By DANIEL J. LEONARD
The truth is, you don't have to be a beer expert to host a beer tasting, but it definitely helps to know a thing or two about how to set up an effective tasting event.
To that end, let's take a look at a few best practices to ensure that your beer tasting exploits come off as seamless as possible.
Of course, a beer tasting can be as formal or informal as you want to make it. Your goal can be as simple as just trying out some different beers to better determine personal preference, to hosting a full-blown written beer evaluation.
In all cases though, there are come general guidelines to think about when organizing a beer tasting.
General Rules of Thumb
Before we jump right into the differences between the various kinds of beer tastings, let's take a quick look at some of the basic, and maybe not so basic, considerations to keep in mind when playing beer host:
• How much beer to serve per person: In most cases, 3 - 4 ounces per person is a sufficient sample of beer. This means if you stretch it, you could get away with serving four people with one 12 oz bottle of beer, though three people per bottle is probably more ideal.
As generous as you might want to be with the brewskis, remember you don’t want to over-serve people because eventually even experienced beer judges will begin to succumb to what is known in the business as ‘palate fatigue’. In this case, palate fatigue is a friendly euphemism for ‘being tipsy’, and the more palate fatigue a person endures, the less useful their senses become, and thus the less likely they’ll be able to fully appreciate or describe a beer.
If you’re looking to avoid the woes of palate fatigue, consider limiting the serving size to no more than 6 oz per person per beer, and limiting the overall amount served during the event to no more than 24 ounces. Also pay attention to the strength of the beer. Consider serving fewer samples of beer with a strength of 10% ABV and above.
• Control the environment: Loud music, T.V., crazy kids/animals running around, and ANY competing aromas like perfume, cigarette smoke or barbecued goat, can serve as distractions from really focusing on tasting and enjoying beer, or anything else for that matter.
The same goes for serving food with beer. Unless you’re doing a food pairing, keep the extreme garlic crazy bread away from the table (plain saltine or matzo crackers are fine).
• Choosing the right number of beers: Choosing the "right" number of beers really depends on the amount of time you want to allow people per beer. For example, in a formal beer tasting where people are writing detailed notes about each beer, figure 10-15 minutes per beer (15 minutes is more realistic for beginner and intermediate tasters). In a simple personal taste-test kind of tasting, most people can determine if they like a beer or not almost immediately, so figure 2 - 3 minutes per sample.
For those people new to formal note-taking beer tastings, it's probably a good idea to limit the total tasting time to about an hour, which means serving no more than six beers. Remember, aside from palate fatigue, people might also suffer from interest fatigue.
Depending on the number of people, interest level and time restrictions, you could even do a tasting consisting of three or four beers.
• How to pour the beer: A hard pour right into the center of the glass will create a thick head and generate as many aromatics as possible making those features easier to detect. Yes, there are some traditional ways to pour certain styles of beer like German Wheat Beer or Irish Stout, but that typically only applies when pouring a full glass into the glassware specifically designed for those styles, not for beer tastings.
• What kind of glassware to use: For more informal taste-test kind of events, the selected glassware isn't terribly important. But if you wanted to choose the ideal glassware, smaller, narrow topped glasses such as brandy snifters or wine glasses are best for tastings because they help trap aromatics in the glass and allow people to get their noses closer to the beer itself so that it's easier to pick up on the aromatics, which is about 70% of the experience.
For formal tastings, it's best to avoid plastic cups as they can impart a plastic aroma to the beer, and depending on the cup, the appearance can be obscured as well. Even special scent-neutral plastic cups are problematic because of their cone-shaped design, which makes the aroma more difficult to pin down.
Needless to say, clean glasses are the way to go, with no soap aroma left in the glass.
• How to order your beers and/or create a tasting theme: As with wine tastings, if you are serving a variety of different beer styles, you usually want to start with the lightest beer and progress to the more intense, assuming that you can generally determine that before hand. This is done in order to better preserve the palate.
Keep in mind that the color of a beer doesn't necessarily indicate the flavor intensity. For example, a Double IPA will be more intense than a Dry Irish Stout. Nevertheless, if you’re not well-versed in all the various styles of beer, then lightest to darkest is a good fallback plan.
That said, here are a few ideas for beer tasting themes you could try out, or you can use these ideas as a springboard to create your own themes:
As you might imagine, there’s quite a lot of beer themes to choose from, and really your creativity is your only limit.
