Getting to Know Your Beer

HomeBrewTalk.com - Beer, Wine, Mead, & Cider Brewing Discussion Community.

Help Support Homebrew Talk:

Have you ever wondered if there is more to the beer drinking experience than whether you can describe the beer as good or bad? It takes a good bit of time and not a small amount of study to become truly proficient at evaluating beer, but in my humble opinion it is well worth the effort. Expanding my perception of beer to allow me to catch the little nuances in beer has made my enjoyment of the beer drinking experience increase ten fold. As a home brewer this skill comes in particularly handy when trying to clone a commercial beer. A comparison of the clone and the commercial version by an untrained individual may very likely yield a result of a successful clone while the same two beers evaluated by a trained individual will very likely yield a result of having one or more subtle yet very distinct differences. This article is meant to be a short introduction to evaluating beer and hopefully to pique your interest into pursuing it further.

The first thing that needs to be said about evaluating beer is that in order to get good at evaluating beer, just like anything else worth doing, you must practice, practice, practice. This practice doesn't always have to be with the beer itself. Most of the aromas and flavors you experience in beer are ones you recognize from experiences of food so having a broad background in food is great head start into beer evaluation. If you don't have those broad food experiences, get out there and start trying different foods. Fruit flavors of all sorts manage to find their way into beer. From the titillating grapefruit aroma characteristic of Cascade hops to the complex dark fruit character of a big barleywine from the residual sugars there is no end to the combinations of fruit character to be found in beer. The very same thing goes for spices. Some spices are added by the brewer and are fairly noticeable while others are entirely yeast derived which creates a far more complex and subtle spice profile. Malt character can be very similar to bread, biscuits and cookies in some beers all depending on the infinite combinations of type and amount of malts the brewer can use. I encourage you to build up an extensive repertoire of food flavors and aroma to draw off of in your beer evaluation.
Now, for actually evaluating a beer there are a few steps involved that are easy to learn but hard to master. The physical performance of the steps is quite simple, but performing them in such a way that yields an effective and accurate evaluation is a different matter entirely. The first step, obviously, is to uncap the beer in whatever way is appropriate to the packaging method. Some bottles have normal caps, some have twist off caps, some have Grolsh style swing top caps and finally corked bottles are also fairly prevalent if the brewer deems the beer special enough. Also, contrary to popular belief there is a multitude of amazing beer that comes in cans. Once the packaging vessel is open let it breathe for a moment. This will allow the beer to depressurize a bit and this will also be the time when you will see if it is a gusher.
You should have already prepared a serving vessel for your beer so if you haven't now is the time do it. Ensure that your glass is clean on the inside and smudge free on the outside. I typically accomplish this by rinsing inside and out with hot water followed by rinsing inside and out with cold water to cool it down. Dry off the outside only with a lint free cloth or paper towel. Get as much residual water out as you can without touching the inside of the glass. The selection of an appropriate serving vessel is outside the scope of this article, but there are many great resources to be found through a web search.
The pour is very important. The pour will determine how much aroma you get and will also affect the mouthfeel because the amount of carbonation in solution has noticeable effect on perceived mouthfeel. A medium bodied beer with high carbonation might be perceived as medium-light or even light bodied if the carbonation is high enough. For a bottle conditioned beer the pour will also determine if you get any yeast into your bottle. Depending on the style, yeast in your glass could pose a problem. Many German wheat beers are served with the yeast from the bottom of the bottle swirled up and poured in the beer. Different people have different pouring styles, but in general your pour should leave you with the entire bottle of beer (for a 12 oz bottle) in your glass along with anywhere from one to three inches of head.
The first two things to notice after the pour are clarity and head retention. With few exceptions, unless the beer is black, the clarity should be good to brilliant. Some styles, like hefeweizen, are supposed to be cloudy from the high yeast and protein content. Head retention refers to the beer's ability to keep the head up and is a mark of a skilled brewer along with lacing (the adherence of foam to the sides of the glass as the beer is consumed). Head retention is affected by the amount of dextrins in the beer, carbonation level, and even the cleaning method of the glass. You'll notice that if you cleaned your glass with soap (which I don't recommend) that the head retention will be poor and will lead to an inaccurate evaluation of the beer in question. The general rule of thumb is that if, after the pour, the head remains unchanged for one minute then the head retention is good.

Next you're going to evaluate the aroma. There are different schools of thought, but I find that the aroma shows its character best when the top of the head level is just above the level of the beer (half to one centimeter). Now, instead of taking a long draw of air in take several short sniffs. This will help the aroma compounds to hang out in your nose rather than blowing right by them and going straight to the lungs. This one change in my technique has allowed me to find aromas that had previously gone unnoticed by me. Take a few moments to evaluate what you smell. Is there anything you recognize? Do you smell hops, malt, sweetness, fruit, bread, or anything else of note? Write down or make a mental note of what you perceive. Be sure to come back to the aroma after you taste the beer before you make your final decision since the aroma can change as the head goes down and more aromatics are released from the agitation of the drinking action.
A good looking beer with a great aroma is all well and good, but we want to taste it, right? Well, that's what you're going to do next. Take a small sip of the beer. Not a dainty sip, but not a gulp either. The sip should be big enough to allow you to coat your entire mouth with the beer and let it sit on the back of your tongue, but it shouldn't fill your mouth. Now move your tongue through the beer and allow each area of your tongue to contact the beer. Each area of the tongue is more sensitive to one or two of the basic flavors which is why you need get your entire tongue in contact with the beer. What do you taste? How bitter is it? How sweet is it? What components of the aroma translated into the flavor? Anything else you notice? Gently swish it around your mouth to see what kind of body the beer has. If it's thick and viscous it has a full body. If it's thin and moves around easily in the mouth it has a light a body. If it's somewhere in between it has a medium body. Finally, swallow your sip of beer. How does it finish? Sweet? Dry? Somewhere in between? Different things can affect the finish, but if it finishes sweet it shouldn't be too sweet, or cloying. If it finishes dry it shouldn't be too dry, or overly astringent. High bitterness can contribute to a perception of astringency so keep that in mind. There are some off flavors that you should be on the lookout for, but I wouldn't recommend that a beginner worry about them until they are proficient at the basics of evaluation.

