At its best, tasting beer can be as deep and rewarding as tasting wine, whiskey, or port. Of course, developing a tasting acumen requires time and effort. Building your palate is a journey of a thousand sips, but what are we looking for when we taste a beer?
To answer that, we’ve compiled a straightforward guide that’ll amp up your beer tasting game and hopefully help open up a new world of flavors (and beers) for you to enjoy.
ONE RULE: Don’t be intimidated. If you don’t like something right away, that’s fine. Approach it like tasting whiskey — no one likes that stuff the first time they sip it. It takes a few tries to get those receptors going. Overall when tasting a beer you’re going to go through a very similar process, you’re cultivating a sense here and that takes (very fun) practice.
Without further ado…
Pour the beer. The beer should always be poured into a glass. This allows it to start to aerate, releasing Co2 and aromas.
Look at the beer. What’s the color? Is it cloudy? Is it fizzy or flat? What does the head look like — big, small, muddy, frothy, thin?
Feel the beer. It’s good to know what temperature the beer is going to be by holding the glass for a moment. A warmer cellared cask ale is going to have a different reaction than, say, an ice cold pale lager. It’s all part of the sensory build towards drinking the beer. It’s worth noting that the colder the beer, the more the flavors can be masked by the numbing of your tongue with the shock of the low temperature.
Agitate your beer. This will further aerate and help release aromas. The agitation will also loosen the beer’s carbonation, which gives you an idea of how well the head of the beer retains it’s form. Lacing is often cited in beer competitions (that’s how the head moves down the glass), but you really don’t have to worry too much about it.
Smell that beer. Take in the aromas and say them out loud. This helps you remember and identify what you’re smelling for when you actually taste it. Some people will tier how many times they smell the beer. They’ll smell it immediately after its poured, swirl then smell again, and then repeat as the agitating releases more and more complexities.
It really comes down to how complex and beautifully made the beer is. Sometimes they smell so luscious it’s hard to get your nose out of the glass and drink it.
Drink that beer. Basically you’ve set yourself up mentally to fully take in the beer with as many senses as possible. A lot of beer tasters breathe out while tasting. This is called retronasal olfaction and allows a final aeration.
Now for mouth feel. What you’re looking for is what the beer feels like in your mouth. Is it abrasive? Nutty? Bitter? Malty? What does it remind you of? What foods does it remind you of? If you close your eyes, where are you transported to with that sip? How does it finish? That is, how do the flavors linger after you’ve swallowed?
And, lastly, what style does it fall into? This is where the ‘conversation’ can get heated. People love different beers and local brewers with a tribal passion. So to dive deeper into tasting beers, we thought we’d compile a few styles of beer and what to expect (in the broadest sense) from each of them. This should serve as a beginner’s guide.
This lager style originates in the mid-19th century in the town of Plzeň in the Czech Republic. It should be light straw or golden in color and always clear (unless unfiltered). Unlike standard lagers, a Czech Pilsner should be hoppy and made with Saaz hops which gives it some bitterness and floral notes with a hint of spiciness. Think spring and summer grasses, evergreens, and maybe some slight butter and clean maltiness on the mouth feel. You should feel the carbonation when you drink the beer. It’s meant to be refreshing and very drinkable. You should be able to (and want to) drink this style all day and all night.
A great example is STS Pils from the Russian River Brewing Company. And there’s always the Czech standard-bearer Pilsner Urquell.
MUNICH DUNKEL LAGER
Munich Dunkels are dark beers that use the decoction process to add serious depth and robustness to the beer. Expect a dark beer that a little bit of light can cut through (it shouldn’t be as dark as a stout). This is a lager, so it should be light and carbonated with a foamy and slightly tan head. The beer should be a creamy malt more than a hoppy bitter. It’s often rich, and roasted, with a well-balanced sweetness that’s not so much caramel, but can lean towards toffee, nuttiness, and maybe a hint of chocolate. This is a dark beer that’s light and easy to drink over and over again.
One of the best examples is the Czech beer Kozel Černý Velkopopovicky from the brewery Pivovar Velké Popovice. Try it off the tap if you can. Harpoon Brewery makes their Harpoon Dark which serves as a great example as well.
Altbiers, literally old beer, originated in the west of Germany as a pretty standard brown ale. What makes this style stand out is the longer conditioning time — when the yeasts work overtime to reprocess byproducts in the beer that smooth it out the end results. This all adds up to a very smooth beer that balances malt with hoppy bitterness really well. It really should be as even as possible. There should be a mellow taste of stone fruits like peaches and apricots, toasted bread, and a little sweetness similar to toffee. Don’t expect over-carbonation here. The keywords are mellow and balanced.
Alaskan Amber from the Alaskan Brewing Co. is probably one of the better (and more accessible) examples of the style. If you want to go old school German, grab a Frankenheim Alt or a Münster Alt.
IRISH DRY STOUT
Irish Dry Stout is the variety of stout you’ll run into most often. There’s a huge caveat here. These stouts are often served on a “nitro” tap, meaning nitrogen is inserted into the beer to give it a creamy texture (alternatively widgets are put in cans to simulate this). Adding nitrogen can mask some of the complexity of the beer.