• Serving temperature: Beers have a recommended serving temperature associated with them which can be anywhere from 32 (ice-cold American light lagers) to 158 °F (Unibroue’s Quelque Chose, Liefmans’ Glühkriek or St. Louis’ Kriek). Sounds like a range wide enough to drive a beer truck through, but those temperatures are definitely the outliers on the serving temperature bell curve.
Keep in mind that the colder a beer is served, the less flavor and aroma profile one is able to detect which sort of defeats the purpose of tasting in the first place.
If you're able to control the temperature of refrigerator, consider setting the thermostat to 48 °F so that by the time the beer hits the glass, it’s right around 50 °F. If your refrigerator is set to a cooler, consider pulling a beer out five minutes before serving in order to reach closer to about 48 - 50 °F.
Remember, beer also warms in the hand when drinking which is a useful trick if you’re trying to warm up a colder beer in order to unlock more of the beers character during a tasting or in general.
The Formal Beer Evaluation:
Starting with my very first beer tasting, I would take notes to help me remember what I liked or didn’t like about a beer, so I guess formal beer tastings probably come the most natural to me, at least as far as the writing/evaluation aspect goes. Of course when you’re first getting your feet wet in the world of beer, it’s important to explore and develop your own personal tastes, but once you feel ready to start evaluating beers more objectively, you’ll need to leave personal taste aside.
A formal tasting takes a bit more work to set up, but once you get the hang of it, your beer tasting skills will grow by leaps and bounds. Yes, tasting and describing food (in this case beer) is a skill, and just like any other skill, beer evaluation can be developed with practice and the right tools. More academic in nature, a formal tasting almost always involves observing and rating the aroma, color, taste, mouthfeel and overall impression of a beer. This approach attempts to objectively describe the characteristics of a certain style of beer, generally with respect to standardized corresponding descriptions. So where do you get these standard beer style descriptions? You can use various online resources as references for beer style descriptions, but we’ve found the BJCP Style Guide to be most useful. There are also many books that cover beer style descriptions, at least to a certain extent, such as Tasting Beer by Randy Mosher or The Oxford Companion to Beer, edited by Garret Oliver, though the BJCP Style Guide is free and is specifically designed as a reference for beer style descriptions.
Below is a guide to some materials to consider when hosting a formal beer evaluation. Once you have some descent glassware, and frankly you shouldn’t have to spend more than about $4 a glass, the main cost is just in buying the beer, which, depending on how many people will be sampling, can be a relatively inexpensive proposition.
1. Evaluation Sheets and pens/pencils: You can come up with your own evaluation sheet or borrow ours. An evaluation sheet will usually list the names of the beers being sampled, the styles of beers, sometimes the locations where the beers are brewed and perhaps the names of the breweries that brewed the beers. As far as evaluating a beer goes, in general, you’ll want to describe five main categories: (1) Aroma, (2) Color, (3) Taste/Aftertaste, (4) Mouthfeel and (5) Overall Impression. Aroma comes before color because, unlike with flat beverages, the aroma of a beer is usually most noticeable right after it’s been poured, so you’ll want to attempt to describe the aroma before it begins to fade. With color, you’ll want to note not just the color of the beer, but also the color of the head, how large the head is and how long the head lasts. Yes, that’s a lot of head, and usually something that you’ll have to make a mental note of while attempting to capture the aroma.
2. Glassware: Sure, there is an assortment of glassware for certain types of beer, such as the Pilsner or Weizen Glass, but for the purpose of evaluating beer, we generally recommend a snifter glass. Designed like a fish bowl on a stem, the Snifter is a smart choice when it comes to beer evaluation due to the narrow-topped shape of the glass which forces and concentrates the aromatics up, making them easier to detect and describe.
No matter what type of glass you choose to serve the beer in, make sure that the glass is clean. And although some beers might benefit from a light hint of gentle spring breeze, a clean glass doesn’t mean it should still contain dish soap residue. [On the topic of unintentional glass-borne aromatics, here's a tip for the ladies and Robert Smith: If you start picking up subtle hints of Estee Lauder, it's probably not the beer. That's right, your lipstick may be the culprit. Consistently picking up fruity esters in a line-up of German Pilsners? Might very well be your Lisa Frank Peach Sparkle Lip Gloss getting the better of you. Nothing wrong with getting all dolled-up, just something to be aware of is all.]
