Great beer involves a lot more than great taste. Whether you realize it or not, you probably already use all five of your senses to evaluate a beer. Refining your technique can provide more enjoyment and help you make your own beer better.
I Can See Clearly Now
Proper beer evaluation begins long before the bottle is opened. Take a moment to look at the bottle. Is the cap on straight and properly crimped? Does the bottle have the right amount of headspace to prevent excess oxygen from prematurely aging or staling the beer? Is the interface between the surface of the beer and the headspace clear? Or is there evidence of bacterial growth, called a bottle ring, on the glass right at the beer line? All of these factors provide clues as to what you might taste once the bottle is opened. Any unusual growths or deposits can indicate some form of bacterial contamination.
Is the beer in the bottle hazy? Or is it relatively clear with a layer of yeast sediment compacted on the bottom of the bottle? These visual clues can help you to decide whether a particular beer's level of conditioning is adequate, long before you crack open the top only to find that you probably should have waited another week before sampling.
The next time you bottle, fill a couple of clear glass bottles and set them aside. As long as you store the beer in a cool, dark place, you won't have any trouble with the skunky, light-struck character that can be a downside of using clear bottles. Meanwhile, you can track the progress of the batch by checking the clear bottles every few days to see if they've finished conditioning.
When pouring a beer into a glass, take a moment to note the head. Is it adequate for the style, or does it begin to dissipate quickly after pouring? A head that dies quickly can result from many factors. Among them are inadequate priming, insufficient bottle conditioning or aging, and improper cleaning of bottles or glassware.
Are the carbonation bubbles small and uniform, or are they large and inconsistent? Large, inconsistent bubbles often indicate a beer that is old or contaminated.
Also, the results when you pour the beer can be very informative. Was it relatively easy to get a satisfactory head for the style by pouring down the side of the glass, or was it necessary to pour straight down the center of the glass from a height of several inches to get any level of foam? By noting this you can immediately prepare yourself for an undercarbonated or an overcarbonated beer long before it touches your lips.
Is the beer in the glass relatively clear, or is it hazy? Cloudiness or haziness can result from many sources. One is a protein chill haze, which disappears as the beer warms up and has a negligible effect on beer flavor. Another is a yeast haze from a strain that remains in suspension. This haze will not change, regardless of temperature, and yeast in suspension can have a dramatic effect on the flavor of the beer.
Are there chunks floating in the glass? If so, are they recognizable as particles of hops, fruits, or other flavoring agents intentionally added to the beer, or are they of a mysterious and possibly bacterial origin? Chunks of hops or fruits will obviously lead you to look for certain flavor and aroma characteristics when you actually smell and taste the beer, while the appearance of UFOs (Unidentifiable Floating Objects) can prevent you from taking a large swallow of something resembling vinegar.
Note the color of the beer.
While the color itself will not affect the flavor of the beer, it will subconsciously prejudice the drinker's interpretation of the flavor. Marketing agencies have known this for a long time and have centered much of their advertising efforts on the often-misconceived public notions of the relationship between color and flavor. Rare indeed is the homebrewer or beer enthusiast who has not had a friend or acquaintance say "I really don't care for dark beer. It is much too strong."
For the knowledgeable consumer the sight of a deep brown or amber beer can already prejudice the taste buds to be sensitively anticipating the malty, caramelly sweetness imparted by the use of crystal or caramel malts.
Try this experiment at home. Many imported light European-style lagers come in both a standard and a dark version. Have a friend secretly pour a sample of each into some form of opaque glass, then compare the two samples based on taste alone without looking at them. The results of this blind tasting may surprise you.
This said, color is not one of the more critical components of beer evaluation, unless you are competing against other beers with an established color standard. All styles have a color standard. A pilsner and a black beer are both lagers but have vastly different flavor and color profiles. A pale porter is impossible to make as both the color and the flavor come from the specific malts used. A good beer can be just about any color, but a good stout or Oktoberfest should conform to an agreed-upon color spectrum.
Listen to Your Beer
Auditory senses play a somewhat limited but nevertheless important role in the evaluation of a beer. At the moment the cap of the bottle is popped, listen to the sound of the escaping gas. Is there a clear "fsst" that indicates a properly carbonated and capped bottle? Was there little or no sound at all, indicating that the beer to follow may be lifeless and flat? Or did the cap come off with a loud and robust "pop" similar to a Champagne cork?
Over time brewers tend to develop a very consistent manner in which they open a bottle. They also begin to subconsciously note the sound that accompanies this exercise, and it tells them what to expect when the beer is poured into the glass.
