As the Godfather of homebrewing, Charlie Papazian once wrote, “the more you know about beer, the more you will appreciate beer flavors and discover what it is you prefer…” As a home brewer, you already know more about beer than most. Even if you just have one brew under your belt, you’re in a league of your own—one of a select few craftsmen or craftswomen who share in the knowledge that no matter how much time we spend studying or brewing beer, there’s always more to learn. An important part of that learning process is in the tasting of our final product. And let’s be honest, this is the best part!
Before we get into the science of tasting, it’s important to talk about unscientific variables that can have a huge impact on the enjoyment of our beer: your mood and your environment. The perception of beer can change with the foods we eat, the people we’re enjoying it with, the mood we’re in; how we feel; and other emotional variables that are sometimes out of our control. Think about how good that light pilsner tasted after a hot afternoon in the sun, but how that same pilsner tasted almost lifeless on a cold winter’s night. Context plays a huge role in how we taste and perceive flavor. To the extent possible, we should be aware of the circumstances in which we’re tasting our beer.
Beyond the environment and setting, tasting and evaluating beer is a full sensory exercise. We have amazing sensitivities, that when trained and honed can tell us so much about the quality of our beer. Let’s take a moment to understand how our body “tastes” food.
We often assume that the tongue is primarily responsible for detecting flavors. In truth, the tongue is a rather blunt instrument—it can only detect five categories of taste: sweet, salty, savory (umami), sour, and bitter. Test this out for yourself, playing the same game you probably played as a child:
- Inhale and pinch your nose to plug it.
- Take a bite of food or a sip of beer.
- You’ll notice that the food or beer has no taste.
- Now, let go of your nose and notice the rush of flavor.
If you didn’t notice, that rush of flavor came at the precise moment you exhaled. That’s what the experts call “retronasal smell.” While the age-old experiment makes this obvious, we can forget that this is how we taste everything, all the time. We feel beer on our tongues; we taste beer with the help of our nose.
Our nose absorbs aromas two ways. We experienced the first with our experiment above: retronasal (from the back). We also absorb aromas orthonasally (from the front), like when we sniff beer. When we taste food in our mouth, the scent is taken to the back of our mouth into the pharynx (that spot in the mouth where the nasal passages connect to the mouth and throat). When we exhale, our breath carries volatilized aromas past our olfactory bulb from the back.
Which all means that when we taste beer, we rely on four senses:
- Our eyes to look at the colour, which gives us information about the malts used;
- Our nose, when taking an orthonasal sniff, to give us a first wave of aromas;
- Our tongue and mouth when we swish the beer around to get a mouthfeel; and
- Our nose, again, when we take a retronasal sniff to get flavor.
Those four senses have been categorized by the Beer Judge Certificate Program (BCJP) and others to provide a consistent method to evaluate a beer’s profile.
Beer Flavor Profile
There are five categories that the BJCP and others consider when evaluating beer:
- Overall Impression
You have about three—maybe four—sniffs to capture aroma in detail. After that third or fourth sniff, the senses are dull, even if the aroma is there. But you’ll capture the most intense and detailed characteristics in those first couple sniffs. Pay close attention to those ones!
There are a lot of things that contribute to a beer’s aroma. Malt contributes aromas of sweetness, toffee, caramel, roasted, biscuit, and chocolate. But malts are also responsible for aromas that we associate with fermentation by-products like esters. Esters lend beers (and some styles more than others) those fruity notes of bananas, raspberries, apples, grapefruit, and even strawberries, among others. You’ll find esters to be particularly pronounced in English ales, Belgian ales, and stronger beers. Malt can also lend aromas of butterscotch (although too much of it can be a sign of diacetyl off-flavours).
Of course, we can’t forget about the amazing aromas that hops lend our beer. Hop aromas will vary greatly, depending on the amount of hops we have used, and the methods deployed. Hops lend our beer aromas that are typically described as flowery, spicy, citrusy, herbal, and even pungent.
