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Now Reading: 5 Steps to Tasting Beer Like a Connoisseur

5 Steps to Tasting Beer Like a Connoisseur

drinking-beer-evening-standardFor the past few years, I’ve been on what I like to call a beer adventure, meaning I’m trying as many different beers as I can. As I try different styles and breweries, I’m always amazed that four ingredients—water, yeast, malt, and hops—can produce such a wide variety of flavors.

Anyway, the more beer I’ve tasted, the more I’ve realized that there are degrees of appreciation. Sure, you can gulp down a beer mindlessly, completely ignoring the careful craftsmanship that went into its production. But chances are you won’t enjoy it nearly as much as someone who patiently takes the time to examine the many facets of its character. It’s only recently that I’ve started to take the latter approach, slowing down and seeking to appreciate the complexity of the many excellent beers out there.

Today, I’d like to share five tips that can help you enjoy and appreciate beer more fully.

1. Smell – Tasting anything always starts with the nose, and if you’ve ever tried to enjoy good food when you’re congested, you’ll know that being unable to smell can make even the most delicious food bland.

When it comes to beer tasting, smelling the aroma of the beer is the first step. The word nose is used to describe both the aroma of the beer as well as the process of smelling it. If you wanted to be ironic, you could probably get away with saying, “I nosed the nose of the lager.”

It is important to realize that, unlike other alcoholic beverages, beer has a very fleeting smell. Nose the beer immediately after pouring, before the aroma has a chance to evaporate. Agitating the beer will also release the aroma more fully.

As you nose the beer, look for familiar scents. Some beers may smell like bananas, others like pine needles, citrus, pepper, etc. Discovering these scents will help you further appreciate the taste of the beer.

2. Color – After you’ve determined the aroma of the beer, glance at the color. Keep in mind that there is no one right color for a beer, as there are hundreds of beer styles, and each style’s color will vary slightly. Still, a beer’s color is part of its character, so it’s worth noting.

Is the beer black? Is it amber? Is it filtered or unfiltered? Of course, these questions aren’t absolutely essential to tasting, but they are good reference points for future tasting.

3. Taste – Now for the fun part. Take a sip of the beer, but don’t swallow right away. Swish the beer around in your mouth, paying attention to what flavors you experience. Is it salty, spicy, sour, bitter, sweet? A good beer will have a complex mixture of flavors, so it may take a couple of sips before you discover them all. Take it slow and don’t be in a hurry.

Here are some common beer descriptors: roasted, sweet, spicy, fruity, bitter chocolaty, caramel, toffee, sour, coffee, malty, tart, subtle, piney. Of course, there can be many other flavors in beer.

4. Aftertaste – After your initial taste, don’t take a big bite of pizza. Allow the beer to linger in your mouth, seeing if the flavors change at all. In many good beers, you will notice new flavors emerging in the aftertaste, also known as the finish. The finish of a beer has a lot to do with the overall enjoyability of a beer, so don’t skip this step.

5. Feel – Like any beverage, beer has a peculiar feel in your mouth. Some beers are watery and thin, while other beers are thick and heavy in your mouth. This quality of beer is referred to as its body. Light beers, like Miller Light for example, have a very light body, whereas beers like Wee Heavy Scotch Ale (unsurprisingly) have a heavier, fuller body. Beers with more carbonation generally feel lighter in the mouth, while an unfiltered, less carbonated beer will likely feel heavier in the mouth.

It’s all about you…

When people first look into tasting beer, or any other beverage for that matter, they are often intimidated by the vocabulary and the impression that you have to taste “correctly.” But this simply isn’t true. Beer, like anything, is a matter of personal preference, and the ultimate criterion for any beer is, “Do I like it?” it’s all a matter of what you prefer.

I, for one, loathe IPAs (India Pale Ale for the uninitiated), and I’ve never understood the mania over them. While one person may taste an IPA carefully and savor the intense, bitter flavor of pine needles, I can think only of Pine-Sol floor cleaner. No thank you.

The point is, don’t get caught up in liking the “right” beer. There is no such thing, even though some people might try to convince you there is. The best way to drink is to try a wide variety of beer styles, perhaps using a notebook to keep track of your experiences, and find what you like best. Think of it as an adventure.

Happy drinking!

What are your favorite beers? Do you have any tasting tips?

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Sam Guzman

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27 People Replies to “5 Steps to Tasting Beer Like a Connoisseur”

  1. Nick D

    My favorite beer is root beer

  2. Jon K.

    Nice article – but have to disagree with you about IPA. I love it!! It can be over-done, of course; or under-done. But a nice bitter IPA typifies what I think of as ‘the taste of beer’, more so than the sweeter, maltier brews. Among my favorites currently (the field of IPAs seems to have exploded of late) are Red Hook Brewing Company’s ‘Long Hammer IPA’, Smuttynose Brewing’s ‘Finestkind IPA’ and the perennial Harpoon Brewing Company’s ‘Harpoon IPA’.

