Drinking and tasting are different. Sure, they can happen simultaneously, but critical tasting is a routine designed to produce results, rather than entertainment or enjoyment. Of course, a taster can enjoy the process — but it’s not the objective.
The purpose of critically tasting beer is to evaluate and improve it. Whether your goal is to improve your beer, or to create a high-scoring style in a homebrew competition, how you approach tasting can have a direct impact on your results.
Whatever the goal, all homebrewers should have a standard tasting method. Follow the five-step guidelines below and you’ll be tasting like a pro in no time.
1. Establish a Routine
As athletes repeat rituals before competing — Micheal Phelps does those arm swings before each swimming race, and Serena Williams reportedly listens to the theme from “Flashdance” before each match — learned triggers can enhance our ability to perform. They instantly switch the brain into “game time” mode.
In beer tasting, triggers can be a little less conspicuous — something that would be comfortable and non-disruptive at a judges table or in a quiet test room. One example, from personal experience, is holding the cup in your right hand if you’re left handed, or vice versa — this sends a message to the brain that what you’re holding isn’t just any cup of beer.
Other examples of physical triggers are swirling the beer counterclockwise instead of clockwise, using a special grip (say, three fingers instead of four), or sniffing your forearm or shoulder before you begin. It may sound silly, but it works. The more practiced the trigger, the more it becomes second nature and gets you ready to taste and evaluate.
2. Sniff Strategically
Instead of just smelling a beer in front of you, you can employ several types of sniffs to ensure you’re sensing the full range of aromas.
First, sniff from far away, while the glass is about six inches away from your face. No need to be dramatic about it — just be sure to register what is there as you’re bringing the glass toward you, because some aromas are more apparent at a distance. Once the glass is close to your nose, take a few short sniffs. (I do three every single time — routine!)
Keeping sniffs to less than a second long does a few things: It gives your senses several chances to register different smells; keeps your nasal passages from drying out, which can affect their sensitivity; and avoids accidentally “blinding” yourself to off-flavors. (Certain aromas will overwhelm scent receptors, making the smeller effectively “blind” to those aromas for several minutes.)
Next, swirl the glass to see if any attributes you picked up during the short sniffs increase. Then, cover the glass with your hand, swirl it for three to five seconds, align your nose with the edge of the glass, remove your hand, and take several short sniffs. Reflect on what you sense: Is there anything new? Did your perception of any specific odors intensify? Finally, take a long sniff, for three or more seconds.
3. Take Notes and Move On
Quickly taking note of what you smelled gives the brain a chance to synthesize the sensory experience. The taster can go back to confirm the string of words with a few short sniffs of the glass. With practice, the words you use to describe aromas will fall roughly into separate categories: malt (bread crust, dark chocolate), hops (grapefruit oil, pine bark), yeast (white pepper, red apple candy), additives (hibiscus petal, sour cherry), or other (rotten vegetables, skunk spray).
Then, it’s time to move on. If you’re evaluating multiple samples, such as in a competition, there are two different approaches. One is to smell the other samples and take notes on those before coming back to taste; this provides a second chance to confirm or add to original aroma notes. The second is to taste the sample you just studied, and repeat with each sample one by one.
Since off-flavors like hydrogen sulfide (rotten egg) are very volatile, meaning they can dissipate quickly, most beer judges will smell the whole flight first to make sure they don’t miss an off-flavor before it disappears.
4. Taste With Your Nose
There are odor receptors in the throat, roof of the mouth, and back of the nasal cavity that are not activated by taking typical sniffs and require the volatile odor compounds to be introduced through the mouth. This is called retronasal olfaction, meaning behind-the-nose smell. Start by firmly pinching the nostrils shut with your fingers. Take a breath with your mouth, take a sip of the beer, swish it slowly around your mouth to hit receptors on the tongue and the roof of the mouth, then swallow. Simultaneously release and exhale from the nose, keeping lips tightly shut.
Do not underestimate this step! Certain flavors with strong retronasal perception will create the sensation of your mouth filling with flavor — German Weissbier creating a strong banana flavor is a good example.
5. Take a Sip
Next, take a sip — you’re finally evaluating for flavor! Hold it in your mouth for a second or so, making sure to consider mouthfeel (carbonation, alcohol warming, viscosity, and astringency) before swallowing. Then, take a “normal” sip. Once again, go to your categories: malt, hops, yeast, additives, or other. Note flavor attributes the beer has in each category. It’s especially useful to contemplate if the flavors align with the aromas noted earlier. Does the aroma profile match the way the beer tastes? This little exercise forces you to get specific about what you are sensing. In order to decree that the flavor and aroma do, in fact, match, you have to have a very particular profile of each in your mind (or on your notepad).
Bonus: Compare and Contrast
An excellent exercise for brewers looking to improve is to compare their beer to exemplary commercial examples of that style. For example, a brewer looking to improve a German Weissbier recipe might taste their beer next to Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier and Schneider Weisse Original to assess how their tasting descriptors differ in each category. Is there a malt flavor the homebrew is missing? Or an extra flavor coming from the Weihenstephaner yeast profile? The BJCP guidelines feature commercial examples for each style, so every beer is a candidate for this exercise. An even better way to conduct this exercise is to have another person give the samples to you, in numbered cups, so your bias doesn’t impact your perception.
A Final Note: Use Your Tasting Powers for Good
Practiced tasters make better brewers. For those studying to be a beer judge, filling out specific score sheets will require taking your notes and turning them into meaningful feedback. Knowledge of flavor development and the brewing process combined with thorough tasting descriptions make judges’ comments more useful for brewers.
Note that our guidelines never suggest making a judgement call on whether a beer is “good” or “bad.” Whether on a panel or at happy hour, a trained taster can ruin a pint for everyone by commenting negatively. (“Who else gets that nasty musty flavor?”)
Don’t be that taster, nor that judge. Use your powers for good, and help the beer world be a welcoming, delicious place.