The “How to taste beer” series explores the four steps of the beer tasting process and what each step can tell us about beer’s flavour and texture. New to the series? Start here.
Ready to learn how to taste beer?
It’s a little bit more complex than just taking a sip… Here you’ll learn how a beer professional would taste a beer.
And that process involves 4 steps: we want to think about what our beer looks like, smells like, tastes like and feels like.
Even if you’re new to beer – and don’t know that much about what it’s made from or how it’s made – we can all get really good at beer tasting because we all eat, drink and experience different flavours on a daily basis. So we’re simply going to sharpen the skills that were already using day in and day out.
Before we get started though, I’ve got a quick word to say on glassware.
I always recommend using a stemmed glass that’s easy to swirl, like a wine glass, as swirling our glass allows us to better experience beer’s aromas.
Make sure you only fill the glass about 1/3 of the way full though, as that leaves plenty of room in the glass to experience the aromas. (Plus, it means you’re a little less likely to spill the beer all over yourself as you go to swirl it!)
Why not grab a glass of beer and taste along?
Step 1: Appearance
Step 1 of the beer tasting process is to assess our beer’s appearance.
Why? Assessing our beer’s appearance can help to set some expectations for the flavours and textures we might find.
When we think about a beer’s appearance, we want to think about the 3 C’s: colour, clarity and carbonation.
- Colour: Beer colour can range from gold, to amber, to black. In gold coloured beers, we might expect to find flavours of white bread or water cracker. Whereas in darker coloured beers, we might expect to find coffee and dark chocolate.
- Clarity: Thinking about beer’s clarity, most beers are clear or bright, meaning we can see right through them. But some beer styles, like the German wheat beer or New England IPA, are intentionally cloudy or hazy, meaning we can’t see through them. A beer’s clarity can potentially indicate the textures we might find, with hazier beers having a fuller and creamier body compared to clear beers.
- Carbonation: The amount of foam on top of a beer can potentially indicate the level of carbonation within the liquid. More foam means more fizz.
But, just like the old saying goes – “we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover” – we shouldn’t judge our beer by appearance alone. Appearance simply sets some expectations for the flavours and textures that we might find.
That said, before we move on to flavour, it’s probably helpful for us to define it!
Flavour is actually a combination of aroma and taste. We only have 5 basic tastes, but we can detect thousands of aromas. Together, they give us flavour.
So let’s move on to step 2 to assess it…
Step 2: Aroma
Step 2 of the beer tasting process is to assess our beer’s aroma.
Aroma molecules are detected in air, hence why we give our glass a swirl. As we swirl the glass, the bubbles will rise up out of the liquid, bringing the aroma molecules with them and right to our nose.
Simply glass a swirl, bring it to your nose and take a sniff of 1 – 2 seconds.
(There are actually 5 different techniques that beer professionals can use to assess the aroma of a beer, but we’re going to stick with the basic short sniff for now! Find out more about all 5 techniques in this article here.)
If you’re having a hard time picking up on any of the aromas in your beer, try warming the beer slightly by cupping the glass in your hand. As the liquid warms, more aroma will be released.
If that’s still not doing the trick, it’s worth mentioning that we all have individual levels of flavour perception – not only based on our biology, but also based on the ingredients and cuisines we’re regularly exposed to.
Think back to the things that you eat and drink regularly – perhaps you had a cup of coffee this morning, are you finding any roasted aromas in your beer? Maybe you had a sandwich for lunch, are you finding any aromas of freshly baked bread?
Thinking through our everyday flavour experiences is a really helpful place to start when we’re first getting into beer tasting.
Maybe it’s that you’re picking up on the aromas, but can’t quite find the words to describe them? Don’t worry, that’s totally normal. The way the brain works, aroma signals are actually processed by the emotion and memory centres of the brain, not the higher thinking centres of the brain responsible for vocabulary.
So don’t be afraid to say whatever words are coming to mind, as it may be that you’re calling on a memory that will help you then describe the flavour.
When you’re first getting started, I recommend using a tool like a flavour wheel, as it acts as a really helpful bank of words to choose from as you’re building your own flavour vocabulary.
Step 3: Taste
Step 3 of the beer tasting process is to taste our beer. (Finally!)
We’ve got 5 basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami or savoury. And we’ve got taste receptors for all of them across the tongue.
When tasting a beer, take a big enough sip and give the liquid a slight swish once it’s in your mouth to coat your whole palate. Then, be sure to swallow your beer, as flavour perception continues after swallowing, particularly for bitterness, which is an important component in most beers.
Again, think back to your morning coffee or morning tea – both of those beverages are quite bitter. Are you picking up on any bitterness in your beer? Perhaps you added sugar to sweeten your coffee or tea. Are you finding any sweetness in the beer?
Thinking back to our everyday flavour experiences can help make us better beer tasters.
Now before we more on to texture, we’ve got one last thing to say on flavour.
Interestingly, tasting our beer actually gives us a new way to assess its aroma.
Up until now, we’ve been using a process called orthonasal breathing: that simply means breathing in through the nose. But, when we taste our beer, we can give retronasal breathing a go – simply breathe out through your nose after swallowing and you’ll pick up on some slightly different aromatics.
Why? Not only has the liquid warmed slightly in our mouth, but enzymes in our saliva have helped to release even more aromatic compounds.
To give it a go, simply take a sip, swallow, keep your mouth closed, and breathe out through your nose. (Check out the video above for a visual.)
What new aromas are you picking up?
Step 4: Texture
Finally, step 4 is to assess our beer’s mouthfeel or the texture of our beer on our palate.
- Is the body thin, like water, or full, like milk?
- Do you pick up on any prickly carbonation, like you’ve just had a sip of soda?
- What about any alcohol warmth, like you’ve just taken a sip of a strong cocktail?
These are a few different examples of the mouthfeel characteristics that we might find, and we’ll go into more detail on each in a separate article.
It’s also a good time to reflect on the aftertaste or the finish of the beer. Is the flavour still present on your palate or has it already left?
Now that we’ve assessed what our beer looks, smells, tastes, and feels like, take a moment to think about it.
Did the flavours and textures meet the expectations set by the beer’s appearance? What were some of the prominent aromas and tastes? What about the body? Was it light and crisp, or more full and creamy? And finally, did you enjoy it?
I always use this 4 step approach in my tastings.
You don’t need to do it for every sip, but as you’re first getting into beer or trying a new beer, it’s a really helpful framework to use to make sure that you describe all aspects of the beer in front of you.
Even without knowing much about beer’s ingredients or the brewing process, I hope you’ve learned that we can all be better beer tasters, simply by relying on our everyday flavour experiences.
That said though, I do hope that when you start finding flavours that you enjoy, you become intrigued to find out their sources.
If so, check out the “What beer is made from” series here, which introduces beer’s four main ingredients and the flavours they contribute.
Discovering Beer is not affiliated with or endorsed by the Cicerone® Certification Program.
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