“How I learned to stop worrying and drink the beer”… Follow these easy steps and start learning how to speak beer.
“Beer speaks. People mumble”
~Tony Magee (Lagunitas)
So you know how to drink a beer, I get that. Maybe you can even pick out a “good” beer from time to time. But why is it good? What makes it different? Is it good because you say it is? Can you appreciate a beer even if it doesn’t meet your tastes? You don’t need to be a certified beer judge or cicerone to start appreciating the little details that go into your pint. That doesn’t mean you need to take all the fun out of it either. A little self reflection goes a long way to help you learn what you like, and that only stands to make “future you” happy.
I hope to provide a brief overview on how to critically appraise a beer without making it feel like a chore. The methods I’ll discuss are by no means original — it all comes pretty much straight from the BJCP study guide, but I’m hoping maybe I can make it a bit more approachable. To further simplify things, just like an Emoji Shakespeare play, this guide will be presented in three acts and I’ll try to keep it “fresh”(as the kids say) with some similarly styled summaries…
Print off and prepare a BJCP score sheet. You may find it easier to keep track of your thoughts if you write them down and the form helps keep things organized. If you’re learning, don’t worry about the scores. For a more “self guided” approach, consider signing up for an account with BeerAdvocate, RateBeer or Untappd (and follow us while you’re at it). A small notepad will do in a pinch for more casual notes.
Act 1: Setting the Stage
Going to a time sensitive beer fest or not interested in prep work? Consider skipping to Act 2!
Step 1: Have a quick look over the style guidelines
… or at least have them available. These days there are all sorts of BJCP apps for Apple and Android or you can get them straight from the website. Understanding the guidelines will help you recognize what makes the style unique and identify what characteristics you like and dislike.
For example, you may realize that you can in fact taste ripe banana off a beer, you just hadn’t thought of it that way until it was suggested to you. The style guidelines can’t tell you about the exact beer you’re drinking but knowing that that is common to the style may help you pick up on it especially after you’ve had a few examples. Also the more familiar you get with styles the more prepared you’ll be next time you’re at a pub and choose to order an unfamiliar beer — at least you’ll have some idea of what you’re getting into.
Step 2: Look at the bottle
This is more of a homebrew specific step and you can probably skip it if you have a can or if you are being served a prepoured beer. Looking at the bottle can give you some important information for how to pour the beer, and, while rarely an issue, if it’s fit to drink. Sediment on the bottom will tell you that yeast was left in to help the beer carbonate in the bottle (aka “bottle conditioning”). This yeast cake is not a fault, but it’ll let you know if you need to be careful pouring it out. With the exception of a few styles you generally want to leave that yeast behind. Other things to look for are a ring around the neck on the inside and “bulging” caps which may indicate an infection.
Step 3: Pick a glass and pour
If you’re judging for real you’ll have a standard judging glass but assuming you’re at home, pick a glass appropriate to the style. You want this beer to be the best that it can be and putting it in a glass that amplifies it’s positive characteristics will help that.
Learn to pour a beer if you haven’t yet. Perhaps the hardest part is knowing when to speed up or slow the pour on the fly. Some beers will need to be poured fast and others will leave you with a spilled mess if poured any bit aggressively. Don’t sweat this too much, just think of it as a reflection of your value as a beer pourer and keep in mind that if you’re left with a flat looking headless beer, it may be your fault and not the beers. You should reflect on what you’ve done and think about how you can be less disappointing in the future. Nobody likes a “Headless Harold”. That’s a joke…?
“Approachable” Act 1 summary: Get you’re sheet in order 📝. Look at the bottle 😎🍼 to make sure it’s not #grody and pour dat’ drank in yo’ glass 🍺.
Act 2: Let the beer review begin
Step 1: Smell the beer
As soon as you’re done pouring, give the beer a sniff. I mean really smell it. None of this gently inhaling like it’s a freshly blossomed pansy. You may not get a lot off of it right away as a cold beer will give off less volatiles (i.e. invisible smell compounds). For now make a quick note of your first impressions.
Step 2: Look at the beer
Hopefully your beer isn’t in a red Solo cup and you can actually look at it. Some questions to ask yourself:
- is it clear? how clear is it?
- what colour is it?
- does it have a big or small head? what colour is the head?
- does the head stick around or quickly turn into nothing?
- does it look heavily carbonated?
Jot the answer to these questions down and move along. You’ve got more smelling to do.
Step 3: Smell it again
With all that looking you’ve been doing your beer should be starting to warm up. Give it another smell but this time try to pick out more specific elements. This takes practice but you will be amazed at how it will come naturally to you with time and practice.
