One of the most helpful skillsets we can develop as homebrewers is to taste beer in a critical and analytical manner. This allows us to understand the components of our recipe and develop a deeper sense for how our ingredients blend, build or even clash with each other. It allows us to build a better understanding for potential flaws or problems, and how to appropriately correct for these in future batches. Ultimately, it allows us to appreciate beer in a more personal and gratifying way.
The trick to tasting critically is to taste like a beer judge. This means everything from before you sip to writing down some notes at the end. The goal is to get beyond saying, “I like this beer,” “this tastes good,” or “I don’t like that style,” and get to the next step of being able to explaining why. The following is a step-by-step process to get you there.
Before you sit down to taste your beer, make sure your palate is clean. Avoid eating spicy food or consuming strongly flavoured food or beverages before or during your tasting. Be aware that if you ate something sweet, sugary, or salty before you drink a beer that this can amplify or clash with hop or malt profiles. Being sick, having allergies, using nasal sprays or meds of any kind can affect your tasting. It should go without saying that smoking will affect your taste buds and what you are able to perceive. You are the greatest variable in a tasting regimen. Tasting a beer one day can taste different on another, and it is important to develop the skills and reflection to understand and assess if it is the beer changing or ourselves. Tasting in a group can help mitigate these variables—just remember to be respectful of other’s thoughts and perceptions.
Now that you have a clean palate and a better understanding for yourself as a variable, it is time to turn our focus to the beer. Get a glass, preferably one that is tulip shaped. Never do a tasting out of a bottle or can. Always pour.
Pro tip on pouring—Rinse your glass with water before you pour your beer to minimize nucleation points on the glass. This will keep your beer from being too foamy, which can lead to carbonation loss and aroma loss. Also, do not use a glass from the freezer. The ice crystals that form inside your glass will cause multiple nucleation points as well. A proper tasting is done in a rinsed, room-temp glass.
Tasting Your Beer
Now go through the following assessments and write down your notes. I keep tasting notes with my recipe, brew day, and fermentation logs.
Appearance: While pouring your beer, take note of how it is pouring—the head, clarity, and any sediment. Then take a good smell of the beer. Don’t taste it yet. Simply smell. Then take another good look at it. Write down descriptions to the following: What colour is the beer? How is the clarity? What does the head look like?
Aroma: You already got an initial smell, but come back for a second smell once you finish your notes on appearance. Now write down your notes on what you perceive: Any hop character? Any grain or malt character? Yeast character? Do you get any spice or fruit notes on the nose? Anything else you notice? There are no wrong answers, just write down anything you think of.
Flavour: Now take a sip. Enough to coat your tongue. Let it sit there a moment. Take another smell, and then a second sip, coating the tongue and throat again. Write down your notes for the following: What is the first thing you taste? What is the last thing you taste? What are the malt or grain flavours like? How is the hop character and flavor? Is it bitter or sweet? Is it a sweet finish, or a dry finish? Any other flavors or tastes that you can sense?
Mouthfeel: Take another sip of beer and now think about how the beer feels in your mouth. Is the beer full-bodied or thin? Is the carbonation high or low? Is it creamy? Is it slick? Is it warming? Is it tannic or astringent? Any sensation you experience in the beer that can’t be attributed to flavour should go here.
Overall: Once you have written out your assessments on the four primary aspects—appearance, aroma, flavour, and mouthfeel—you should write some notes on your overall impressions. Is it good? Why or why not? Would you change anything? Why or why not? If you want to take your critical assessment a step further you can download a copy of the BJCP style guidelines and write down if you think your beer meets the style guidelines in an appropriate manner, or what things you might get docked points on. Remember, creativity is allowed and encouraged, but diverging too far from specifications or making up hybridized styles, no matter how good they might be, can cost you points in competition.
More than anything, have fun with this. Download a flavour wheel chart to build your vocab, taste with friends, and practice this tasting method with professional examples. You never know what you might discover about beer that you weren’t aware of before, or even develop an appreciation for a style that you might have previously overlooked. Either way, I hope you enjoy!
David Boggs has been homebrewing for over 10 years and currently works as a professional brewer in Edmonton. He holds a certificate in Applied Craft Brewing and is a Recognized BJCP Judge. He is a fan of Belgian ales and anything barrel-aged.