There are many ways to taste beer, believe it or not. The easiest way, and by far the most enjoyable, is to simply drink it, without giving it much thought at all, beyond just knowing that you like it. Beer is perhaps the perfect beverage for simple enjoyment. It fits nearly every need, from lifting your spirits after a hard day to celebrating one of life’s milestones, such as a birthday or the simple fact that it’s Friday and you made it through another week of work. It matches perfectly with most foods, enhancing the experience of both. It can warm you when it’s cold or cool you off and refresh you when the sun is burning high in the sky.
But there are also more deliberate ways to approach drinking beer, from casual beer tastings to the most thoughtful beer judging. As with any pursuit you take seriously, your skills will improve if you put in the time, research your topic, and pay attention. There’s no magic to beer judging. All the best tasters I’ve ever judged with had no special skills, apart from having learned about beer with every beer they drank, and over time developed the skills necessary to judge one beer from another, to discern which was free of defects and tasted better than the next one. People may laugh, but it’s hard work, as any judge will attest. It’s also some of the most rewarding time you can spend.
I’ve been a beer judge for a few decades now and have judged it on four continents in numerous competitions, such as the Great American Beer Festival, the World Beer Cup, and the Great British Beer Festival. Every competition does things differently and uses different standards. The specifics are almost unimportant as long as each competition conducts its judging consistently and has clearly spelled out what criteria is used to determine what makes a quality beer.
How to taste beer is a subject that could be a book in itself, and in fact it is. If you want much more information, I heartily recommend Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer. The Brewers Association’s Evaluating Beer also contains a lot of great information, although it was published more than a decade ago, in 1998, and is a little disjointed, with each chapter written by a different expert in his or her field.
Like most people I know who regularly judge at beer competitions, I have my own method of doing things that I’ve developed over the years. It’s not that I do anything differently than my fellow judges–after all, we’re all examining the same beer, looking for the same attributes, flavors, and defects–it’s just that I approach the task in a way that works best for my particular personality.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about beer judging, it’s that there isn’t one right way to do it. Everybody does it in his or her own way. It’s a bit like bowling. When you watch people bowl, no two people roll the ball down the alley in exactly the same way, but the goal of knocking down all the pins is the same for everyone. That’s beer judging. We’re all examining the same beer, or beers, looking for it to fit the style guidelines, to taste like it should and in a way that is pleasant and free from defects that undermine the first two conditions.
My method may work for you; it may not. If it does, great. If it doesn’t, don’t despair. Use whatever works for you and discard the rest, finding your own way in the process.
The ANTMODE System
I call my own tasting method the ANTMODE system, which is simply a mnemonic device to help me remember all the steps I use to evaluate each beer, and in what order. I’ve been doing this for so long that I honestly don’t think about it anymore, but perhaps it will help you until it becomes second nature. ANTMODE is an acronym in which each letter stands for a step or aspect of beer judging: appearance, nose, taste, mouthfeel, overall, defects, and everything else.
The first thing you’ll notice with any beer is what it looks like. When the beer arrives at your table, take a good look at it. What do you see? Its color is the most obvious detail to look for, but there are many other things you should take notice of. What does the head look like? Are there bubbles, and if so, what size or pattern do they make? What is the consistency of the foam? How clear is the beer? Can you see through it, or is it cloudy with particles floating in it? In some beer styles, that’s not only acceptable but required. In others, it could be allowable if the levels are fairly low or may be a sign of a serious defect. But how it looks can tell you a lot if you know what to look for.
Curiously, the colors of beer mirror those of human hair. Why that should be, I honestly have no idea. But it’s true. From the lightest towhead to a raven-haired beauty, and blonde, gold, amber, orange, red, and brown in between, the entire range of beer colors can be found on top of people’s heads. And just like your noggin, in beer there’s no naturally occurring green, blue, or purple.
Beer’s color comes primarily from the grain that’s used to brew it. Barley is the most common brewing grain, and wheat, rye, and a few others are used too. Once the barley is harvested, it’s soaked in water until it begins to sprout. After it sprouts to a certain length, that growth is stopped using heat. The grain is kilned to various degrees. Lower temperatures produce light-colored malt, while other grain is kilned longer to produce darker malt. Sometimes the grain is roasted, similarly to coffee beans, to create very dark malts, some of which are black. In addition to creating a range of aromas and flavors, the combination of different malts used to brew a beer also creates its color.
Joseph Lovibond originally developed a method of determining specific beer colors in the nineteenth century. Beer color was assigned a number determined by holding a color plate up to a beer and finding the best match, and his scale became known as the Lovibond scale. Despite its somewhat subjective method, it worked pretty well and is still sometimes used today.