It is important to keep in mind, much as with a visual inspection, that different styles of beer exhibit different carbonation levels. So if that bottle of two-year-old barleywine exhibits a minimal sound when the cap is cracked, don't despair. A well-made barleywine has a much more subdued level of carbonation than a lively style such as saison or lambic. Also, the level of headspace in the bottle can influence this as well. A properly carbonated beer filled almost to the rim of the bottle presents very little sound when the cap is cracked. A bottle of the same beer with more headspace offers a more substantial report.
Auditory evaluation is not entirely limited to the tasting of beer; it can play an important part in the monitoring of the actual brewing process. Walk into a room with an active fermenter and listen. Is the gurgling of the airlock a furious tumult, or is it a consistent glug, glug with a measurable pause between bubbles? While you should never rely on sound alone, the gurgling sound of the fermenter can indicate when to use a more accurate instrument, such as a hydrometer, to determine the condition of a fermenting beer.
A Touchy Subject
The tactile sense of touch or feel can also play a part in the evaluation of a finished beer. Hold a bottle or glass in your hand and note the sensation of temperature. Is it warm or ice cold? Without going any further, you can take steps to increase your enjoyment of the beer at hand. Different beers taste best at different temperatures. The frosty 34° F that adds a refreshing sparkle to an American-style lager quickly renders a barleywine or imperial stout muted, harsh, and lifeless.
Take into account the style of beer and at what temperature it is best served, and adjust accordingly. Usually it is best to err by leaning toward a colder temperature. It is a fairly simple exercise to allow a beer that is too cold to warm slightly by leaving the bottle out or by holding the glass in warm hands for a few moments.
Temperature affects perception of beer in two primary ways. As temperature changes, certain characteristics become more noticeable. As the beer warms, it usually becomes somewhat more aromatic, and malty beers tend to be perceived as sweeter. In addition the chilling effect of a cold beverage can desensitize the nerves in the tongue in much the same way that frosty hands lose some of their ability to feel on a cold winter day.
Our perception of a beer is not limited just to the temperature of the product. The temperature of the environment plays a role as well. On a hot summer day people often favor a colder, refreshing beverage as opposed to a room-temperature, winter-warmer style of beer. Using the same two beers that you tasted in the color experiment, do two blind taste tests with both of the beers at a normal refrigerator temperature and also at a warmer 55° to 60° F. Then compare your impressions.
By far one of the greatest influencing factors in the way we perceive the flavors in our mouth is the influence of the aromas being sensed by our nasal receptors at the same time. Anyone who has ever experienced the aromas of a favorite meal or dish being prepared knows that usually this is accompanied by an increase in appetite or desire, all long before the food or beverage is tasted or even seen!
The proximity of our nose to our mouth has a lot to do with this. After all, if something is going into our mouth, it has to pass directly beneath our nose. The style of most glassware further increases the nasal receptors' ability to perceive aromas of what is going into the mouth; as we take a drink, our nose ends up inside the glass above the surface of the liquid. Many types of glassware, such as those typically used to consume Belgian-style ales, feature a balloon or tulip shape that further serves to concentrate and contain any aromatics where they can be readily sampled with a quick sniff.
Aroma can communicate a lot about a beer. Different malts, hops, and yeast strains all contribute their own signature that can vary not only as a result of the types of ingredients used but also the manner in which they were used. A late hop addition or a dry hopping process provides a much more dynamic aromatic character than the same hop used at an earlier stage of the boil.
Different yeast strains create different levels of aromatics called esters, and these aromatics vary not only by strain but also by process. A yeast fermented at 50° F usually generates a much different aroma profile in the finished product than the same yeast fermented at 70° F. Various types of bacteria also serve to create their own aromatic byproducts, such as the sour smells that can come from a badly contaminated beer.
The best way to broaden your knowledge of the hundreds of different aromas in beer is to sample extensively, preferably with someone who has a greater level of experience and can put a name or a cause on the particular aromas being encountered. Many brewing texts provide information on the common aromas in beer and their causes.
As you begin to work at sharpening your sense of smell, keep in mind that sensitivity to various compounds differs from person to person. Sulfur compounds, which can give aromas similar to burnt matches or rotten eggs, might be detected easily by one person but not another. This is perfectly normal and is as much a function of environment as it is of our individual bodies. Over time due to continual exposure, nasal receptors become desensitized to certain compounds. It is expected that a taster who lives in a rural environment would be able to detect a sulfur aroma at a level far lower than can be registered by a person living near a large industrial facility or in a smog-laden city, even if both tasters are sampling the same beer in the same environment. Needless to say, hay-fever or allergy sufferers often have a diminished sense of smell.