Unfortunately, if our beer didn’t work out, we may discover unwanted odors. If you’re detecting skunky notes, wet cardboard, popcorn, butter, wine, or sherry (among others), you likely have a defective beer. I have a separate (and exhaustive) guide for troubleshooting defective beer, should you need to get into troubleshooting mode.
I’m guessing you fell in love with beer the moment you realized just how complex its flavor is. As we already talked about, your tongue perceives five different tastes: sweet, salty, umami, sour, and bitter. These elements are perceived all over the tongue. I was taught that sweetness is perceived mostly at the front of the tongue; that saltiness is perceived closer to the back of the tongue, on either side; that sourness is mostly perceived on the sides of the tongue, and that bitterness is perceived at the back of the tongue. However, Randy Mosher, in his book, Tasting Beer, points out that this thinking is an “erroneous product of nineteenth-century quackery.” According to modern science, while there are different taste-sensitive regions on the tongue, the front-half is equally sensitive to all tastes. Bitterness is more acutely perceived in the back of the tongue and the sides are more sensitive to sourness. Regardless of which tongue map you subscribe to, you need to swish and swirl the beer around in your mouth when tasting. This will help you get the maximum flavor out of the beer.
Let’s break down these tastes and the elements that contribute to each:
- Sweetness: Malt has the biggest impact on the perception of sweetness in your beer. It contributes sugar to the wort, and is responsible for any unfermented sugars left in the beer after fermentation (the degree of which is measured by your final gravity). But, if you can believe it, malt is not the only ingredient that can be perceived as sweet. The flowery and floral notes of hops can sometimes be interpreted as sweet. Don’t assume that hops only contribute bitterness to your beer’s profile. And then, there are the by-products of fermentation—esters and diacetyl—that can add sweetness. Esters, being fruity by nature, impart perceptions of sweetness; diacetyl can lend notes of butterscotch.
- Sourness: Acidity (real or perceived) is what drives sourness. When carbon dioxide is dissolved in beer, it becomes carbonic acid. Excessive carbonation can result in acidic (sour) beer. Of course, lactic acid, which can be used to make a “quick” sour in sour beers, obviously lends sourness to the beer. If you haven’t aggressively carbonated your beer, and you’re not making a sour beer, and it still tastes acidic, you can probably thank bacteria and wild yeasts.
- Saltiness: Some beers are deliberately and intentionally salty (think Gose). Saltiness—if not driven by the addition of salt or salt water—is usually influenced by minerals. Too much calcium, magnesium, or sodium can give your beer an unwanted salty profile. But hey, you might be after that, so it really depends on the flavor profile you want.
- Bitterness: Of course, hops play the most obvious part in bittering your beer. But tannins from the grains can add astringent flavors too, as can roasted malts.
- Umami: Long before I became an obsessed home brewer, I was (and still am) and obsessed home cook. I feel like that hobby has been the single-minded pursuit of adding or bringing out unami in my dishes. Which is why I still can’t believe that it was only in the year 2000 that a genetic basis for the receptor for umami was discovered, finally establishing it as a primary taste that our tongue can detect. You find umami in aged meats, fermented foods, aged cheese, tomatoes, among many other foods. And yes, you sometimes find it in beer, especially in aged beers. I once made a beer that had hints of soy sauce in it. Sadly, it was not an aged beer, and I certainly hadn’t intended for it to have that profile! In truth, we don’t have a full appreciation of the role umami plays in our beers flavour.
An important component of a beer’s flavor is its aftertaste—the sensation you get after you have swallowed the beer. Some beers have an aftertaste that lingers for minutes; others have aftertastes that vanish almost instantly. You typically want a clean aftertaste; it should draw you in for another sip. A good tasting beer with an unpleasant aftertaste can be a huge disappointment.
