A Quick Rundown of Beer Characteristics
Beer has been around for thousands of years, but a more formal approach to beer tasting only began to truly take shape in the last 40 years or so. In the 1970’s, Morton Meilgaard designed the Meilgaard Flavor Wheel, dividing aroma and taste characteristics into 14 sub-headings. Michael Jackson published World Guide to Beer in 1977, creating a numerical rating system for beer based on five categories. The American Brewers Association began compiling beer style guidelines, providing a consistency for descriptions, and the Beer Judge Certification Program was established to provide consistency in judging.
But you don’t need to be an expert to enjoy tasting beer, or to be able to rate the beers you try. There are simply a few common aromas and flavors to watch for and recognize. Pick them out, and you’re well on your way.
Immediately after pouring the beer, and before your first taste, take a moment to smell it. Much of the characteristic aroma of beer comes from the hops, and that aroma is usually described as herbal, pine, floral, resin or spice. The hops are also responsible for the characteristic bitter taste of beer, best tasted on the back of the tongue.
The malt, or grain, is responsible for most of the sweeter flavors and aroma in beer. The grain of preference for beer is barley, although wheat beer is a recognized style. Generally, beers made with rice or corn are considered inferior – these are cheaper grains and don’t produce the proper flavor. The aroma may be nutty, sweet, or grainy. Both the aroma and flavor may be described as roasted, caramel, toffee, toasted, chocolate, or coffee.
There is also a degree of aroma and flavor that comes from the yeast. The fermentation process can produce esters, which give beer a fruity aroma. These esters are common in ales, but should be non-existent in lagers. The varieties are almost endless – banana, pear, apricot, citrus.
There are also odors and tastes that shouldn’t be present in beer. The descriptions are self-explanatory – fishy, oily, chlorine, skunky, cooked vegetables, sour, vinegar, solvent-like, cabbage.
Finally, there are descriptors used for beer that have to do with the body, or mouth-feel, or the beer. Beer may be thin, medium, or full-bodied. If you haven’t tasted many beers, think of ice cream – the difference between a bowl of a light ice milk and a bowl of a gourmet ice cream. The flavor may be the same, but they feel very different in your mouth.
If you began trying out new beers on a regular basis, you may want to makes notes about which beers you’ve tried, and what you thought of them. With hundreds, if not thousands, of beers available, it doesn’t take long before it gets hard to remember what you think of which one, unless it was either outstandingly good or incredibly bad. There are journals and forms designed specifically for beer tasters, but a formal journal isn’t a necessity. You may find a small spiral notebook works as well.
Should you read beer reviews? Yes and no. If you’re new to craft beers or beer tasting, you may find it helpful to look up beers you’ve tried at sites like Beer Advocate. Reading the reviews may help you put a name to the flavor or aroma that you couldn’t quite pinpoint, or help you figure out what gives your favorite beer the taste you love. But if you’re going to try out a new beer, hold off on those reviews until you’ve judged it for yourself. No matter how experienced the reviewer, they may taste something you don’t, and you may find flavors they missed.
Most importantly, 100 reviewers may find that Joe’s Beer is a great example of the style, and they may be absolutely right – but that doesn’t mean that they all liked the beer, or that you’ll like it. Like and dislike are very subjective things. And in the end, beer tasting is really all about the search for your perfect beer.