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How to Evaluate Your Beer

How to Evaluate Your Beer

The beer scene is really “brewing” these days, so 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.

Before we discuss the different aspects of beer, here are some suggestions for effectively evaluating a beer:

  1. Pour the beer with a head.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. Take a second sip and evaluate mouthfeel (body) and carbonation.
  6. 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.

Hops Bitterness

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, all of which yield different flavor profiles that can be described as flowery, citrus-like, spicy, piney, tropical, fruity, herbal, sharp, earthy, sweet, etc. Hops can be added at different points along the brewing cycle, 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 Content

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.

Carbonation

Carbonation is 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

Sourness is caused by the acids present in the beer and is 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.

Fermentation

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). Fermentation results are affected by many factors including 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 get the full sensory experience out of beer. 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! If you’re interested in taking this new skill to the NEXT level, 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!

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