Wine Corks & Kegs: Beer Tasting for Beginners

When tasting a wine, a connoisseur will usually sniff the cork, to determine how well the wine was stored and to get a preliminary idea of the quality of the wine. When tasting beer, there is no cork to smell – so how does one proceed? Fortunately, you don’t need to give the cap a whiff in order to appreciate a good beer. All you need is a clean glass and a basic understanding of the world of beer. We can’t provide you with the glass, but for the latter, read on.

What Kinds of Beer Are There?

There are many different styles of beer; each with various nuances and characteristics resulting from their brewing and fermentation processes. Many beers will fall into the category of either a lager or ale. Ale can be brewed in warmer temperatures for shorter periods of time, whereas lagers are brewed for longer periods of time at colder temperatures. Both types range from light to dark, though lagers to have a bit of a wider range of color and depth. A beer’s specific characteristics depend largely on the brewing style and additives. The beer family tree can split off into different styles of ales and lagers. A few of the more popular ales, for example, are the India Pale Ales (IPAs), Porters, and Stouts. Czech and German pilsners are largely considered to be the most popular lagers, but also included in this category is the Oktoberest.

How to Taste a Beer

Tasting a beer is not as complicated as professional tasters might make it sound. All that’s required is an understanding of common beer notes and your own five senses. The first step in evaluating a beer comes as soon as the beer is poured; just take a look at the color. Many beers feature an amber color, though different styles will have variations in how light or dark that color is. Beer may be perfectly clear, or it may be opaque; that’s caused by the presence of sentiment leftover from the fermentation process.

The next step is to give the beer a swirl to agitate the beer. As with a wine tasting, this agitation releases new fragrances. It also assists in stimulating carbonation and indicates head, or foam, retention. After gently agitating, sniff to take in the initial aroma.

The final step is to taste the beer. Professional testers recommend holding the beer in your mouth for a moment to evaluate the front flavors as well as those that emerge when you swallow. Beers may be floral or “hoppy”, an attribute credited to the hops used during the brewing process, or they may be fruity, malty, or bitter. It may help to acquaint yourself with the most common beer flavors before you go out drinking, since you’ll be able to better appreciate what you taste if you’re able to identify the flavors within the beverage.

The Golden Rule of Beer Tasting

If you are going to become a beer taster, either casually at the pub or seriously at a craft brewery, there is only one rule that you need to remember: try everything. It can be tempting to order a beer, like it, and order it again the next time you go out. There’s nothing wrong with indulging in a favorite brew, but unless you consciously make an effort to try new beer varieties and brands, you may miss out on a beer that really appeals to you. Some establishments, especially craft breweries, may offer samples of their beer for you to try before you order. Trying different kinds of beer is how you will develop your palate and discover new flavors, and it’s only through experimentation that you will discover which beer styles tastes best to you.

  • The Science of Beer – Knowing how beer is made (and the components that go into it) can help you better appreciate different types of brews. This mini-show from PBS’s It’s Okay to Be Smart takes a look behind the care and brewing of beer.
  • Beer Science – A beer might happen to smell like bananas, and there’s a reason your nose perceives it that way. In a video from what may very well be the coolest college course in existence, Professor Karl Siebert provides a quick two-minute walkthrough of some of the basics of beer tasting.
  • Beer Style Descriptions – If you’re new to beer, the variety of styles might seem overwhelming. This beer style guide will give you an overview of the most popular kinds of beers, as well as what to expect from them in regards to taste.
  • The History of Beer – Beer was around before written language, and with that much time to develop, it’s no wonder there’s such a variety to sample today. Take a look at the history of beer brewing with this page from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
  • Reusable Bags for Beer Bottles & Growlers – Carry your Growlers or Bottles Like a Pro in a reusable environmental friendly tote. Super strong made with non-woven poly material. Great for taking beer back to your pad.
  • Yeast, Wine, and Liquor – Wine and beer may be different kinds of drinks, but they’re both created through the magic of yeast fermentation. Learn more about how these drinks are made and what keeps them in separate categories with this page from the University of Hawaii.
  • The Novice’s Guide to the World of Craft Beer – The good news about beer tasting is that you’re not limited by what’s on the store shelf. There is a world of craft beer, usually tucked away in your own hometown, just waiting to be explored.
  • An Easy Guide to Beer: Styles, Terms, History – If you don’t have a lot of time to spend researching before your next pint, look no further than this link. From the history of beer to a visual guide of common beers and their styles, this article covers all the bases.
  • How to Taste Beer Like a Pro – Let’s say that you’re at the bar, you’ve looked over the menu, and you have a pint in hand. What do you do next? Take a look at this guide and evaluate your beer like a professional taster.
  • Taste Makers – Craft breweries provide creative new ways of experiencing beer. Meet a few craft brewers in this article from Boston University and take a peek into the world of craft brewing.
  • 9 Beer Myths Busted – If you think beers should only be served cold, you’ll want to take a look at this article. What you’ve always heard about beer might not necessarily be so.
  • Beer for Dummies – Some of the best beers aren’t the ones that people usually ask for. This basic guide clues you in to insider tips like cool beer styles to try, how to find the freshest beer, and how to describe beer.
  • Beer Tasting Workout: Train Yourself to Taste Beer Better – Like any good skill, tasting beer requires practice. These four exercises will train your nose and taste buds to instantly detect and rate the flavor characteristics of any brew.
  • Beer 101: The Difference Between Varieties – From wheat beer to pale ale, there are a lot of beers to meet. This slideshow from the Huffington Post will provide you with the history, flavor profile, and picture of ten of the most common beer varieties.
  • 11 Strange Beers You’ll Actually Want to Try – Gone are the days when you had to choose between dessert and one more beer. Craft breweries are notorious for creative flavor profiles, and this list contains eleven beers with flavors (like Banana Bread Beer) that are worth a double-take.
  • Try It, You’ll Like It (PDF) – Beer tasting isn’t just a physical experience; it’s mental, too. Discover the psychological nuances of beer tasting in this research article.
  • Rancho Relaxo’s Complete Guide to Home Brewing (PDF) – If pubs don’t have the beer you’re looking for, why not try making your own brew? This guide can walk you through the basic steps of home brewing.
  • Beer Fun Facts – Did you know that lager is the most popular beer worldwide? Expand your knowledge of beer with this interesting quiz.
  • Brewing: A Legacy of Ancient Times – Beer-making has changed drastically throughout the centuries. Today’s Chemist at Work has a great article on the evolution of beer and the state of the industry today.
  • Beer and Food Matching Chart (PDF) – The new IPA craft beer might taste great, but what food should you order to compliment it? This handy chart from the Brewers Association lists the food, cheese, and dessert that would go best with each type of beer and contains some valuable advice for food pairing.
  • Beer Pairing Tips (PDF) – When pairing beer with food, there are guidelines, but no absolute rules; after all, it’s a matter of personal preference. However, if you’re not sure where to start, this short guide will give you an overview of pairings that tend to work well together.