A more scientific method was later developed to provide a more objective description of beer colors. As an oversimplified explanation, the Standard Reference Method (SRM) uses a spectrophotometer to measure the intensity of light, meaning it essentially measures the density rather than the hue or tint and then assigns a number from 1 to 40. The range of beer colors under SRM starts with straw (the lightest, at 2 to 3 SRM) followed by yellow, gold, amber, copper, brown, and finally black (the darkest, at 40+ SRM), with a few in-betweens like dark brown and light copper. Each style of beer has a more or less acceptable SRM range that brewers aim for in making that beer. That’s why you can be reasonably sure your stout will be black (40 SRM) and your pilsner golden (6 to 8 SRM), though in the middle ranges it’s not as concrete.
But the hair analogy works surprisingly well, with blondes, such as blonde ales, lagers, helles, pilsners, Kölsch, witbiers, and wheat beers; redheads, including red ales, amber ales, Flanders red ales, märzen, pale ales, IPAs, and the majority of craft beers; brunettes, like brown ales, brown porters, dark lagers, dubbels, and oud bruins; and black hair, which is actually the most common hair color worldwide and includes porters, stouts, and imperial stouts. I’ve even seen gray beer, which tasted fine, but the brewery decided to add some roasted malt to make the color more appealing.
Likewise, the head on your beer tells you a lot too. When the beer is poured into your glass, the carbon dioxide (CO2) that’s been trapped in the liquid is released. As the CO2 mixes with the surrounding air, the head on your beer is created. This is also why it’s important to pour the beer out of the bottle or can into a glass instead of drinking it directly from the container. There are times and circumstances when this isn’t possible, but apart from those, always drink your beer from a glass. When you release the carbon dioxide, you also make the beer far less gassy, which in turns makes you less gassy, an added bonus. Plus, and perhaps this is most important, the effervescence of the CO2 keeps many of the flavors of the beer from coming out, meaning you aren’t tasting all of the beer if it’s not being released.
A beer with no head is like a two-dimensional flat earth, lacking all the tastes of a 3-D world. A beer with no head is even called flat, whereas a beer with a good head is said to be well rounded, because so many more flavors come out and are discernible when you drink it. And that’s the whole point, right? To get as much flavor as possible out of your beer, you need a good head.
Technically, what happens is that your beer is stored under pressure in the bottle, and the carbon dioxide in the beer is stored under tension in the liquid. When the crown is on the bottle, an equilibrium exists that is unceremoniously broken when you pry it open with a church key. As a result of this, air rushes in, quickly reducing the pressure and explosively causing the formation of bubbles. This is known as Boyle’s law. The process of the CO2 flowing from beer to bubbles is called diffusion. When the bubbles are created, known scientifically as nucleation, they form not in the liquid, but on tiny imperfections or scratches on the glass. This is why the bubbles seem to cling to the sides of your glass.
The carbon dioxide bubbles can also trigger the trigeminal nerve endings in your mouth, which sense cold, hot, and other irritants such as spices. This is why beers with a lot of carbonation produce a sensation called CO2 burn, which is felt throughout your mouth. The effervescence also provides the pleasant tingle in your mouth that you get with each sip of beer that still has sufficient carbonation in it.
The two main factors of your beer’s head are its size and retention, or how long it lasts. While there are differences for certain beer styles, most beers should have a head that’s two to three fingers high, which you measure simply by holding your fingers horizontally along the top of your glass. The initial pour that creates the head blows off the excess carbonation and allows all the flavors in the beer to come out, while your head’s retention traps the remaining flavors below, which ensures that they will still be there even when you get to the last sip. It’s a delicate balance.
The head retention, or stability, keeps the right amount of carbonation trapped below it in the beer so that your beer stays fresher longer. The bubbles in your beer begin bursting and dying the moment they’re born, but how long they live essentially is how long your beer will remain as fresh and tasty as it was when you took your first sip of it. If you want your last sip of beer to taste as good as the first, a head that sticks around until the end is essential. As soon as the head is gone, the beer begins to lose its fresh taste. The longer it takes to finish after the head has dissipated, the worse it will likely taste.
Although it varies according to the style of beer you’re drinking, a general rule of thumb for an all-malt beer — which includes most craft beer and better imports — is that at least half of the head after pouring remains for a full minute. As it dissipates, it leaves patterns of foam, called Brussels lace, or simply lacing, on the inside of your glass. The complexity and quantity of the latticework left behind on the glass are also indicative of the quality and freshness of the beer. Hoppier beers like pale ales and IPAs tend to produce denser, longer-lasting heads, whereas higher-alcohol beers like barleywine-style ales and other strong beers produce heads that tend to dissipate faster.