3. BJCP Style Guidelines (optional but recommended): You can print out the BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) Style Guideline or or download their app to help you pin-point the appropriate characteristics of the beer you’re evaluating, at least according to the BJCP. And of course, this assumes the beer you’re sampling was intended to be brewed to style.
4. Vocabulary Reference Sheet and/or Tasting Wheel (optional): The truth is that not all of us know the common descriptors that certified beer judges use when describing beer, so it’s useful, especially for those unfamiliar with those terms, to have a reference sheet or ‘word bank’ to borrow descriptor ideas from (take a look at our list of potential descriptors). Similar to a wine or coffee wheel, a beer wheel is a type of vocabulary chart designed to help you describe common characteristics in the aroma, flavor and mouthfeel of beer. Funny fact is that about 75% of a typical beer wheel is used to describe aroma, which suggests there's a lot to be enjoyed in the nose. By no means are any of these beer vocabulary references exhaustive, so be creative and come up with other terms that might not be on your reference sheet to describe the beer you're evaluating.
5. Background Information (optional): This can be fun facts about the particular beer you are drinking, or maybe some information about the brewery that brewed the beer, ingredients in the beer, or perhaps information about the history of the beer itself. Background information is usually just supplemental and used to enrich the overall experience, but not necessary to describe the beer accurately.
6. Palate cleansers (optional): Try to use neutral tasting crackers such as plain, salt-free Saltines, plain Matzo crackers or even plain rice cakes. Remember, this isn’t a food pairing event, so save the smoked barbecue ribs and spicy jalapeño kettle chips for afterwards.
7. Water (optional): Can be used as a palate cleanser and a way to wash out your beer glass between beers. Two-fer.
It’s up to you what all you want to incorporate into your beer tasting, but sometimes less is more, at least as far as all the supplemental material goes, especially if you’re playing host to a group of non-beer geeks. I’ll tell you, in the past I’ve gone too far with extra materials, and it sucked. In my mind, I thought everybody would be interested to hear about the history of the brewery from whence the beer came, or about the particular ingredients and the contribution they made in the beer, or the BJCP style descriptions, but alas, most of those interesting factoids fell on deaf ears (prior to the invention of hearing aids). So what’s the take away? Don’t information-rape your friends. If you want to print out fun factoids about the beer you’re serving, go for it, but leave it on the table along with a beer wheel or beer word bank, and let people choose if they want to enrich their experience and read about it or not. Same goes with palate cleansing crackers: Leave some on a plate on the table, and people will take some if they want.
All the extras aside, the barebones setup you’ll want to put on the table is: clean glasses, pens/pencils and beer tasting sheets. [If you have a wooden table, consider laying a magazine under the tasting sheet to save the table from unwanted beer note etchings.]
For formal evaluations, it's recommended to serve the same style of beer, say Robust Porters, so that your palate doesn’t become stressed or confused by various, sometimes wildly different flavors of other beer styles. Not only will sticking to a specific style of beer help you pick up on the small nuances within that style, it’s also exactly what beer judges do when judging in beer competitions.
That said, have fun with it. If you don't want to do a tasting of beers all of the same beer style, then don't.
Some Notes on Etiquette...
The Thought-Hijacker: Once the first beer is poured and people begin taking notes, it’s fun to see if other people end up picking out the same characteristics from the beer that you do, however try to avoid the group-think problem. This issue usually occurs while people are still formulating their thoughts about a beer and someone blurts out some characteristic they interpret the beer to have.
For example, as soon as someone says, whether accurate or not, "This beer is way too bitter, over-carbonated and metallic!", suddenly everyone tastes the same thing. And even if you’re aware of the group-think phenomenon, you’re still not immune to it. Shouting out your thoughts before others have had a chance to develop their own impression is sort of like telling everyone the end of a movie they haven’t seen, but worse because now you're influencing how the movie actually turns out! In other words, be courteous to others and let them come up with their own ideas before influencing them with yours.
Haters gonna Hate: In the same camp as the thought-hijacker, keep a lookout for the eternal pessimist. This is the person who generally dislikes everything he tries and can put a damper on the event by going into detail about how every beer you picked out is worse than Super-AIDS. The best thing you can do in this case is to either not invite Negative-Nancy to your event, or ask the person to try to be objective when evaluating a beer.