When evaluating a beer’s appearance, we’re primarily focused on three things:
- Head retention: just about every beer benefits from some level of head retention. The desired amount of head retention is a matter of personal preference, but some styles are expected to have more head retention than others. Regardless of style, having either no head or too much head is undesirable. Ingredients can play a huge role in influencing head retention. If you’re using a lot of hops, or fresh hops, you can expect your beer to have a creamier head. If you’re serving beer in a glass that still has soap residue, or isn’t particularly clean, you can expect the head to dissipate quickly. Also, if you’re eating greasy food, or have lip balm on your lips, you’re guaranteed to kill the head.
- Clarity: Personally, I think this is a highly overvalued characteristic of beer. I’ve made some beers that turned out a bit more hazy than originally planned and they tasted spectacular. The current debate on whether New England (or Vermont) IPAs are a flawed style because they’re intentionally hazy is completely ridiculous. My local brewery makes an amazing Vermont IIPA, and it’s a thing of beauty. If you’re brewing to a specific style, and that style calls for a clear beer, then you’ll want to fine-tune your brewing process to get a clearer beer. But, if like me, you have a haze craze, clarity takes on a less important value than it used to—to a certain extent. My views notwithstanding, you should be aware that some hazes (not all!) may develop in a beer due to bacterial or wild yeast contamination. On the other hand, some beers that are normally clear at room temperature may develop a haze when chilled. This is called a chill haze and it has no noticeable impact on the taste of the beer.
- Colour: Well, colour can be deceiving. Pour the same beer in three differently-shaped glasses, and it will take on a different colour in each. The main source of colour are your malts. For our purposes, what matters is whether you hit the colour for the style you’re brewing. Is your stout nice and dark? Is your wheat beer sufficiently light? Beyond that general assessment, I personally don’t obsess over the precise colour of my beer.
This is literally what it reads: how does the beer feel in your mouth? Does it feel light-bodied or full-bodied? The appropriate “fullness” is partially driven by the beer’s style; you want your stout to have a full-bodied, creamy mouthfeel to it. Your pilsner would seem off with a similar mouthfeel.
Carbonation plays an important role here. As I mentioned above, carbonation lends some acidity to beer. If your beer is overly carbonated, it will be more acidic. And some beers (dry Belgian styles, for example) benefit from higher carbonation. Other beers (English ales) don’t need as much carbonation. But this can be a matter of personal preference. I use one standard carbonation rate in all the recipes I post here at BeerCraftr, but as you gain experience, you should experiment with carbonation levels to hit the perfect level for that style and your personal preference.
5. Overall Impression
This boils down to one simple question: Did enjoy the beer?
As I mentioned earlier, the environment is crucial to your tasting. So, before you get started:
- Kill distractions: you’re wasting your time if you’re trying to evaluate beer while also scrolling through your Instagram or Facebook feed, or with the football game playing the in the background. Think about all the time you’ve put into your beer up to this point. You owe the beer—and yourself!—a distraction-free environment to focus.
- Get good lighting if you can. Direct light is too harsh. Much like in photography, you want the ambient, clear north light. If you have a spot in the house that faces north, with a window in it, go there. I confess, this sounds eccentric, and it is, but hell, we’re a band of eccentric craftspeople…
- Eliminate unwanted odors. If you put on cologne or perfume this morning, go take a shower. Rinse those strong odors away. And don’t put on that orange blossom or lavender moisturizer when you’re done. These are all odors that will interfere with your ability to smell your beer neutrally. I once tried to evaluate one of my beers when my wife was sautéing onions in the kitchen. Impossible. I just drank it and waited until the next day to open a new bottle and give it a proper evaluation.
- Use a stemmed white-wine glass. Say, what? Yes, use a stemmed white wine glass, which will give your beer an attractive look, while keeping your warm hands from warming it up too quickly. Then, fill it with only 2-3 ounces of beer, leaving the rest of the glass to fill with your beer’s aroma. Also, make sure you’re glass is clean—any impurities or oils in the glass can distract from your beer’s full experience. If the glass has persistent rings or other residue, you can remove them by adding a small amount of baking soda to the bottom of the glass with hot water. Wash the glass carefully until clean. Rinse thoroughly with cool water and then let the glass air dry, or use a clean paper towel (not a kitchen towel!) to dry it.