Your beer’s foam is the primary reason specific glassware is recommended for different styles of beer. For example, for wheat beers, which create big heads because of the wheat malt, tall glasses are used so that all the foam stays in the glass. Pilsner glasses are designed with a narrow brim to take advantage of more modest heads, and many Belgian beers, such as Chimay, Orval, and Westmalle, work best in a wider, chalice-shaped glass. Top-fermenting ales and amber lagers also benefit from a wider brim, and that’s why the traditional pint glass works best for most of them.
The size of the bubbles can also be revealing. Usually it’s better to have smaller bubbles that are all roughly the same size. A head that contains either all large bubbles or a combination of small and large bubbles is a sign that the levels of carbon dioxide are uneven and inconsistent, indicating a beer that is not as well made.
So use your eyes. Look at the color. Hold the beer up to the light so you can see how clear it is and get a better idea of its actual color. And don’t forget to examine the head and its bubbles.
The nose is the aroma of a beer that we smell, usually before we even taste it. Our sense of smell is how we identify something through the trace amounts of that substance that evaporate in the air. Your sense of smell comes from the olfactory organs, located at the roof inside of each nostril. Up there in the back is our very own kind of smoke detector called the olfactory epithelium, which is covered with mucus. Above that you’ll find the olfactory bulb, shaped just like you’d expect and filled with tens of thousands of mitral cells that collect data from the epithelium and send it on to the brain for analysis. In the brain, the olfactory cortex coordinates different identified odors with higher functions like emotions and memory. That’s why certain smells can trigger vivid memories and emotions.
The fact is, we use our olfactory organs to detect and process odors we encounter every moment of our lives, even though we generally take them for granted. When people are surveyed about which sense they feel they could most easily do without, smell usually tops the list, because we don’t realize how intertwined it is with taste. Smell is one of the two chemical senses, the other being taste, and the two are closely linked. That’s because it’s actually evaporated chemicals that we smell. And even though our schnozzolas pale in comparison to that of the family dog, the average person can still identify more than ten thousand distinct odors.
Your sense of smell is perhaps the most important tool you have in tasting beer. When you have a cold or a stuffed-up nose, things taste very different, including beer. If you can’t smell it, you can’t really taste it, because the two senses are so integrated and linked together that unless both are working properly, the whole system won’t work.
When you judge beer, something like 60 percent of a beer’s score comes from the olfactory sense. Even when you’re tasting a beer and it’s swirling around in your mouth, the beer is still giving off aromatics, which you can smell as they waft into the receptors in your nose through the back of your mouth where the two are connected. No matter how hard you try, you really can’t avoid smelling the beer you’re drinking.
All brewers consider the aromas that their beers give off and spend considerable time and effort getting them to smell just right. They use hops primarily, but also malt, which can be roasted to varying degrees, as well as spices, herbs, fruits, and even different yeasts. All of these work together to give every beer its own unique signature of aromas and flavors. Brewers do this to enhance the drinking experience you have with their beer, in the hopes that you’ll want that same experience over and over again.
It’s best to smell the beer — the nose — before you taste it, because once you’ve tasted your beer, it will be nearly impossible for the flavors not to impact how your senses perceive the aromas. When you first pour your beer into a glass, the aromas come out naturally, and all you need to do is put your nose in the glass and sniff. But after a minute or so, those initial aromas will begin to dissipate. Swirling the beer in your glass shakes things up and releases a fresh batch of aromas into the glass. But get your nose in there fast, because the smell will deteriorate just as quickly again.
There are effectively two ways to sniff your beer but no clear consensus as to which is the better method. You can either take one long, prolonged sniff or a series of short, quick rabbit sniffs. Many people claim that either one way or the other is better, but it’s a good idea to try both ways and see which one works better for you. Whichever method brings more aromas into your head is the one you should stick with.
After a few sniffs, you may find that you can no longer discern individual aromas. That’s because your nose becomes acclimated to the particular aromas in the beer, making it increasingly harder to pick up distinct aromas. I’ve found that you can essentially reset your nose by sniffing your own skin. Just put your nose up against your arm or the crook of your elbow and breathe deeply.
After your initial whiffs, think about what you’ve just smelled in the nose of the beer. What specific aromas can you identify? Does anything stand out? Write down or remember what you smell, however faintly you detect it. There really are no wrong answers. If you smell a particular aroma every time you have the same beer, then it’s probably in there. The only thing that differs from person to person is how you identify it. To you, a beer may smell of sweaty gym socks, whereas it might remind your friend of his grandmother’s attic. You could argue who’s right until last call, but you’re probably talking about the same moldy, earthy aroma caused by a beer becoming oxidized or going stale. All you lack is a consistent vocabulary.