All of that being said, stouts are made with roasted barely and plenty of hops. The roasted grains should outshine the hops here on the taste. So don’t expect a lot of bitterness. Huge notes that do come through the roasting process are hits of coffee or black tea, cacao, vanilla, toast, umami, brine, caramel, nuts, and sometimes hints of tobacco. There shouldn’t be too much carbonation. And unless it’s nitro’d, don’t expect the head to stick around too long. It’s always worth trying a nice stout from the bottle or tap without the nitro to get a fuller sense of what you’re drinking.
O’Hara’s Leann Folláin by the Carlow Brewing Company is a fine example of a great Irish Dry Stout. Then there are the big three of Ireland — Guinness, Beamish, and Murphy’s.
Porters are dark ales like stouts. But where stouts are malty and smooth, porters are hoppy and bitter (for the most part). American Porters revived the English Porter style and amped up the flavors. You’ll get a lot of hops and often certain beers will used smoked malts instead of merely roasted ones. This dark and deeply roasted and smokey flavor really highlights chocolate, cola, barley, brandy, and coffee notes in the beer along with good hoppiness. Sometimes you’ll even get a hint of Coca-Cola on the finish. The beer should be a medium heft, naturally carbonated, and have a decent tannish head that dissipates pretty quickly.
Black Butte Porter by Deschutes Brewery is a classic example of the style and widely available. Anchor Porter also gets the job done.
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A nice pint of bitter is one of the more classic English styles of ale. The bitter was invented to stand out from other beers. So look for a lot of good malt with a nice heavy dose of hops. This deeply amber beer should have a decent head that sticks around with a pretty low carbonation (not flat mind you, just not fizzy). The tastes come from the hops — with nice florals, dried fruits, and a slight honey hint. Think of a lovely spring day. This is a mild and very drinkable beer, hence its popularity in English pubs.
Banks’s Bitter by the Marston’s brewery is a great small town beer that goes a long way. Anchor Small Beer is a good stateside example of the style. And if you’re in England just ask for a pint of bitter (from the cask) next time you’re ‘down the pub.’
ENGLISH PALE ALE
English Pale Ales started in Burton-upon-Trent, which was famous of its mineral rich and very hard water supply. This hard water enhanced the hops that went into the beer and solidified the uniqueness of the style. Generally, in order to be called an English Pale Ale, all the ingredients need to be English. The blend of hard water, hops, and malts depend on who’s brewing. So you can get fairly pale or straw colored ales all the way up to deeply ruddy pints of beer. Expect a lot of florals, malt, hop, grass, earthy, nutty, and buttery flavors to be balanced. It should kind of feel like a walk through a field to the pub on a sunny day. There should be medium carbonation or less if its off a cask and always have a good head. Some of them will be nitro poured adding a creaminess similar to Guinness.
Fuller’s London Pride is a great example of an EPA, that’s best pulled from a cellared cask. And Samuel Adams Boston Ale is a widely available American example of English Pale Ale (which they call a ‘stock ale’).
The American IPA is one of the most popular beer styles at the moment. It’s a big beer that turns flavors up to eleven. These beers can be crystal clear, murky amber, or deeply reddish. Expect a lot of hop, big florals, pine, citrus, grass, and cannabis tastes and smells. The malt should take a backseat to the hops here. The beer should be closer to a pilsner while being light and airy (but not too fizzy). Look for the depth of the hop notes. Is it just on the nose, or are there deep hop flavors coming through in the beer itself when you taste it? This can depend when and how often the beer is hopped.
Given the style’s popularity, this one is easy to find on every corner. Try Focal Banger from The Alchemist Brewing for a great example. Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA is a widely available example that’s easy to drink with loads of flavor.
Now we’re getting into flavortown. Gueuze are blends of old and young lambics that are barreled and aged for two to three years. So what’s lambic? Lambic is a beer that often uses wheat, then allows wild yeasts and bacteria from the air to float into the tanks to make the beer. The natural process creates a very sour and often floral beer style. When these are blended to make Gueuze those flavors are amped up significantly. What you’re left with is a very dry, fruity, and sour beer that has no hoppiness. The beer is usually very amber in its hue with a light head. Expect farm tastes of straw, fields, barns, maybe a little vinegar, citrus, and earth.
Oude Gueuze from Hanssens Artisanaal is a stellar example. Cantillon Gueuze 100% Lambic is another can’t miss bottle.
Keeping with the growing popularity of the sour beer styles, Berliner Weissbier (or Berliner Weisse) is set to make a big splash this summer when the weather heats up. This wheat beer adds a lot of yeast and lactobacillus culture to create a pale beer with little to no head. The flavors are bold from all that chemistry going on. Expect intense sour, citrus, acidity, and florals. There should be very little to no hop flavor whatsoever. The tartness of the beer can put a lot of people off. So in Berlin, you’ll often find the beer served with a shot of sweet fruit syrup to take the edge off (often raspberry or woodruff).
Festina Pêche by Dogfish Head Craft Brewery is a great place to start on your tart road to Berliner Weisse. BRLO Berliner Weisse is a classic example from an actual Berlin craft brewery in case you want to try the beer from its source.