A great learning experience can be had by having someone with a bit more experience explain what they smell. Now some people are more sensitive to certain smells than others, so what they smell may not reflect what you smell. However, the trickiest part in all of this is improving your “smell vocabulary” which means: the words you use to describe what you smell. The more specific and descriptive you can be the better. Having someone guide you will help make those connections more easily. For example, I never understood what “bubblegum” was supposed to smell like until I was told that it was a combination of strawberry and bananas — all of a sudden it clicked.
If you’re struggling to figure out a smell that’s just on the tip of your tongue, I have just the rambling anecdote for you. Let your mind wander through memories when you smell a beer. Where does it take you? Perhaps when you smell a certain beer you are reminded of a beach in Mexico. Why is that? What were you doing? What was around you? That’s it. Maybe what you’re smelling is pineapple or melon perhaps? Self reflection goes against the “everybody bouncing up and down by a pool” beer drinking experience that we are taught through commercials but if you’re past all that, you’ll be amazed what you can find in a beer. Draw on your past experiences to understand the present.
“If I wanted to smell a beer, I’d have taken the beer smelling class”
Step 4: Now you can taste the beer
Alright, now that that fluff is out of the way, go ahead and take a drink. Now don’t sip it – take a good ounce or so in (~29.57 mls). Let it move around and coat your mouth, your cheeks, your teeth — letting it just absorb all the space and all the air possible in your throat. Ok so maybe not that much, but try and get it everywhere. Try and do this efficiently so that the alcohol doesn’t start desensitizing your taste perception. Swallow and exhale through your nose.
What did you get out of it? Likely many of the elements you noticed in the smell test. Think to yourself:
- was it sweet?
- was it bitter?
- was it sour?
- could I taste the alcohol?
- did it taste grainy/bready/doughy/toasted/roasted?
- what did the hops taste like? Spicy? Fruity? Citrusy? Dank? Herbal?
- what does the taste remind you of?
- did the flavour change with time in relation to when it first entered your mouth?
As with the smelling portion, it will take time to develop your “taste vocabulary” but try your best. Make a few quick notes for now. You will return later.
Step 5: Feel the beer
Take another mouthful of beer and note how it feels in your mouth. Does it feel heavy or light? Was it heavily carbonated? Can you feel astringency anywhere? That is to say, did it seem to overpower any parts of your mouth or throat? If you are familiar with the style: was all of this appropriate? Make some quick notes on this.
Step 6: Put it all together (aka Rinse/Repeat as necessary)
Move around the rest of your sample as you see fit. Continue to smell and taste, making any additional notes as you go. Flesh out the details to whatever level you see fit. Starting off you may just make basic notes and that’s fine. The important thing is that you’re trying and with experience you’ll learn the vocabulary you need to express your experiences.
“Approachable” Act 2 Summary: Smell that beer 👃… #OMGWarmGoat…. look at that beer 👁 #LooksLikeBeer…. Smell that beer again 👃👃… Taste that beer 👄…. Feel that beer all in yo’ mouth 👅… Repeat if you need to, bae, and don’t forget to note note ✏️✏️
Act 3: Express yourself
Put everything you’ve written or thought together and summarize it. What did you like most about the beer? What did you like the least? How did it compare to other similar beers you’ve tried? This is what we call “overall impressions” in beer reviews. If you have time I would suggest that you compare your overall impressions with that of the style guidelines and to anybody else that you may be sharing the beer with.
Try to keep an open mind and understand that there are likely differences between your opinion and what is considered “good” or “appropriate” for the style. If you try a Berliner Weisse and you absolutely hate it, take a minute to read what the style is all about. Perhaps it checks every box for the style and you still don’t like it? Congratulations, you’ve learned something! Now you know that you don’t like even the best examples of the style and you can avoid it in the future. Though I would encourage you to try again sometime as tastes do change with time (see: Urkel/Laura; Family Matters).
Share your experiences with others and learn from one another, whether it be in person or online via Beer Advocate, Ratebeer, Untappd etc.
Practice makes perfect. Don’t be discouraged if your notes don’t match those of others but keep an open mind. There’s a huge world of flavours and aromas to experience out there. It can be overwhelming at first but remember “you miss 100% of the beers you don’t drink”. Till next time: take care of yourselves, and each other.
“Approachable” Act 3 Summary: What it gonna be? A 👍 or a 👎, 🐕? #GR8BeerM8 or #IDontCare4ThisOneVeryMuchThankYou? Remember: Free yo mind, and the rest will follow. 😎🍻🍻🍻