- Have a pad of pen and paper ready. You’ll be taking notes. Sure, you could do this on your computer, but I find it takes away from the experience. Be mindful of the beer—limit distractions and go analog. It will help you focus.
How to Taste
- Examine the bottle. Take a look at the bottom of the bottle for tight sediment (a good sign), or excessive sediment (a possible sign of infection). Then take a look at the fill level in the neck of the bottle: if it’s too high, your beer may have low carbonation. If it’s too low (more than 1.5” from the fill line to the top of the bottle), your beer may be at risk of oxidation. And finally, take a look for any rings around the bottleneck, which could be a sign of contamination.
- Open the beer and pour it with a head. Pour out about 3 ounces, making sure to raise a solid head, if possible. That head, if you get it, helps release aromas.
- Smell the beer. Get your nose deep into the glass and take quick sniffs. Long sniffs will saturate your receptors and won’t give you much to go on. As you take your quick sniffs, close your eyes and give it a moment for it all to sink in. Do you recognize anything? Does it bring you back to a childhood (or even adulthood!) memory? Write these down on your pad of paper. Any and all memories are good, as they tip you off to specific aromas. Not getting much aroma? Give that glass a swirl. If you notice the beer is too cold, cup the glass with your hands to warm it up and then swirl some more. Do this until you’ve exhausted your nose—probably two or three rounds of short bursts of sniffing. Then move on to the tasting, but only after you’ve written down initial aromas. Does the malt have notes of caramel, toast, roast, burnt, etc.? Are the hops earthy, floral, fresh, citrusy? Are you detecting fruity notes (esters) like berries, cherries, pears, plums?
- Look, then sip. Take a look at your beer’s colour, clarity, head character, and head retention. Make notes for each of these points.
- Try to name the colour. Golden? Amber? Copper? Brown? Black? Does it meet your expectations for that style?
- Assess the beer’s clarity. Is the beer cloudy, turbid, clear, sparkling, or opaque?
- Take notes about the head. Specifically, its color, bubble size, retention, and ability to stand firmly.
- Now take a sip and let the beer linger on your tongue. Pay attention to the basics: sweetness, acidity. Then wait a moment or two for the bitterness to kick in. Bitterness is a slow burn—give it time to appear. Now, pay attention to the aftertaste. Is it hoppy? Malty? Harsh? Smooth? Short-lived? Lingering? Take notes. Now take a second sip and pay attention to the mouthfeel. How does the body feel? What about the carbonation? Again, take notes.
- Take an “aspiration.” .As you take your next sip, you’re going to volatilize aromas retronasally. You’re pretty much tasting the beer as you would wine, with a technique called “aspiration.” Take in a small amount of the beer and let it warm up on the bottom of the mouth and along the sides of your tongue. Then put the tip of your tongue against your front teeth and slowly draw air in through your mouth. Let the liquid gurgle a bit to release aroma. With some shallow breathing, you can get the aroma into the back of the mouth, through to your nose for a nice aroma hit. Swallow the beer and then exhale through your nose to get a secondary hit. Take notes of what you taste and smell.
- Consult a tasting wheel. While I recommend doing as much tasting without the aid of a wheel, I found that when I started evaluating my beer, it helped to have a wheel or two in front of me to point me in the right direction. I sometimes didn’t know what I was smelling or tasting until I saw the word in front of me.
- Analyze and score the beer. Now, take a step back and think about the style you brewed in. Does the beer fit the style’s characteristics? How balanced is the beer? Do you have a harmonious blend of flavours? Could you drink more than one? A whole session’s worth? Will you remember this beer in a month? In six months? How about a year from now? Again, take notes of these findings and score the beer according to your favorite score sheet.
While the above instructions may seem rather serious and intense, don’t forget to have fun. It is just beer, after all. If you don’t feel like taking notes, don’t! You can stick with a simple, binary rating score. Do you like the beer or no?