How to Evaluate Your Beer
The beer scene is really “brewing” these days. Therefore it’s a great time to learn more about this ancient beverage and be able to enjoy and appreciate the variety (and diversity within each variety) that’s available now. Whether you’re new to exploring beer flavor profiles or you’ve been at it for years, you’ll enjoy identifying flavors such as malty and sweet, hoppy and bitter, crisp and clean, sour and funky, and more. You have so much to gain by learning how to evaluate beer.
Before we discuss the different aspects of beer, here are some suggestions on how to evaluate beer:
- Pour the beer with a head.
- Next smell the beer with short sniffs. You will probably only get four sniffs before olfactory fatigue sets in, so the first couple of times you inhale the beer’s aromas will give you the most intense sensations. See what aromas you can detect. Identifying any memories triggered by the aromas may help you work backward to identify the actual smell. If you’re not detecting much, try swirling the glass or warming it a bit with your hands.
- Then look at the beer. How bubbly is it? How much head does it retain? What color is it? Is the beer clear or cloudy? How do these observations match with your expectations for this beer?
- Now take your first sip and hold it in your mouth, making sure it comes in contact with every part of your tongue. Assess the sweetness, acidity, and bitterness. Swallow, and note the aftertaste. Does it linger? Is it pleasant? How would you describe it?
- Next take a second sip and evaluate mouthfeel (body) and carbonation.
- Finally take another sip and enjoy the beer by “aspiration.” This happens when you experience the beer’s aroma on the backside of your sense of smell (as opposed to the front side, which you evaluated in step 2). Hold the beer in your mouth, allowing it to warm. Press your tongue against the back of your teeth, and breathe air in through your mouth. This should bring the aromas to the back of your mouth and to your nose. Swallow and exhale to evaluate what you experienced on the back end of your sense of smell.
Now that you’ve got a system for tasting beer, let’s look at the different elements that contribute to a beer’s flavor. We’ll discuss them one at a time…
Malt Flavor and Aroma
Does it taste of caramel? Biscuits? Cereal? Roastiness? Nuttiness? Malt contributes rich aromas including toffee, chocolate, and more. Most of a beer’s sweetness is from the malt. If you’d like a deep dive into the science of malt flavors and aromas, we recommend this article: Analyzing Malt Flavors.
There are a lot of factors that play into the hops bitterness in beer, and scientific measurement of it is complicated and somewhat inaccurate (especially for home brewers) as compared to the taster’s perception. But ultimately hops bitterness comes down to the sensory experience. Whether or not you like bitter beer, some amount of bitterness is necessary to balance the malty sweetness and make beer taste like beer. Hops became an important ingredient in beer because of its preservation properties, but now brewers use it primarily for flavor. Take a deep dive into the history, measurement, and science of hops here: All About IBUs, Hops, and Bitterness in Beer.
Hops Flavors and Aromas
This element is different from the bitterness, because there are many different kind of hops. These different kinds yield different flavor profiles that can be described as follows: flowery, citrus-like, spicy, piney, tropical, fruity, herbal, sharp, earthy, sweet, etc. Adding hops at different points along the brewing cycle can also drastically affecting the flavor imparted. For an awesome infographic on the flavor profile of different hops organized by origin, click this link: The Flavors and Aromas in Craft Beer’s Popular Hops.
Sweetness and Body
Sweeter beers are usually thicker beers. Body specifically alludes to the perceived thickness of a beer. It’s not a flavor (like “malty”) but a description of another sensory experience: mouthfeel. While sweetness is probably the primary contributor to body, other factors have an impact, as well. Alcohols and esters can provide a fullness to the way a beer coats the mouth. Proteins that survive the fermentation process can also yield a higher viscosity in the finished product.
Alcohol influences the beer’s flavor because it’s a biproduct of fermentation. So depending on what kind of yeast is used, how much sugar the yeast digests, and the fermentation method used, the alcohol level and the beer taste will vary. Alcohol also has an impact on body and mouthfeel. To more fully understand the role of alcohol when tasting beer, we recommend the following article: Tasting Beer: The Role of Alcohol by Volume.
Let’s define carbonation as carbon dioxide dissolved in liquid under pressure. It is what makes beer refreshing and is a contributing factor to mouthfeel. It also lifts flavors away from the tongue and cleanses the palate. Beer can be carbonated naturally (via fermentation) or forcibly (pumping carbon dioxide in). Different beers have different levels of carbonation. Want to learn more about carbonation in beer? Read: The Science Behind Beer Carbonation.
Tartness and Sourness
Acids present in the beer cause sourness. It’s measured by pH and TA (titratable acidity). When evaluating beer, if there’s a sour/tart flavor present, ask yourself if it is supposed to be there or if it indicates a sanitation problem in the brewing process? A sour beer, in general, should have a “smooth” sourness (think yogurt or sourdough bread). Sourness in beer is often associated with berry and citrus flavors. For a super science-y explanation of sourness in beer, take a look at: Savoring Acidity: The Quest to Explain Sourness in Beer.
The phenols and esters produced in fermentation can yield spicy and/or fruity flavors or even a nail polish remover taste (obviously not a desirable one). Many factors affect fermentation results. These factors include the yeast used, temperature, length of fermentation, amount of chlorine in the brewing water, yeast nutrition, and more. To learn all you ever wanted to know about fermentation, we recommend this article: Fermentation Flavors: How Fermentation Affects Flavor.
Special Ingredients (Adjuncts)
Modern beer requires four major ingredients: barley, water, hops, and yeast. But most brewers add other ingredients (called adjuncts) to enhance flavor and/or cut costs. When beer is brewed with fruit or coffee, for example, or when it is barrel aged, those special ingredients can dramatically affect the beer’s flavor. To get an idea of how vast the list of possible adjuncts can be, just google “special ingredients in beer” and scroll through the seemingly endless list of results.
Knowledge is key when learning how to evaluate beer and get the full sensory experience out of this sophisticated beverage. Hopefully this article (or the links within it) took you to the next level in your understanding of beer and its complex flavors. Whether you’re brewing your own or trying new craft brews, properly evaluating beer is a helpful skill! Are you interested in taking this new skill to the NEXT level? Then learn how to pair beer with food! “How to Evaluate Your Food” will teach you how to evaluate the flavors in your food, and “How to Pair the Right Beer with the Right Food” goes in-depth on pairing beer and food. Happy sipping!