To fully appreciate a beer you want to pay attention to four different elements of the drinking experience, aroma, appearance, taste, and mouthfeel.
As you taste a beer, simply note objective observations of what you smell, see, taste, and feel. It can then be useful to reflect on your overall impression of the beer, making subjective notes about your drinking experience. Was it pleasant to drink? What stood out to you about it? Would you order another?
The Smell / Aroma
Because some aromas in beer are so volatile that aromatic compounds are carried out of the glass with the foam at pouring, you want to first consider the aroma. Olfactory senses affect how you taste food and drink; drink beer when you have a cold and you’ll notice how bland even the most heavily hopped beer can be.
Aroma develops over the course of the drink, and the hop oils are particularly volatile in the early stages, so it can be a good idea to quickly sniff from the bottle neck where the smell is condensed and then compare it to when it has been poured into the glass and allowed to open up.
Stick your nose in the glass, take a few big whiffs and note what you perceive. The foamy head retains a lot of the hop aroma so the smell is often hop forward at first, then as the hop oils dissipate you can pick up more of the malt character, hop character, and yeast character. Note quality and relative intensity of each. Are there any other smells?
Its aromas may vary from floral, fruity and spicy to sweet and caramel; from burnt to herbal, bready or nutty. Floral or grassy aromas frequently derive from hops and are common in pilsners. Fruity bouquets stem from esters created in fermentation and are common in ales and stouts. Malt, especially if darkly roasted, creates a rounded, rich aroma, which is often found in brown ales, stouts, and dark lagers.
The Look / Appearance
For an accurate, objective beer tasting, it is important to sample beers in the same type of glass. The shape of the glass can affect perception of taste, so when comparing different beers, it is important to give them equal presentation. It is important to hold the glass in such a way that your body heat will not cause the temperature of the beer to rise.
When evaluating a beer’s appearance you want to consider color, clarity, and head. Beer color ranges from pale yellow through amber, copper, and brown, all the way to an opaque black. Simply note what you see.
If you’re not too self-conscious then you should hold your glass up to the light so you can admire your beer. From the crisp, golden clarity of a lager, to the copper brilliance of bitters through to the darkest, brooding, ruby-red edged stouts, beer is beautiful to look at.
Cloudiness isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it can come about from disturbing the sediment in bottle conditioned ales, and is characteristic of wheat or unfiltered beers. You definitely should not have any chunks floating around, though. Most beers will be very clear or brilliant. However some, like German Wheat Beers, should be cloudy from suspended yeast.
Finally, note the color, texture, and retention of the head. Head color ranges from white to tan. Is the foam’s texture creamy like mousse? Are the bubbles fine or large? Are they uniform or is the head rocky, meaning it is composed of different sized bubbles. Does the head last or does it dissipate quickly? Does the beer leave lace on the side of the glass?
The Taste / Flavor
Take a sip, and another, and then another … roll it around the tongue, marvel as the taste develops from the opening salvo, through to a midsection, and then toward the finish, make sure it hits all of your taste buds. Different areas of your tongue are sensitive to different tastes. Slow down, lean back and start to untangle all the flavours that come rushing at you.
As with aroma, hops, malt, water, yeast and in some cases special ingredients all have a part to play in the flavor and body. By body, or mouthfeel, we mean the texture of the beer- thick, full, thin, crisp, flat and oily are all possible. So how does it taste to you? What do you like about it? What do you dislike? Do you notice any other flavors?
Finally, you want to note the finish. While wine tasters spit, beer tasters swallow. The reason for this is that certain flavors, like lingering hop bitterness, can only be sensed at the back of the tongue as the beer slides down your throat. Besides, who wants to spit out good beer?
By forming a considered opinion you can chart your path through beer types, allowing you to make better choices at the bar or shop when presented with just the name of the beer, brewery and style.
Aftertaste Finish / Mouthfeel
The finish or mouthfeel describes those last sensations when the flavor rides off into the sunset.
Note the body. Is it light or heavy? What is the carbonation level? Carbonation in beers can run from highly effervescent to nearly flat in some styles. Does the beer have a creamy texture? Do you note any astringency?
Astringency, a puckering sensation like you would get from sucking on a teabag, is usually a flaw in beer caused by poor brewing technique. However, it can also be caused by excessive hop bitterness or overuse of dark roasted malts. Do you notice any other palate sensations?
It’s also a state of mind. How did it make you feel? Did it simply kill a thirst or blow you away? Would you drink it again or seek out similar beers, or board it up and forget about it?