When you talk about what you’re smelling, the words you use to describe those aromas can be anything you want. But if you want anyone else to understand what you’re talking about, it’s a good idea if you use standardized jargon. Brewers — and judges, naturally — recognize how important it is to be able to clearly express what they’re smelling in the nose. If they can’t effectively communicate what they’re smelling and tasting to one another, then they won’t be able to make a consistent beer that tastes the same from batch to batch. So over the years, brewers have created a specific vocabulary to identify different aromas common in beer. Around the 1970s, Morten C. Meilgaard, a researcher at the Stroh Brewing Company, then headquartered in Detroit, chaired an international effort that established the beer flavor wheel, which organized common aroma and flavor descriptors, assigning them numbers and names so that brewers everywhere could be sure they were all speaking the same language–the language of beer.
So use your nose. Get it right up inside the glass, as close as you can get without dipping your nose in the beer. Practically everything you need to know about whether you should even lift the glass to your lips, tip it, and drink the beer down can be found in the nose.
Taste and flavor are often used interchangeably, but they’re actually different. We taste with our mouth, but flavor is distinguished by the nose in concert with our mouth. If you eat something while pinching your nose shut, it will taste different. That’s why everything tastes funny when you’re sick with a stuffed-up nose. Taste also refers to the five basic receptors: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. Flavor is a combination of taste plus other sensations that help us perceive the beer. In addition to the nose, these include texture, mouthfeel, and other influences.
The formal word for taste is gustation. It’s a complex form of direct chemoreception, which detects — similar to smell — trace amounts of chemical substances contained in food and liquid. But unlike smell, which uses the olfactory organs, taste comes through the taste buds located in your mouth, primarily on the tongue. Gustatory receptors known as epithelial cells are located inside the taste buds.
We have around ten thousand taste buds, which is more than most birds, which average two hundred, but far less than cows, which have thirty-five thousand. The bumpy, raised taste buds push up from the flatter part of the tongue on connective tissue known as papillae. There are four kinds of papillae, three of which contain taste buds. The vallate papillae are the largest but have fewer taste buds on them. They’re located in the back of the tongue on an area resembling an upside-down V. The tip and sides of the tongue are made up of knob-shaped fungiform papillae. The foliate papillae are located primarily on the sides of the tongue, on the very edge directly in front of the V-shaped area where the vallate papillae can be found. They appear to be folded, and are shaped somewhat like a leaf, which is where they get their name. The filiform papillae are thicker and smaller than the others. They are located on the back two-thirds of the tongue, mostly in the center. Curiously, the filiform papillae, though more numerous, are not used in tasting, but for gripping food. All of the tasting takes place around the edges.
When beer or food enters your mouth and comes in contact with your taste buds, conventional wisdom has it that the part of your tongue it touches determines what it tastes like. It’s for this reason that beer and wine tasters swish the liquid around the mouth so that every part of the tongue gets a taste. The idea is that this will give you a well-rounded, more complete impression of the taste. A popular image known as the “tongue map” shows the various parts of the tongue that have traditionally been understood to be most sensitive to each of four basic tastes–salty, sour, sweet, and bitter. For a long time, it was thought that we taste sweet on the tip of the tongue, salty on the sides near the front, sour on the sides behind this, and bitter all the way in the back. Salty and sour tastes work directly through the ion channels; sweet and bitter tastes work through G protein-coupled receptors. These receptors are bundled together in the taste buds.
Unfortunately, it appears the tongue map may be based more on myth and misinterpretation. A German scientist, D. P. Hänig, did the original work on which the tongue map is based in 1901. Today many think the variations he found were largely subjective and insignificant, but later work continued to rely on Hänig’s findings, and this misconception persists today, despite research from as recently as 1974 that refutes it. It is now generally understood that while there are variations in how the tongue perceives the four basic tastes, these differences are pretty insignificant and nearly meaningless. It has been found that all the tastes can be detected–nearly equally–anywhere there are taste buds. It’s easy to test this. Touch the tip of your tongue–the tongue map’s sweet zone–to salt. Does it taste salty? Surprisingly, scientists ignored what was quite literally on the tips of their tongues for nearly a century.
And perhaps more important, we now know there are more than just four basic tastes. A fifth, discovered in Japan, is termed umami, also described as savory or meaty. It’s activated by the glutamates, such as MSG, and is easily detected in bacon, Roquefort cheese, soy sauce, and other foods. It’s also possible that there are sixth and seventh basic tastes, and possibly many more, as we keep changing how we define the basic tastes. Some scientists believe that fat, or at least fatty acids, may also be one of the basics. This was first suggested as far back as the sixteenth century, but it was later discarded because of the belief that fat was a “carrier” for other flavors, creating mouthfeel and texture, but having no flavor of its own. However, emerging science seems to confirm that the 1500s view of fat may have been correct after all. Fatty acids have long been known to beer tasters. Autolyzed yeast can produce flavors that are reminiscent of lard. One brewery even came up with its own name for this flavor: labox.
