Now that you’re familiar with some common flavors and basic beer styles, where do you go next? I sat down with beer judges Kazuko and Kevin Masaryk, who are certified by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) to assess and judge beer.
For drinkers who want to dive into the craft beer world, they suggest the next big step is to start tasting beers to develop your palate, vocabulary, and knowledge.
“Taste the beer,” Kazuko says. “Write down what you taste and smell without using the [BJCP] guidelines.”
Once you’ve gotten a grasp on how to pick out flavors, use the BJCP Guidelines to learn more about what to expect in common beer styles. The guidelines are an in-depth source for history, common characteristics, and commercial examples of each style. Buy some of those examples and drink while you read through the style description. “You should be able to taste everything mentioned in the guidelines,” Kevin says.
So how do we learn to taste beer in a way that allows us to learn something new each time? Let’s get started!
First and foremost, tasting beer should be fun. It can be as simple as having a drink with your buddies or as complex as gathering a notebook and pen. But if you plan on having different beers, make sure to have water on hand to rinse out your mouth (and your beer glasses!) and to stay hydrated. You may also want to have “dump buckets” nearby where you can pour out unwanted beer. A kitchen sink will do.
Kevin notes that judges for beer competitions can have as many as 12 beers to taste with 2-3 ounce pours each, but the “sweet spot” is seven beers. After seven, judges start to experience palate fatigue, which is no good when you need to be accurate and objective! I doubt you’ll be limiting yourself to 2-3 ounce pours when drinking with friends, so be extra mindful that you aren’t going over the limit for your blood alcohol or your palate.
If you’re drinking out of a glass or bottle, pour it into a clear glass so you can get a good look at it. A goblet or wine glass will do. Note the color of the beer, which can range from straw-colored to black. Can you see through the beer, or is it opaque or hazy? If you can get some head on it, note the color of that as well.
Kevin notes that for homebrewed beer, you may want to exam the bottle before you pour the beer. Is the bottle filled to the top? If not, that may explain oxidation that causes stale beer. Rings around the inside of the bottle may point to a bacterial infection. And for certain bottle-conditioned beer, homebrew or commercial, you may find yeast sediment at the bottom of the bottle, which you can drink or not, depending on your preference.
Smell is tightly linked to taste, so smelling your beer gives you clues on how it tastes. Stick your nose in the glass and get a few whiffs of your beer. Go ahead and give it a swirl before you stick your nose in if you’re having trouble getting some of the aromas.
BJCP actually recommends smelling the beer immediately after pouring into the glass. Some aromas — like sulfur, which gives off a scent of rotten eggs — dissipate within seconds, Kevin explains. So waiting until you’ve had a proper look at the color may be too late to experience those aromas.
In Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer, he recommends taking quick sniffs. Linger on any “memory flashbacks” you have, as they may help you remember what aroma is trigging the memory.
After looking and smelling, you can finally put that glass to your lips and take a sip… but wait! Now that the beer is in your mouth, let it linger on your tongue.
What’s important for this phase is to wait and allow the beer’s characteristics to come out. Mosher explains that certain tastes like bitterness “build more slowly” than others.
How carbonated or bubbly is the beer? Is the body light or heavy bodied? Does it feel astringent or “oily”? What we’re answering here is the mouthfeel of the beer.
While you exam that, you should also note sweetness, acidity, and whatever else you taste. Do you taste any fruit? If so, which? What about smoky, sweet, or roasty? Do any of the aromas you noted earlier come out in the flavor?
Once you swallow, how long does the taste remain in your mouth? Does it feel smooth or harsh? What are some of the lingering flavors?
Note anything that comes to mind. Does the beer remind you of the toast you had this morning? Have you had a beer like this before?
If you’re doing your tastings with the BJCP Guidelines in front of you, ask yourself how the beer fits or doesn’t fit into the style.
Kazuko recommends tasting and comparing beer with friends. Since people have different thresholds for different flavors, what one friend tastes another may not. Think of cilantro as an extreme example. For some of us, cilantro is bright and fresh. For others, it’s soapy and disgusting.
Next, congratulate yourself. You’ve just done your first beer tasting!
“Don’t limit yourself to just beer,” Kevin says. Be mindful of the aromas and flavors around you. “Try it with wine. With food.”
His advice is especially helpful if you’re having trouble describing what you’re tasting and smelling. Your other tasting experiences should inform you.
“Everybody’s had a tangerine,” Kevin says. “But do you remember how it smells and tastes?” If you do, then you’ll be able to pinpoint it in the beer you’re drinking.
And that’s what a good judge or beer connoisseur does: remembering past experiences to inform us on our present.