it work?
One great thing about beer tasting is that, ultimately, you are actually still simply enjoying a beer. There’s no getting around it, it’s just fun. But as opposed to casually imbibing, where the beer is there but is often merely a part of the overall scenery, in beer tasting the beer IS the scenery, man. It’s the main event. Just you and the beer, there together. (And, you know, maybe some friends or pets or whatever, that’s fine.) The primary difference between drinking beer and tasting beer is simply your state of mind – when practicing the art of beer tasting it is imperative to let go of all other activities and other, less important preoccupations and bring your full attention to the present moment, immersing yourself fully in the beer tasting experience.
A Multi-Sensory Experience
Seriously though, beer tasting is actually about being present and opening your senses fully. It is in fact a multi-sensory experience – there are elements of sight, taste, touch, smell and, if you listen really carefully (and the beer is highly carbonated), perhaps even the faint sound of little fizzy bubbles rising up from the bottom of the glass. When tasting, you are observing and noting both the visual appearance of the beer as well as, primarily, its overall flavor – a term which in itself refers to the potentially numerous subtle and complex components of aroma, taste & mouthfeel present in the beer.
Specifically, when tasting, we want to note:
1 – Aroma
2 – Appearance
3 – Flavor
4 – Mouthfeel (or Body & Texture)
5 – Aftertaste
If you wish, you can use some kind of beer tasting worksheet with the above categories to help guide your exploration and record your observations.
Where to Begin
So – grab a beer, grab a glass, open your mind, open your senses, flare your nostrils, blink your eyes, flick your tongue and give yourself (or someone else) a high-five as we embark on this journey in the art of beer tasting.
What you’ll need:
1 – Beer
2 – Glass
3 – Pen & Paper (optional)
1 – The Vessel. When tasting, drinking out of a glass is critical to experiencing everything the beer has to offer you. (As you continue with your beer tasting endeavors, you may find yourself drinking beer out of a glass more often.) Make sure your glass is clean and dry. Each style of beer is actually associated with a particular type of glass, but don’t worry – for this exercise, any type of clear glass that lets you get your nose in there for a good sniff will do.
2 – The Pour. Ideally, when pouring a full beer, you’re looking to wind up with about 1/2” to 1” of delicious frothy, foamy head, which you can accomplish in one of 2 ways:
The Home Pour – pour straight down the middle and let the beer foam up. Wait for it to settle and repeat. By doing this repeatedly you should wind up with a robust head of dense foam (and you will release some of the excess gas in the beer, resulting in a slightly creamier, more draft-like pour).
The Bar Pour – tilt the glass at a 45-degree angle and pour the beer down the side of the glass. At the 1/2 to 2/3 mark of the pour straighten the glass and pour right down the middle, letting the beer foam to the desired level of head.
Having said all of that, when tasting, it isn’t actually necessary to pour a full glass of beer. In fact, it’s better to simply pour some of the beer straight into the middle of the glass – letting it foam up – allowing for adequate space in the glass to both collect and really take in the aroma. (But now you also know exactly how to pour a full beer!)
3 – The Aroma. Now that your beer is poured you can begin really taking it in. Allow any initial aromas to register – can you smell anything while the glass is still sitting on the table? Try doing a drive-by tasting – pass the glass briefly under your nose. Then give it a little swirl – this releases additional aroma – and a short sniff and then really get in there. No need to be shy. Take it all in! Especially when getting started with tasting, it can be helpful to have a list or diagram of basic beer aromas as a reference point – but don’t limit yourself, stay open to what you are receiving.
©2020 Randy Mosher
3 – The Appearance. Take a moment to notice the visual appearance of the beer – the color and transparency. Beer exhibits many colors along a wide spectrum ranging from pale, golden straws and yellows, to deep reds and ambers, all the way to solid, earthy browns and blacks. Also note the level of transparency. Some beers are crystal clear, while others might tend to have a hazier appearance, and others still are completely opaque.
4 – The Flavor. Take a sip. Let the beer rest in your mouth for a bit and notice how the flavors evolve over time. You don’t have to be in a rush to swallow. When you do, try breathing out through your nose with your mouth closed – this is called retronasal olfaction and can yield entirely unique flavors and aromas that can’t be experienced any other way. Take your time… relax… enjoy! Take note of all the various sensations and flavors you experience. With the nearly limitless myriad of different styles of beer available these days – lagers, IPAs, sours, Belgians, stouts, ambers, porters – there is an enormous range of flavors to be experienced. Here also it can be helpful to have reference points to work with, particularly at first. For example, this Malt Flavor Wheel showing a range of flavors derived from the use of different malts (i.e. roasted barley) in beer:
©2020 Randy Mosher
5 – The Mouthfeel. Malts are also responsible for providing the network of proteins that give beer its “mouthfeel,” or body and texture, which is experienced as an actual tactile sensation in the mouth, a weight or degree of viscosity on the tongue. Is the beer light-bodied, medium-bodied, full-bodied? Thin, tingly and effervescent? Smooth and creamy? Or perhaps dense, thick, round, syrupy? Some combination of these?
6 – The Aftertaste. The legacy of the beer shall continue to live on, even after the living beer has been consumed. Actually – this really happens! Flavors often continue to evolve and develop for quite some time after you’ve swallowed the beer. An IPA will often exhibit a bitter and resinous hop aromatic on the aftertaste, whereas a stout might leave behind notes of roasty coffee and chocolate, or a pilsner hints of bread and biscuit. Higher ABV (Alcohol by Volume) beers will often have an alcoholic heat sensation that lingers and even grows for some time on the aftertaste.
7 – Overall Impressions. Having gone through the exercise of breaking down the beer into its various parts and analyzing its various characteristics, it’s good to also experience it as a seamless whole. Feel free to simply let the beer wash over you and take note of any additional sensations that may spontaneously arise. In a few sentences (mental or otherwise) you can summarize your experience of the beer and generally reflect on the overall impression the beer has left on you.
Beer Tasting is Easy as That!
That’s it! You’re now ready to take that next step from being a casual beer drinker, perhaps even casual beer lover, to being a full-blown, no-holds-barred, no-nonsense (well, maybe some nonsense, in a good way – it is beer after all) legit beer taster. Really, the sky – or rather the ocean – is the limit when it comes to opening yourself up to the full range of sensory experience beer has to offer.
Did you ever really notice those subtle hints of grapefruit, pineapple and guava in that juicy New England-style double IPA? Those lingering notes of sticky, resinous pine? And did you ever really ever fully take in that delightfully warming heat after sipping that bourbon barrel-aged imperial breakfast stout? Maybe so, maybe not. Either way, from now on you are fully empowered – and encouraged – to do so! And you know, you can always go back and throw on that Mets game or episode of Curb or Devs, or head on over to Mel’s for some drinks and light-hearted conversation and – you know, just drink a beer. You’re still you, just a little more sophisticated, that’s all.
Now don your wetsuit, find your fins and face mask, grab your pen and paper and pint glass and go taste some beers! Who knows how deep you’ll dive?