Other candidates for basic tastes include piquance, which is the hot burn from spicy foods, especially peppers; coolness, like the taste from mint or menthol; metallicity, referring to metal tastes; carbon dioxide, as evidence suggests that the fizz actually may be a taste; and perhaps even calcium (it’s thought that this bitter and chalky taste may exist to keep us from ingesting too much of it).
When tasting beer, it’s important not to spit out the samples, as is common when tasting wine. The receptors at the back of the throat convey the aftertaste, or finish, of the beer. This all-important aftertaste consists of the flavors that persist after the beer is swallowed and is no longer in contact with the taste buds. This lingering finish and its mostly bitter components are such an integral part of the overall taste profile of beer that you cannot get a complete sense of a beer’s flavors without it.
If you’re out at a bar, casually tasting a few beers, it’s perfectly fine to know what beers you’re drinking. It’s downright preferable. But in most serious beer competitions, the beers are tasted blind, meaning that they are served without anyone knowing what beers they are. At most competitions, beers are tasted along with like beers, such as pale ales with other pale ales. If there’s anything unique about a beer, often it’s revealed so that the judges know that whatever flavor it produces was on purpose and not a defect. Tasting blind also removes the inevitable biases and prejudices about certain brands or beers that we all have. Even if you don’t think you have any and believe you can evaluate each beer with an open mind, it’s best to remove even the possibility of any bias.
After looking at the beer and examining the nose, it’s time to taste the beer. You want a good amount: not too little, not too much. You should have enough to swirl around the inside of your mouth so that your entire tongue gets a chance to try the beer. Once your tongue is coated and you’ve taken note of the flavor sensations, swallow it.
There are essentially three parts of beer’s flavors that you can think about separately. The first is the initial sensation of flavors, sometimes referred to as the foretaste. It’s those first flavors that hit you immediately after tasting the beer, your first impressions. Next up is the midtaste, which is essentially everything after the foretaste but before you swallow the beer. Last is the aftertaste, or finish, which is the lingering taste sensations detected most keenly in the back of the mouth after the beer is on its way down your esophagus to your stomach.
In most beers, the flavors will change between the three stages. This is especially true of more complex and stronger beers. Also, all beers will change as they warm up, so it’s always a good idea to go back and try the samples several times as they come up to room temperature, especially if they’re served cold.
In simplest terms, beer’s most evident flavors come from the two main ingredients — malt and hops — which balance one another in varying degrees, depending on the beer. Barley (along with other grains like wheat and rye or adjuncts like rice or corn) provides sweetness and body, and hops add counterbalancing bitterness and spiciness. The particular strain of yeast is also very important and greatly enhances and changes the flavor of the beer. Even the chemical makeup of the water–how hard or soft it is, or how much gypsum or calcium it contains–influences the taste of the final product. Because of these multiple ingredients and the numerous varieties of each that can be combined in endless ways, along with other additives, the taste profile of any beer is surprisingly complex.
The flavor of the beer — including all of its subtlety, nuance, variety, and complexity — comes not just from our sense of taste, but from all five senses in varying degrees. Our brains process all of the sensory data and create our perception of the beer, meaning flavor is cognitive and occurs postsensory, after the brain has received and processed everything. Taste consists of around half a dozen sensations, while flavor is infinite. Taste is physical — it’s chemistry — while flavor is poetry, created by our perceptions and existing only in our minds. It’s also math: flavor = aroma + taste.
So it’s helpful to remember that the taste of beer, or indeed anything, is a combination of simple tastes amplified by countless aromas and other sensations into what we ultimately want to evaluate and appreciate: the beer’s flavor.
Mouthfeel is a slightly different part of the way the beer tastes and is distinct from taste in that it’s more a measure of how it feels in your mouth rather than any actual flavors. It’s actually one of the first things you’ll notice when you taste a beer, because it’s there from the first sip. Mouthfeel is a rough measure of the beer’s viscosity or consistency–in other words, how thick or thin it is. This is also called body, essentially the beer’s weight on your tongue, and it can range from thin-bodied to full-bodied. Essentially, it’s how filling the beer tastes, whether it is heavy or light, thick or thin.
