How to Better Describe Your Beer - A Simple Framework

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How can we have a conversation with someone about beer when all taste is subjective?
Tastes vary wildly.
Some people love fish and some can't even stand the smell. Some people can drink scorching hot sauce by the bucket while others wince at medium salsa.
Although taste is subjective, there is still plenty we can agree upon. Maybe more than you think, and when you hone your beer tasting skills and develop a good beer vocabulary, it helps you better communicate about beer.
I often have this conversation when I talk about my beer judging experiences to someone who's never heard of beer judging before."How do you judge beers when everyone likes different things?" they ask.
This first concept is pretty easy to explain. Many people don't realize that judging is not about personal preference. What I personally like and dislike plays no part in the scoring. I liken it to the Westminster Dog Show, which most people have seen on TV at some point.
The judge doing the inspection may despise poodles. Maybe a poodle once peed on her champion rose bush. But that doesn't (or, shouldn't) factor into her assessment. What's important is that the poodle looks and behaves how a poodle should look and behave.
So that's easy enough to understand - it's not about how much I like the beer, it's about how that beer fits the style.
The trickier concept to explain is how the other judge and I (or you and your beer buddy) can describe what we're tasting and "be on the same page."
Let's do an example. To make a point I'll start at the level of the ridiculous. Let's first identify that what you and I are drinking is in fact - a beer.

We could use an exhausting "20 questions" style process of elimination. "Is it liquid? Is it carbonated? Is there a head of foam?" And so on until we arrive at beer.
Hey, we agree it's beer! Maybe our tastes are more similar than we thought...
Now let's get more specific. The key is to take a reductionist approach. Imagine you and I both just poured the same IPA and are taking a whiff. The first thing we're looking at is the hops.
First question - "Are there hops in this beer?" Yep, definitely.
"Ok, so what's the level of hops? That is, the intensity?" This is a little more difficult and introduces an important concept - frame of reference. Somebody smelling a beer for the very first time has no clue if it contains a low, average, or high amount of hops. It's all relative. There is no such thing as a highly hopped beer without the existence of a minimally hopped beer.
The experience of the beer drinker is important here. The guy with a mental database of 10,000 beers to pull from is going to have a better frame of reference than the person who tried their first beer yesterday. The first guy will be more accurate with his placement of the beer on hoppiness spectrum compared to all other beers.
So, we quantify the hops based on our experience. And we decide that there is a medium-high level of hops in this IPA.
Next we identify the aroma of the hops. Are they grassy, piney, earthy, citrusy, tropical, spicy, dank? Again, the experience of the taster matters here. Identifying the aroma of the hops is the most difficult part so far. But it can be learned. You and decide they are citrusy hops.
Finally, let's put the hops in the context of the rest of the beer. What's the balance of the beer? We decide that while we can taste other ingredients, hops are indeed the dominant flavor. It's a hop-centric beer.
Bam! Do you see what we just did?
We just took a very objective approach to describing a beer. Without injecting personal preference, we figured out that it's a hop-dominant beer with a medium-high level of citrusy hops in the aroma. Now we can do that same exercise for the malt, yeast, and other ingredients that may be in the beer.
That wasn't much of a stretch, was it?
There is always going to be that gray area where we can't agree because we simply taste different things. But when trying to describe a beer objectively, the idea is to make those gray areas as few as possible.
Think of a pitch black bedroom. For each flavor we describe, we're lighting a small candle and illuminating the room. The brighter the room the more we understand about the beer. There will always be dark shadows (i.e. subjectivity), but we can attempt to minimize those.
And then of course there are the intangibles - where we take a step back and ask ourselves, "Is this a good beer?" Because a beer, after all, is more than just the sum of its parts.
So how does this approach help you? Here are some examples:
  • You'll be more accurate when you're describing a beer to someone. Maybe they are new to craft beer. "Oh you like malty beers? This Scotch ale is very malty, you'll love it."
  • You can give better feedback to another brewer. "This is a good American pale ale but the bitterness is a bit low and the earthy flavors are not really to style. Try switching to Cascade and bump up the IBU's by 10."
  • Most importantly, you can brew better beer. You'll better diagnose your own beer. You'll have a better frame of reference when comparing this batch of pale ale to the prior batch.
If you've ever sniffed a beer and had no idea how to begin describing it, give this framework a shot.
Billy Broas heads up The Homebrew Academy, where you can find tips, videos, and online courses for brewing world-class beer at home. He's co-author of the book Craft Beer for the Homebrewer, a certified BJCP beer judge, and his beer philosophy is that "we should all be beer geeks, not beer snobs."