To enhance your ability to detect aromas in beer, there are some definite do's and don'ts. Strong colognes, aftershaves, and perfumes cloud your ability to detect other aromas, as does a smoke-filled room. Even something as innocent as hand lotion can create confusion for your nose if it happens to be on the hand that holds your beer glass. Detergents and sanitizers can leave a residual aroma on glassware, especially if they are used improperly. Some inexpensive plastic cups have a built-in aroma as a result of the manufacturing and packaging process.
The time to begin checking the aroma of a finished beer is immediately after it has been poured into the glass. Many of the aromas and compounds that are present inbeer are very volatile, and they can dissipate quickly to levels below the threshold of detection. As the CO2 in the carbonation escapes to create the head of the beer, many of these compounds are released, and this is the best time to analyze them. Further agitation of the glass by swirling also helps to break out subtle aromatics, as can "trapping" aroma in the glass by placing your hand over the top of the glass while swirling.
The aromatic profile changes as the beer warms up. While it is always best to sample the aroma of a beer immediately after pouring, it is also a good idea to go back later and check again as the sample warms to see if any additional characteristics are emerging.
Try this simple experiment to illustrate the influence that your nose has over your taste buds. Using two bottles of an imported light lager that comes in a green or clear glass bottle, place one in direct sunlight for 10 to 20 minutes. Chill both, and then have a friend secretly pour each one into separate glasses. While holding your nose pinched shut, compare the two samples. Then try the same test by sampling in a normal manner, breathing in the aromatics of the two beers. While the flavor of the two beers should be relatively close, the intentionally light-exposed one should exhibit an aroma similar to a skunk.
Taste Buds: The Final Frontier
The final source of input concerning the taste or flavor of a beer comes when we actually put it in our mouths and allow the taste buds to experience the range of flavors. Tongues are equipped with receptors that are sensitive to sweet, sour, salty, and bitter flavors.
Allow your taste sensors to experience the beer in as unclouded an environment as possible, one free of strongly flavored toothpastes or mouthwashes, breath mints, gum, or cigarettes. Consuming strongly flavored or spicy foods can degrade the palate and decrease its sensitivity for several hours.
There are several ways to increase your ability to perceive flavors. Taste buds are relatively unclouded after a night of rest, so do critical sampling early in the day. Cleanse the palate of previous flavors by eating plain bread or unsalted crackers and consuming bottled drinking water between samples.
Regardless of your preparation, your ability to detect flavors will begin to desensitize after experiencing several beers. Subtle flavors will begin to become indistinct and muddled. This phenomenon is known as "palate fatigue." It happens to even the best of beer judges. It is generally recommended to evaluate no more than 10 different beers during a particular judging session without an extended break.
When tasting, sip a small amount of the beer and allow it to come into contact with all of the surfaces of the inner mouth and tongue, rolling the sample around before swallowing. Record your impressions, then repeat. Don't forget to note the temperature, and keep in mind that flavors change as the temperature of the sample changes. If necessary, cup the glass in your hands and gently swirl or rub the glass to warm the contents.
Many impressions other than the basic four are detected in the mouth. Is there a warming sensation on the sides of the throat as the beer is swallowed? This is common among strong, high-alcohol beers. Is there a strong flavor of butter or butterscotch candy? This is caused by the compound diacetyl and can come from a number of sources.
As with aromas, there are literally hundreds of flavor compounds present in beer, and the best way to become familiar with them is through continued reading and the use of handy tools such as the American Society of Brewing Chemists Beer Flavor Wheel, which helps to break down and describe different classes of flavors and aromas possible in beer. Try to sample beer with more experienced tasters, and learn from them.
Worth the Effort
Many of the procedures presented here might seem time consuming and tedious, but with a little bit of practice they will become second nature. For a judge certified by the Beer Judge Certification Program, filling out a score sheet in a competition setting should take no more than five minutes. At most a couple of ounces of the beer are sampled, and much of that five minutes should be spent recording valuable feedback on the score sheet for the contest entrant.
For the average homebrewer who isn't worried about competitions but just wants to enjoy a good homebrew and make the next beer a better one, the actual inspection process need not be formalized and structured, but it should quickly become habit. Many techniques, such as glancing at the bottle and giving the cap a light twist by hand to ensure that it is tight before the bottle is opened, in practice take but a few seconds. After all of the time and effort that go into making a batch of homebrew, taking a few extra moments to enjoy the satisfaction and luxury of savoring the accomplishment is indeed one of the hobby's greatest rewards.
John Oliver continually evaluates beers as a BJCP judge and as assistant brewer at BJ's Brewery in Brea, Calif.