Evaluating beer

January 2001

By Gary Monterosso

Making the transition into drinking handcrafted beers normally isn't one which occurs overnight. Once you have committed to quaffing high-quality beers exclusively, you will be unable (or unwilling) to return to the mass-marketed varieties.

Frequently, the next step is to develop a real appreciation of these new beers that now have become a staple in your beverage menu. There is a legion of styles from which to choose, dependent on varying circumstances such as the time of the year, food accompaniment, companionship and so on. You will select from domestics and imports, as well. By the way, if you detect parallels with wine, that is no accident as both beverages can be versatile. As beer continues to evolve and gain the respect it deserves, you will become a lot more discerning about what you favor.

You may become interested in how to evaluate beer, especially if you are sampling one that you have never tried previously. There are chapters in books on how to do this but the reality of it shouldn't be quite so complex. After all, at the end all that matters is whether or not you like the flavor.

Keep your eyes (and nose and mouth) open for the following criteria:

1. Appearance. Most beers should be clear and free from objects floating in it. An exception might come from certain wheat beers where it is conventional to pour and drink the yeast, a good source of nutrients, with the beer.

2. Foam. Be aware of the type of beer you are drinking. A barleywine or bottle-conditioned (beer aged in the bottle with yeast) retains little foam. Other than that, most beers will show some degree of head retention.

3. Aroma. There are a host of things that can go wrong from the moment the beer leaves the brewery until when you pop open the cap. Signs of a bad beer can be wet paper or cardboard smells, buttery notes, solvent-like odors or sulfur.

4. Body. Beer can be "thin" or watery to "full" or thick. Normally, as the alcohol content of a beer increases, so does the body (also referred to as "mouthfeel"). Remember that beer is mostly water anyway. The malt used in production gives the beer its body.

5. Bouquet. This may appear similar to aroma (above) but there are differences. Open your senses for the presence of orange, coffee, spices, port and a plethora of others. These various smells, also called "nose," are linked to the types of grains and strains of yeast used. There is no best bouquet for a beer. Chefs and those who host beer dinners usually are proficient at matching foods with beer.

6. Carbonation. The lighter beers, such as lagers and wheats, carry the most fizziness, in general. The stronger the beer, the less carbonation is found.

7. Hops vs. Malt. Malt provides sweetness, hops give bitterness. Do you taste the sweetness initially only to have it give way to a bittering at the end? There is no single correct composite as many beers are made with a specific sensation the brewer wants to achieve. Remember, beer isn't one-dimensional; it is made of assorted combinations.

8. Finish. After your first sip, does the taste linger and is it pleasant? Is it too dry or severe or too sweet for its style? Do you detect any unpleasant tastes or even no aftertaste? Does the flavor linger or disappear immediately? Sometimes defects are difficult to catch and often come across in the impression that something just isn't right.

9. Overall Impressions. Purely subjective and in its simplest form: did you like the beer and would you drink it again?

If you've followed all or even some of the above points, you are well on your way to becoming an educated beer consumer. My guess is that you also will have discovered other nuances such as proper serving temperature, types of glassware to use (please, don't ever drink good beer from the bottle!) and much more. Enjoy the journey!

®Gary Monterosso. All Rights Reserved

Gary Monterosso