Decent article but I didn't get much vocabulary out of it. I've been home brewing about a year and a half and I still haven't hea d a good description of "dank". And what is" tropical"? Coconut? Pineapple? Mango? Is it necessarily just fruit? What is the difference between "pine" and "resin"? And then there's "funk". It can he confusing. And, as with wine snobs, it can come off as sounding pretentious. Especially if it is accompanied by the swishing and chewing and swirling and sticking your nose it the glass. I understand that judging requires a " next level" of descriptives; however, for me and my beer buddies, a grunt and "Mmm...hoppy." are generally sufficient. A glossary of the terminology might be helpful, though. Cheers!
@mattmmille I like this resource http://cdn.fansided.com/wp-content/blogs.dir/305/files/2014/04/beerwheel.png for reference, though it doesn't have the explicit definitions you would find in a glossary. It's a nice representation of what and where the different aromas and flavors are grouped together. Another one I like is the hop aroma wheel from hop union https://www.hopunion.com/aroma-wheel/ in this case as a reference to which hops give which types of flavors (assumes you already have a reference for each of those flavors).
First, let me say that I really enjoyed this read. It approaches an often confusing subject from a fairly basic scientific approach. Well done.
To mattmille, I mean absolutely no offense. I find your comment a little contradictory of itself, though, unless I misunderstand you, in which case, I apologize wholeheartedly. You're asking for more vocabulary, while at the same time painting a large vocabulary as pretentious. I do agree, however, that a glossary would be a great supplement to this article, but I also think that it isn't the purpose of the article. If you're wanting more information on what "tropical" or "dank" mean, there's some great resources out there with a minimal amount of searching effort.
I will add a caveat to this article, if I may. Because your body isn't built exactly the same as the next guy, you may quite literally interpret (for example) piney or floral as something quite vile (like cat urine) because your taste receptors respond differently to a particular compound in certain hop oils, or you may have less experience with tasting certain foods, making your ability to describe flavors a little more challenging, without a frame of reference. So while this article is great, your skills in this department will still rely on experience.
I also enjoyed this read but did laugh at the end when I thought about "fussing" and "dissecting" beer, which of course I do but at the same time laugh at how pretentious I come across sometimes. Describing beer is almost as subjective as tasting it. To me piney and resinous are the same thing, as are funk and dank. Sometimes an aroma or flavor just hits you immediately and is easy to describe when other times a beer can be so complex you have to search for it, even if it's familiar. A beer that comes to mind, and speaking of Southern Tier, was the 2XMas. From the first sip it had something so familiar but hard to describe. Only after chewing on it for 30 min did it dawn on me that it tasted like the chalky, pink gum that comes in a pack of baseball cards. The food you pair with beer can drastically alter your perceptions as well.
Great article, I think thats the first step, getting them to taste something and have an understanding of what the intent of the beer is (hoppy, yeasty, malty, sweet, boozey, etc. etc.).
I think the next big step is vocabulary. I had some family over christmas tasting my beers/cider and such and it seems they have a hard time with the vocabulary. They taste banananaanana and clove in that hefeweizen but they don't have the vocabulary to describe it, they know they are tasting banana but never make the jump to saying "I taste and smell bananas".
Dank = laying in a field of wet grass smoking some herb, breath in.
Funk = lying in a pile of wet hay with some overly ripe fruit sitting nearby, breath in.
@mattmmille A glossary of grunts may also be helpful. Was it a short grunt? A long grunt? A revving Tim Allen grunt? A grunt wistfully reminiscent of younger days? Perhaps a grunt that trails into "Aww" or an "Ohh" or an "Mmm"? Such a thing may help us bridge the gap of understanding, and give us all a kindred frame of reference. Or maybe I should just keep drinking and keep my ideas to myself... Cheers!
Piney = The smell of your Christmas tree the first day you bring it home.
Resinous = The smell of your Christmas tree the day after New Years, right before you drag it to the trash.
Dank=between wet grass and weed smoke. Try something heavy on Columbus and you should get an idea.
Tropical fruit=Mango, pineapple, passionfruit, tangerine. Try Citra or Amarillo.
Piney=fresh pine needles. Try Simcoe.
Resinous, I get more as of a mouthfeel thing than an aroma. Hard to explain.
Funk=wet hay, a little bit musty, or the infamous "horse blanket" descriptor. Try anything fermented with Brett.
Reading the other posts about what comes to mind when you see or here a word--these are my thoughts irrespective of beer.
Dank: An old moldy basement with exposed dirt.
Funk: Wet dog, smelly feet.
Piney: fresh cut pine or spruce.
Resinous: more of a feeling than smell--sticky & thick.
Tropical: hot, breezy, steel drums, sun tan lotion, other.
Oh, and I liked the article. I think it's the first step to understanding describing beer. It definitely helped me put it in perspective.
I think dank is more of a damp, earthy smell or flavor. Funk is like sour, off flavored doesn't fit into any other category smell or taste. Piney, think conifer trees & Pine Sol. Resiny, think sticky & dank with a hint of the pine thing to me. They pretty much walk hand in hand. Any fruity flavor reminiscent of tropical fruits, including citrus. simple.