Mouthfeel also includes other characteristics, such as the perceived carbonation (or sensation), meaning how effervescent or bubbly the beer is from the CO2. You can also perceive warmth, from the amount of alcohol, and astringency, usually from tannins or phenols, which sometimes make your mouth pucker and can also make the beer seem dry. Other sensations that fall under the umbrella of mouthfeel include alkaline, mouthcoating, metallicity, and powderiness.
Mouthfeel can be separated into two components. The first involves the sensations derived primarily from the carbonation and can include a sharp, sudden stinging sensation, which may seem biting. The size of the bubbles also contributes to the overall creaminess. Smaller bubbles generally suggest natural carbonation, while bigger and more uneven-sized ones are more often created by forced carbonation, injected artificially into the beer. How much foam is created is, at least in part, a function of the style of beer itself. The amount of foam imparts a fullness in some, a thinness in others. The overall amount of carbonation is likewise style-driven and can make one beer seem gassy and another flat.
The second aspect of mouthfeel concerns the body of the beer. Its thickness, or density, can be light, medium, or full, and the style often determines which is appropriate. This is also where you perceive any astringency, viscosity, cloying sensations, or a slickness on your tongue that feels oily.
Mouthfeel is closely related to how the beer tastes, and it contributes to the flavor in ways both tangible and intangible. Like aroma and taste, mouthfeel is yet another element that contributes to the overall flavor of the beer.
The three stages of flavor I mentioned earlier also have to work together. When they do, it’s said they have good synergy. When they don’t, the beer is often called disjointed. You may, for example, get a great malty foretaste but an astringent, very bitter finish, where the two have no common bond and it feels as if you’ve just had two different beers, like a Willy Wonka Everlasting Gobstobber as the layers peel off. That would be a classic example of a disjointed beer.
Synergy is also sometimes called the overall impression, and that’s in some respects what you’ll want to determine. A beer may have some great elements–a beautiful hop (you’d never here anyone say “a beautiful hops aroma”) aroma, for example–but also have an off flavor that’s not terribly enjoyable. In such a case, your overall impression might understandably be mixed. But a judge must decide if and to what degree one element affects another and contributes to its overall character in scoring a beer.
So no matter how good some parts of a beer are, the whole beer must work together in order to be considered of top quality. Therefore, every beer should be evaluated for its overall qualities.
In competition judging, whether the beer is “true to style” is very important. That means the beer must fit within all of the style guidelines that are applied to the particular kind of beer being evaluated. It must be the right color, be the right strength, and have the proper flavors for the kind of beer that it purports to be. But outside of that rarefied environment, whether a beer is “true to style” is meaningless. All that matters is whether it tastes good . . . overall.
This final component of how the beer comes together is perhaps the most subjective of all, because it’s essentially a value judgment that requires experience and imagination more than scientific detachment. You have to determine its intrinsic qualities as a beverage that you and other people would enjoy drinking. Simply put: overall, does it work?
A beer with a defect is one that has something wrong. This is usually just an off flavor, but at the other end of the spectrum, the beer could have a more serious defect that makes it completely undrinkable. It may have been created by the way the beer was brewed, in which case even a fresh sample would reveal that defect. Or it may have occurred as a result of the way the beer was stored or transported, perhaps improperly in the heat or direct sunlight, for example. It may simply be too old, because as beer ages beyond its life expectancy, off flavors and defects begin to appear in even the most well-made beer.
While most beers are unique, a number of common defects can afflict any beer, and they usually are created by a specific cause or causes. Sometimes it’s shoddy brewing skills or poor ingredients. Sometimes it’s bad packaging that doesn’t seal properly. Sometimes the beer wasn’t properly cared for once it left the brewery, either in storage or at the store, or even after you brought it home. Not keeping the beer under proper conditions can effectively ruin it, or at least hasten its demise into something undrinkable.
Though you have little control over the beer before you buy it, there are things you should or should not do once it’s under your control. Never freeze your beer or use a frosted glass. Never put the beer in a hot environment, like the trunk of your car, or let it get too hot. For every 10 degrees above XX, the amount of time it takes for your beer to go bad is cut in half. You should also keep it out of the light, where it can become lightstruck (a.k.a. “skunky”) in no time.
Almost all beer is brewed to be enjoyed as soon as possible, when it’s freshest. A small percentage of beers can be aged, but with most beer, it’s best to drink it as soon as you can to avoid its becoming stale and taking on off flavors.
Other defects are more specific and technical. Below is a list of some of the more common defects you might encounter, along with what may be the cause of that particular defect. They are listed alphabetically by common name, followed by the technical term or terms in parentheses and then a short description.
Alcoholic or too strong (ethanol, ethyl alcohol, fusel alcohol). Beers with higher alcohol content will usually taste stronger, but that doesn’t mean they should taste harsh or the alcohol should overwhelm all the other flavors. Often caused by the fermentation, this can give the beer a spirits-like, hot sensation, similar to what you’d find in higher proof liquor.