As a matter of fact, it’s probably wise to be proactive and cover the topic of 'being as objective as possible when describing a beer' as a ground rule for everyone right up front. In particular, when describing a beer, try to leave out subjective words like good, bad, nice, prefer, dislike, and whether or not you’d purchase it again. One could argue that all things are subjective, but saying something has a rich smoked malty taste to it is, in my opinion, more descriptive than saying you hate it.
Order of Operations
When evaluating a beer, you start with the aroma, then color, flavor/aftertaste, mouthfeel and last overall impression.
Aroma: Describing the aroma comes first because it’s the most volatile and quickly becomes more difficult to pinpoint not long after the pour. You can always swirl your glass to stir up the aroma a bit more, but you lose carbonation when you do which can change the mouthfeel of the beer when it comes time to taste it.
With the aroma, you’re looking to describe at least the basic characteristics: hops, malt, esters. From there you can get more specific. If the aroma is "fruity", what type of fruit is it? Citrus, banana, berry, prunes, raisins, apples, grapes? What’s the character of the malt? Is it roasty, toasted, burnt, smoky, caramel, chocolate, coffee, sugar cookies, molasses, sourdough, multigrain, wheaty, oaty, cornbread, cornmeal, husky, grainy, straw-like, dusty? How about the hop character? Do you get grapefruit, pine, resin, spicy, flowery, minty, bitter, grassy, herbal, floral, citrus, catty (think cat pee), earthy, skunky?
There’s a boat load of other aromatics you might find like yeasty, buttery, alcoholic, honey, vanilla, woody, cardboard, salty, medicinal, model glue, cheddar, nutty, perfume, leathery, apple cider, cooked corn, Madera, metallic, clove-like, plastic, etc. The list goes on and on, and as you gain experience and your confidence grows, you will be able to not only detect the aromas mentioned above, but add to the list of descriptors yourself.
Color: Determining a beer's color during an evaluation can be tricky, and many times you’ll just end up comparing the color to some other object that shares a similar color, such as coffee or cherry wood. With the exception of the occasional fruit beer, the majority of beer is some shade of yellow or brown, which comes predominately from the grains the beer’s brewed with. As a consideration, it might be a nice touch to have a word bank or color chart to help fellow tasters who might not readily know the difference between, say, auburn and burnt umber. Today, brewers often use a color scale called the Standard Reference Method (SRM) to determine the color of beer (see below).
You can print a color copy of the SRM scale out if you’d like, but describing a beer's color as 23 SRM not only doesn’t mean much to the average person, it’s not very sexy. That said, if you want use the SRM to describe a beer's color, the BJCP sells an app which will allow you to scan a beer's color in order to determine the beer's SRM.
You don’t necessarily need to have a clear picture in your mind of what shade of yellow 5 SRM is, or what color tawny or fulvous is. Just pick out some color terms that people can identify with and go from there. Personally, when it comes to describing the color of a beer, I like to use terms which don't require you to be a color savant in order to relate to such as pale straw, light honey, golden tan, orange copper, cream soda, deep amber, medium brown, cola brown, dark chocolate or motor oil black.
You can be as creative as you like when describing beer color, but don’t forget to mention the clarity of the beer (cloudy, hazy, nearly clear, crystal clear), color and texture of the head and how long the head lasts before collapsing. Head is usually a cream type color and often much lighter than the color of the beer itself. I usually try to estimate the length of time the head lasts in seconds as most beers will lose head retention in less than one minute. Sometimes the head will collapse in as little as 10 seconds, and in rare cases, the head can last several minutes. Keep in mind, the apparent darkness of a beer's color can also be affected by the size of the glass it’s served in. In other words, beer served in a massive beer hall stein is going to appear darker than beer served in a Champaign flute, which is why some people like to notate what type of a glass they are drinking from.
Taste and Aftertaste: Now we come to the heart of beer: the taste.
When it comes to the sense of taste, forget about the old model of the tongue as sensing sweetness on one side or saltiness on another. Research has shown that your taste buds can detect the common flavors such as sweet, sour, bitter, salty, umami (savory, meaty quality), and fat on all parts of the tongue with the front half of the tongue; the front half of the tongue detects all flavors equally, the very back detects slightly more bitterness, and the back on either side of the tongue is more sensitive to sourness.