  3. As a Texan, I would strongly recommend any beer from Shiner especially the seasonal and small-batch brews they put out from time to time. My favorite right now is Shiner Prickly Pear, a summer beer with hints of cactus apple. Sounds strange, but it’s great!

  4. My parents and younger siblings are coming up from Southern California, for a visit, on Saturday. I’ve told my father about sour beers. I have a 750 miL of Timmermans limited edition Oude Gueuze. I’m looking forward to sharing it with him. And maybe my teetotal brother and Mom.

  5. Another home brewer here! While my taste for IPAs has diminished recently, it is only due to the abundance of poor examples. Too hoppy. Too high in alcohol. Poor bitterness/alcohol balance. But there are some incredible examples out there, and this is one of only a few styles that America can claim as her own, not because we invented it, but because have completely redefined the style. Out in Michigan, look for Bell’s Two Hearted Ale. If you don’t like this, an IPA probably just isn’t for you!

    I’ve taken to the simpler German styles as of late. Hefeweizen, Kolsch, and, this time of year, you can’t beat a good, malty Oktoberfest/Marzen. But as you say, the fun is in trying new beers, and I have a lot more to cross off my list!

    1. David

      I’m told that Northern Brewer’s “Dead Ringer” is close to Two Heart-ed, Let you know soon, I’m transferring for the primary to the secondary tonight-

  6. Serviam

    Grand Cru.
    Just about any Grand Cru (that golden champagne-y) beer is yummy to me. Belgian brews I’m finding are what I crave. 🙂
    For now anyway.
    Beer loves change with age, methinks.

  7. I am a huge fan of darker beer. My current favorite is Innus and Gunn, a brewery in Scotland, they age their beer in different types of barrels. I got one from St.Patricks day and it is beer aged in an Irish Wiskey Cask.I actually cannot drink IPA because it upsets my stomach due to the potency of the hops, but the malty beers do not have any bad effect on me.

    I also like heavier beer because it is a good way of drinking less in my opinion. If you have cheap beer you have to drink more to get buzzed, but the stronger beers are more expensive generally and have a higher alcohol content on average.

  8. Petrus Augustinus

    I love IPAs, how can you not like that extremely hoppy taste? 🙂

  9. Aaron

    I didn’t notice if it was mentioned in a previous comment, but I really appreciate what I have heard others call the “retro-nasal action”. That is, the flavor you sense when you exhale through your nose after swallowing your beer. It might sound strange in words, but I definitely think it is worth paying attention to next you have your favorite beer.

  10. Ben Walker

    Good stuff, Sam! If I may, concerning the IPA’s. If you have tried IPA’s only in the form of the North American style, where usually the hop and citrus level/taste is extremely high, and sometimes overpowering, maybe there’s a substitute for you.

    I don’t know how Milwaukee is for access to European import beers, but an IPA brewed in England might do the trick. The good majority of English IPA’s have a pleasant, much more subtle hop level that is extremely smoother and much more well-rounded than their North American counterparts. Definitely not recognizable to an IPA here. Three phenomenal English IPA’s are White Shield, Buxton Brewery’s IPA, and Samuel Smith’s IPA.

    Another beer-type I might recommend is called a farm ale, named after traditional Belgian beers that were brewed and brought out to thirsty workers toiling in the fields. This beer was invented to quench thirst, and I’m sorry, but the Belgians are infallible when it comes to beer. I’m almost certain a local Milwaukee brewery has a farm ale (forgive me, I can’t remember which one), at least I thought I saw one when I visited your city last May. Again, similar in structure to an IPA, just toned down and supremely delicious.

    Cheers from up North in Canada, Sam! God bless!

    1. Quite right, Ben. Phipps is what I used to drink all those years ago.

      I recal the time my ‘gang’ of mates and I who used to drink at our local pub went there one evening to celebrate. The landlord who knew us well – we were good customers – pulled the ‘usual’ IPA ‘cooking bitter’ (it was cheap) as we walked in. As we were carousing he came over and asked what we were celebrating. “Grahem’s Birthday”. “Oh and what birthday is is Gray?”. ‘He’s sixteen today”, came the chorus.

      He near had a fit !

  11. Joseph Savo

    Hey Sam, I just finished drinking a bottle of my favorite summer brew-“Sam Adams Summer Ale” and then I turned on my computer and opened up to this article! Great timing.