Band-Aid (chlorophenol). You know something is out of whack when you smell Band-Aids, disinfectant, or diaper aroma. It’s the artificial quality that really stands out in this defect, usually caused by a problem with sanitizers or yeast.
Bitter (astringent). Many beers have a bitter quality from the hops, which are used to balance the sweeter malt. But balance is the key, and even the very hoppy India pale ales should have a certain amount of balance. When the bitter character becomes too pronounced and takes on a more harsh, tanninlike quality, which is dry and makes you pucker, the beer is said to be astringent, which is in effect bad bitterness, not just too much of it. How much is too much is the subject of debate; some people love beer with a bitter quality, while others can’t stand even a little bitterness. Everyone’s tolerance for bitterness is different and constantly evolving.
Butter or butterscotch (diacetyl). Think of the artificial butter aroma and flavor of movie theater popcorn, and you’ve got the diacetyl character in some beers. At low levels, this can be an enjoyable flavor component, but just like popcorn that’s swimming in butter and dripping with each handful, too much can make for an unpleasant experience. Beers with too much diacetyl are often called “butter bombs,” and the cause is often a problem with the yeast and amino acids.
Cabbage (dimethylsulfide). Often called simply DMS, if this in your beer’s nose, it’s probably a sign of something gone awry, especially in ales. It may also smell like creamed corn, asparagus, or generally vegetal. In dark beer, the aroma may remind you of tomato soup, and its cause is usually a grain infection or brewhouse problem, usually occurring in the boil.
Candy or candy sweet (sucrose). Many Belgian and Belgian-style beers use candy sugar in the brewing process. This increases the alcohol by giving the yeast more to eat during fermentation, but it can also lead to a cloying, overly sweet beer that can be like drinking soda or sickeningly sweet candy. As with bitterness, preferences for sweetness are usually individual, but unless you’re looking for liquid candy, it can sometimes be a bit too much to enjoy.
Cardboard (oxidized). Usually this aroma will remind you of wet cardboard or wet paper, as if you left a box out in the rain and then took a whiff of it. Sometimes it may seem leathery. It can be a sign of boiling too long, but more often it’s simply stale beer that’s too old or has been stored improperly.
Cattiness or cat piss (catty or mercaptans). Cattiness can occur in old, stale beer, and if you notice this quality in a beer that’s not supposed to be hoppy, then that’s most likely what’s going on. But in IPAs and other hoppy beers, certain varieties of hops can give this aroma and flavor. Sometimes it can be perceived as grassy, vegetal, oniony, or other natural character, but occasionally it comes together unpleasantly, though how it’s perceived is also an individual affair.
Chalk (minerality). Chalk can remind you of plaster or even drywall if it’s too strong. If subtle, it’s not that terrible, but how much chalk do you want in your beer? Some pale ales or Dortmunder lagers will have low levels, as it’s usually caused by mineral ions in the water.
Cheesy (isovaleric acid). If you get a whiff of bad cheese or stinky feet, use your own to run away. It’s not a common defect, but when it occurs, it’s a doozy. It can have a benign origin, such as the poor storage of hops, or it could be from a bacterial infection.
Creamed corn. See cabbage.
Green apples (acetaldehyde). If you smell green apples or green leaves, it’s mostly likely a sign that the beer was released too soon or there was a yeast metabolic problem. Like its aroma, the beer is a little green. Though it’s usually evidence of a defect, it’s not as unpleasant a problem as many others.
Leather. See cardboard.
Lightstruck (methyl mercaptan, isopentyl mercaptan). A beer can become lightstruck, causing it to smell like a skunk, almost instantaneously when it encounters light, especially UV rays. Fluorescent lights and bright sunlight are particularly bad for causing beer to become skunked. And since both clear and green glass offer much less protection, many popular brands of beer are very susceptible to this problem. Brown glass, while not perfect, offers the most protection of any common glass color, which is why most brewers use this color for their bottles. Cans offer the greatest protection since they allow no light in at all.
Meaty (brothy, cooked meat). Beer often echoes the flavors of meat because of the roasted malt used to brew it, and this is why it’s usually such an excellent pairing with cooked meat dishes, especially heavy, rich meals. But the beer should never smell like meat, which is often evidence of a yeast problem.
Medicinal. See Band-Aid.
Metallic (lacquerlike, metallic). It’s important to note that a metallic taste would almost never result from the beer can. The metal turbidity that once caused metallic flavors to leach into canned beer has been virtually eliminated. Today can manufacturers spray an organic polymer inside the can so that the beer never touches the aluminum. Metal flavors in beer are usually bitter, bloody, and always bad, caused primarily by iron, copper, or other metals in the water.