You'll eventually develop your own tasting technique, however one method is to pucker the lips and gently inhale the beer, allowing the beer to touch the tip of the tongue first, and then swish it around the rest of the mouth including into the cheeks and gums, like mouthwash, until the carbonation dissipates.
When describing the flavor of a beer, it's absolutely fine to use many of the same descriptors used to describe the aroma---- however it’s surprisingly rare that the taste profile will match the aroma profile exactly.
Remember that the first taste of a beer tends to have the most impact on your taste buds, so you’ll need to be quick to take in the experience and translate it into words. It might seem kind of backwards, but because the flavor disappears as soon as the beer is swallowed, leaving you with just aftertaste, you might find yourself writing about the aftertaste before you get to the flavor, which is fine.
The difficulty about nailing the aftertaste is keeping it around and active long enough to actually write about it. Therefore, you may just take several mini-sips of a beer until you feel you’ve got something to jot down for the aftertaste, but you might run out of beer before you figure it out.
Instead, try keeping your mouth closed while wafting air around in your mouth. This helps to move the air particles from the remnants of the beer over the taste buds on the tongue making it easier to pin down the ever so elusive aftertaste. Very commonly, the flavors you pick up in the aftertaste were the most intense aspects of the beer, like the bitterness of the hops, roastiness or sweetness of the malt or strength of the alcohol.
Catch the Wave: When describing the taste of a beer, sometimes it can help to think of the flavor experience like a wave. Some beers begin with an intense rush of flavor, but then the flavor drops off quickly, leaving you hanging. Other times, the flavor wave starts out small, and builds into a massive flavor explosion at the very end. You could have a static wave where the flavor of a beer is equally intense or weak throughout the entire taste. Or you come across a standard sort of wave where the flavor gradually becomes more intense and then gently fades away.
One of the hallmarks of a great beer is balance. In beer, you’re looking for the balance between all of the ingredients, but primarily the hops and the malt. Sometimes a style is intended to be more balanced toward the hops or the malt side, as with the extreme hop bitterness character of an Imperial IPA, but even there the malt backbone should usually support or balance the intense hop elements.
Some random ‘facts’ about taste:
1. Women usually have more taste buds than men giving the ladies at least more potential to be great tasters.
2. People can detect taste better at the beginning of their day than at the end. Cheers morning drinkers!
3. The ability to taste diminishes with age. Yet another argument in favor of lowering the drinking age limit?
Mouthfeel: With mouthfeel, you’ll want to describe the body, carbonation, warmth, creaminess, astringency, alkalinity, powderiness and other palate sensations of a beer. Beer will usually contain some combination of the elements listed above, not necessarily all, and if the beer does, it will contain it to varying degrees of intensity.
For example, Oatmeal Stouts should display some sort of creaminess, while a Schwarzbier should not. Heavier body is usually more noticeable in ales, particularly the darker ales which can sometimes be described as chewy, oily, rich, syrupy or velvety. With light lagers, sometimes there is very little you can say about the body, perhaps light body, crisp, medium carbonation is all. Some beers are intended to be highly carbonated like German Hefeweizen or Saisons, while others can be low to moderately carbonated like a Dry Stout. The perception of warmth is usually derived from the alcohol: the more alcohol, the more warmth you may detect, and in some cases the alcohol might be described as hot, metallic or solvent-y. Astringency can be found in tea if steeped at high temperatures for too long, and often in overly hopped beer or beer brewed with highly roasted malts.
Overall Impression: Here is where you sum it all up. What were the most noticeable characteristics of the beer? What really sticks out? Was it refreshing, heavy, aggressively hopped? Was the beer 'brewed to style'?
This is also the place to make suggestions for improvement, but be constructive and objective. If something isn’t well balanced, say so. If the beer is labeled as an IPA but tastes more like an APA, say so. Try to be specific about what you think the brewer could have done better, if anything.
Most brewing flaws can be traced back to a very specific, and usually well-known, recipe or process error. Many brewers are detail-oriented perfectionists when it comes to their beer, so they really are trying to create something that tastes great, but we're all human and sometimes unintended things happen in the brewing process. For the most part, commercial examples of beers should have most of the obvious kinks worked out of them before hitting the shelves, however you will run across examples that could use some help. If you’re not sure what caused the issue, that’s ok. I’d simply look at how the beer is supposed to taste with respect to the BJCP style guidelines, and note any deviation.
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