  12. While I tend to like the hoppy beers, I have been pleasantly surprised by some summer seasonal beers. I would have never thought I would like these lighter, sometimes fruitier beers like Shiner’s Ruby Red and Pyramid’s Apricot Ale. During the winter I like the spicier seasonals like Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale.

  13. Geoff

    Sam,

    And I was just warming up to you. Pine-Sol?!?! C’mon…

    Then again, I came of age in the Great Pacific Northwest, where ever ale house has at least 3 different, craft IPAs on tap. We are, after all, the hops capital of America and one of the three fertile hops regions in the world! It’s almost required to like IPAs there.

    Goodness, that’s one thing I miss about the States…good, solid craft brewing. There are a few places out here in Japan that are comparable, but the scale can’t match what the US offers.

    Happy drinking my friend. If you’re ever in Chicago, give Revolution Brewing a try. My sister lives out there and we always stop by whenever I’m in town.

    -Geoff

  14. Brisno Freeny

    Wonderful article. I, too, hate IPA’s and couldn’t figure out why they are so popular. I just thought that i am way too old to be a hipster and didn’t know better. Thanks!

  15. As I grow older I find I have become something of a beer snob, in that I prefer European beers such as Bass, Guinness, and Harp. And then of course in the summer there is the Corona with a lime, which I actually enjoy. But, again as I grow older, I find I opt for beer less often and Scotch more often.

    1. Antonius

      Frater, with respect, keep tasting: I contend that the among the products of the hundreds upon hundreds of American “microbreweries” from Maine to Denver to California there are far superior examples of the styles of beers made by the foreign companies you mentioned ( esp. Bass, Harp, Corona). I have drunk the three from Ireland and UK you mention both in Europe and the USA, but no longer. 🙂

  16. Sam, have you tried sour beer? What I tell people when I introduce them to sours is that the first taste is a shock to your pallete. That you must take a second taste. http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2013/10/15/234914933/pucker-up-america-beers-are-going-sour

  17. Lachlan Cameron

    I understood IPA as India Pale Ale. Brewed to withstand the long journey from UK to India when India was part of the British Empire. The regular beer of the time(1800s) spoiled before reaching India and so India Pale Ale was born

  18. +Dcn Bob Connor

    I started brewing over 20 years ago, because I could not always find a beer that suited my tastes, so I made them! IPA is an acquired taste – perhaps like a Scotch (or so I am told – since I cannot stand Scotch – ha ha ha).

    I was told – when it comes to “tasting” beer that you do *have* to swallow it (unlike wine), because the part of your mouth/taste that can “measure” a beer is the very back (unlike the taste-buds for wine – which are apparently in the front and so allow you to *spit* it out and still appreciate what it offers for taste). Even if it were not true – why would you ever spit out good beer!?

    Beer is a love affair where variety is truly the spice of life. I do love my IPA – but appreciate that not everyone may. As they say, “All the more for me!” Thank you for a great little article. Peace!

  19. Ahhh, yes. IPA. ‘Cooking bitter’, we used to call it way back when.

    One point missed, I think. The glass. A chap’s glass must be made to ‘hold’. A handle, of course, is useful, but to slip one’s hand through rather than grasp. Fingers ought to fit into dimples that surround the glass. And the measure should be the Pint. Fill with Real Ale.

    Never, ever, be caught with a slimline sort of glass. Not even dead !

    1. Peter Wynn

      I agree: any measure short of a pint is a disappointment.

  20. Sam, I *love* tasting new beers and agree with your assessment on how to taste a beer. I have one minor critique. I believe IPA stands for “India Pale Ale”. There can be a style of IPA called Imperial (Imperial IPA). And I’m not a big fan of them either, it really depends on the hoppiness of the beer. Some taste like you’re drinking a pine tree!! Anyway, it’s a minor thing.

    If you have a chance and like complex tasting beers, try a Tripel or Quad (Allagash makes excellent ones), or even a Barleywine style. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Oh yes, and almost any Imperial Stout or a coffee Porter!!

    Enjoy!

    -David

    1. The Catholic Gentleman

      You are correct on the IPA! My apologies. That’s what I get for writing early in the morning.

      I love Barleywine style beer, and I have coffee stout in my fridge. Porter is actually my favorite style of beer at the moment, while my favorite beer overall is Old Rasputin. I love the strong, dark beers.

      1. If you can get your hands on a Bourbon County Brand Stout (Goose Island Beer Co.), get it. In the northeast here, it’s difficult to get since it’s only released once a year in November with a limited distribution. However, I do have a 2013 sitting my fridge just waiting for the weather too cool a bit 🙂


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