Nutty or almondy (benzaldehyde). While a pleasant nuttiness can be present in nut brown ales or darker beers from the roasted malt, beyond that, if you smell almonds, walnuts, or something like that, it’s more likely the beer is old and stale and has become oxidized.
Onion or green onion. See cattiness.
Plastic (phenolic). The aromas in your beer should never seem artificial, and that’s what phenolics all smell like. They have an artificial aroma that can take the form of something medicinal, mouthwash, or plastic, and their cause is often a problem with the water, yeast, or sparging.
Rotten eggs (sulfitic). A rotten egg smell can be a sign of a serious problem of contamination, especially when the smell is overwhelming. By contrast, however, it can be highly desirable when it’s just a faint and subtle whiff, more like a burnt match. Many ales that were originally brewed in Burton-on-Trent in the UK famously had this character, and it became associated with these styles so thoroughly that people now expect it. In a beer made in Burton, this character became known as the “Burton snatch.” If it’s overpowering, it most likely signals a yeast problem, or sometimes it’s a sign that a beer is too green.
Skunky. See lightstruck.
Solvent or lacquer thinner (acetone, ethyl acetate). This aroma is a perfect example of how something can be quite pleasant at low levels but downright repulsive at higher concentrations. When it’s just a hint in the nose, it can add a delightful fruity quality, often called estery. But when it’s ramped up, it smells more like nail polish remover. This aroma is commonly found in high-alcohol beers and may be caused by a yeast problem or bacterial contamination.
Sour or lactic (acetic or lactic acid). Lactic acid produces a sour sensation in beer similar to milk curdling. But a sour taste does not necessarily mean the beer is defective. There are several types of sour beers that are brewed that way on purpose, to create a beer that’s rich with complex flavors. This is usually done through the use of wild or special yeast strains, so be sure you know the brewer’s intentions before pouring the beer down the drain. Fine sour beers take time and are often more expensive than many other beers. They also require patience and an open mind to appreciate. They are an acquired taste, but one that rewards the drinker with some of the most complex and interesting drinking experiences to be found anywhere in the world of alcohol.
Soy sauce (autolyzed). An autolyzed beer tastes muddy and might remind you of soy sauce or Marmite. It’s not always unpleasant, and in small amounts it can add to a strong beer, especially one that’s older, or it could be a sign of amino acid and lipid problems in the beer.
Stale. See cardboard.
Sulfur. See rotten eggs.
Vanilla (vanillin). Vanilla can be a pleasant addition but should be restrained, subtle, and present only in small amounts, whether in the nose or the flavor profile, where it can also taste like custard powder. Many barrel-aged beers take on a vanillin character, which at times can be overpowering.
Vegetal. See cabbage and cattiness.
Vinegar (acetic acid, acetobacter). The pickled vinegar character caused by acetic acid is never a desirable aroma or flavor. Some people enjoy a pickle with their beer, and many old-time saloons have a jar of them on the bar, but your beer should never be pickled.
Wet paper. See cardboard.
These are some of the more common defects or strong aromas and flavors you’re likely to encounter, but somewhere in the neighborhood of nine hundred separate aromas and flavors in beer have been identified. Other, less common, ones include burnt rubber, coconut, corn grits, garlic, perfume, rancid butter, salty, shrimp, and vinous, to name only a fraction. It can be fun and educational to think about the beer you’re drinking, trying to identify what you’re smelling and tasting with each new beer you order. Not only will it lead you to enjoy beer more fully, but it also will change the way you drink it. Think good beer and you’ll drink good beer.
7. Everything Else
Did I miss anything? After going through all the above steps, I stop and just think about the beer. What was my overall impression of it? Did I like it? Would I drink more of it? Would I order a pint of it? Some beer judging is very technical and looks only at how well the beer is made, whether it hit all the markers it’s supposed to for the style. However, you may find some beers that are technically well made but you still don’t want to drink them. Professional judges need to be able to set aside their personal prejudices in order to judge whether a beer is of good quality. It should have nothing to do with whether they like that style or even that particular beer.
Then there’s what I refer to as hedonistic tasting. And in some ways that’s more meaningful to most of us, because hedonism is all about pleasure and happiness as the most important attributes. In the real world, where you and I drink beer, this is far more important than the technical details. Though to be fair, a beer that isn’t good technically may not taste very good either. In the end, what’s of the utmost importance is whether you like how the beer tastes and want to drink it. How well it’s made is of no importance whatsoever. What matters is if you like it. Period. That’s what I call the hedonistic scale.