I hope this article has served as a good introduction into the exciting world of beer of evaluation. I, for one, never thought it could be such an involved process until I actually got into it. I encourage you to continue you beer evaluation education for which there are many sources. There a multitude of books on the subject as well two very well known certification programs: the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) and the Cicerone Certification Program. There are differences between the two, but in general it's the same level education, though the Cicerone Certification Program is geared more toward a professional setting while the BJCP is geared more toward evaluation of homebrew. I hope you enjoyed reading and happy drinking.
This is all great stuff Aaron!
I do have an honest question for you (and anyone else who cares to jump in). I've lived my whole life in Santa Barbara, California, surrounded by vineyards, wine experts, and people who think they're wine experts.
One phenomenon I've noticed is that, some people have learned so much and their taste has become so refined that they have a hard time actually enjoying wine anymore. Inevitably, they find more flaws in a particular wine than the average person. Consequently, there is a much narrower (and more often than not, more expensive) range of wines that they actually enjoy.
Finally, my question: Can you relate to this at all? If so, how do you weigh the enjoyment of having a more refined palate but finding fewer beers that are truly satisfying, vs. having a less sophisticated palate but finding more beers that you really like. A sort of, ignorance is bliss scenario...?
Well said rosenbrewey, isn't what makes a great beer in the eye of the beholder. I just drank one of my home brewed blonde ales after cutting the grass and it was the best damn beer I've had in a long time. I am certain I wouldn't be winning first place in any home brew contest with it.
@rosenbrewery this is a conundrum that I have recently come across... I just started doing all grain, so I am seeing more of the subtle nuances in ingredients than ever before. I have not brewed a "bad" beer yet, but they also would likely not win any competitions, who knows... but I have told myself that for MY particular purpose, I can use things like "accuracy to the style" and brewhouse efficiency as measuring blocks to get more consistent and a way to measure progress. But, alas, the other day I crack open a Honey Rye and I caught myself judging my own beer instead of enjoying it and recovering from the 14 hour shift just completed at work. Your question reaches home to even the lowly garage brewer, and the pros may disagree, but I think we need to find our own "balance point" of quality vs fun.
A nitpick: different areas of the tongue do not perceive specific flavors to the detriment of others. The "taste map" of the tongue is basically a myth. Holding the beer in the mouth has some benefits, but it is not necessary to hold the beer on the tip of the tongue to perceive sweetness or sourness or any one specific flavor.
@pitmaster666 Totally agree! I submitted a few beers to competition and the scores ranged from mediocre to good, but the most common note I received was "not up to style guidelines". I gotta admit, this kinda shook my confidence a bit. But as I thoroughly enjoyed finishing the rest of each batch, I had an epiphany: I loved the beer. My family loved the beer. My friends loved the beer. Not one of them remarked how my IPA was probably 2-3 SRM darker than it should have been. None of them remarked that it was fuller bodied than most IPA's. They just enjoyed how it tasted.
Now, I'm not excusing sloppy brewing technique, and I'll definitely call out crappy beer when I encounter it. And sometimes I enjoy putting my snob hat on and sipping barleywines (or bourbon... or scotch... or wine...) and ruminating about the subtle nuances and finer complexities of my libation. But, at least for me, there is a line where thinking too much leads to enjoying too little. I was just curious if others felt that way and how they balance growing in their expertise while also keeping it low key.
Thanks for the article. I'm only brewing 20 months, and submitted to one competition. This will help improve my beer, and hopefully my understanding of beer.
I enjoyed the discussion of the article too. Rosen, my beers mostly lost points on style too. It is something I will try to improve for the next competition, but I'm still just trying to brew great tasting beer.
@beernutz I sincerely apologize for not getting to these comments sooner. This article was originally written for http://www.beerforum.com and I wasn't even aware it had also been posted on this site.
To answer your question, I've been a member of the BJCP since early 2013 and attained the rank of Recognized in April of 2013. Desiring to further my skills, I took the exam again in November of 2013 and attained the rank of Certified in January of 2014. I have judged several competitions so far, however judging opportunities are somewhat limited in my part of the country without driving distances that are not feasible for me. I have judged in the NHC first round twice and will be doing so again this year. Cheers!
@rosenbrewery First of all, please see my comment to @beernutz for why it took so long to get a reply on this.
Well, it's true that having training as a beer judge inherently brings with it the risk of finding flaws that others may not, but I don't find this to be a bad thing. Especially with commercial beers the flaws are more in missing the style guidelines than an actual flaw (i.e. diacetyl, acetaldehyde, etc.). And since tasting commercial beers isn't part of a competition, at least not for me, this doesn't detract from my ability to enjoy them for what they are rather than what the guidelines say they should be.