Posted on October 16, 2012 by Marina

Learning how to taste beer will deepen your appreciation for the craft of brewing and the attention to detail that goes into perfecting each sample. After all, there are many appearances, smells, tastes, and mouthfeels associated with each sample and it takes a certain skill to be able to distinguish them.

So, what are some beer tasting tips?

Meet Trish Yee, Steam Whistle Quality Control specialist and host of Steam Whistle taste panels as she gives tips on what it takes to host a taste panel.


Anyone who has ever experienced the delight of a pint will understand what I mean when I say beer is a many-splendored thing.  Four basic ingredients (i.e. malt, water, yeast, and hops) can be combined to produce countless beers with different appearances, smells, tastes, and mouthfeels.  We can learn so much about a beer with some basic tasting knowledge.  We could use these skills to identify which beers we enjoy so we can drink it again, learn how to pair beer with food, pick out the stylistic differences between and within beer styles, or, like me, you just want to learn more because you love beer.  Happily, I find that this attitude is becoming more commonplace as craft beers become more accessible to the conscientious consumer of the 21st century.

A Little Bit about Me and What You’ll Need

As a “Good Beer Folk” happily tinkering away in the Quality Control Lab at Steam Whistle Brewing, I thought I was aptly positioned to put my chemical engineering background, experience running Taste Panels, and my foodie sentiments to good use.  In the following paragraphs, I hope to provide you, the dear reader, with some basic knowledge and tools for increased sensory enjoyment of beer.  It might all seem like common sense, but grab a beer and appropriate glassware, find a calm and generally scent-free environment and follow along.  Please feel free to apply these techniques the next time you’re at your local watering hole; see if this doesn’t give you a greater appreciation for the complexities and subtleties that go into crafting your favourite brews.

Before we begin, something you should keep at the forefront of your mind is that sensory analysis involves more than just your sense of taste.  Use all the senses at your disposal – sound, sight, smell, taste, and feel.  Don’t think about right or wrong answers; this is a very personal process and only you know whether you like something or not.  You are actually a much more sensitive piece of equipment than all our lab instruments combined, so quash those doubts now!  Alright, now grab your beer, glass, and opener.


Sensing and Analyzing

Step 1

The anticipation starts when you crack open that cold bottle of beer (for optimal flavour, enjoy Steam Whistle Pilsner at 4-8°C) and hear the clink of the bottle cap falling on the table.  The hiss of gases escaping from the mouth of the bottle hopefully indicates that it is still well-carbonated.  As you pour your beer into the glass, achieving a nice rocky foam head, take note of the colour and consistency of both the beer and its foam.  If you wish, leave some room in the glass so you can briefly swirl your beer to release more of the aromatics.

Step 2

Take a few quick sniffs of the beer to pull the aromas into your nose, and give yourself a moment to process the sensations.  Can you pick out the malty aromas such as grainy or nutty, or identify the floral or citrus of the hops?

Step 3

Now assess the beer in the glass and take note of its clarity and colour.  Is it clear like a Pilsner, hazy like a wheat beer, or opaque like a stout?  Similarly dependent on the type of beer, the colour can range from light yellow to jet black.  Hopefully, all this visual stimuli has whet your appetite for the tasting portion…

Step 4

Take a quick and casual sip to warn your brain that it’s time to focus on flavours.  Now take another small mouthful.  This time, allow the liquid to spend a longer period on all areas of your tongue.  The mechanisms for tasting salty and sour are simpler, so you might notice the acidity of the beer first.  The sweet and bitter sensations should be apparent soon after.
Ask yourself these questions:
Can you taste the residual sugars from the malt?  As you swallow and the beer hits the back of your tongue, can you taste the hop bitterness?  When taken together, do you think the sweetness and the bitterness achieve a nice balance?  Overall, does the beer taste fresh?

Step 5

At this point, you will probably have also analyzed the mouthfeel of the beer.  The carbonation of the beer will affect the bubble sizes, so you might get that crisp sting on your tongue with high carbonation and small bubbles, fullness with bigger bubbles, creamy smoothness, or even flat beer in unfortunate situations.  Paired with the residual sugars in the beer, the density and viscosity of the beer will give you a mouthfeel range from thin to full-bodied. Before you finish swallowing the beer, try exhaling through your nose as you complete the swallow.  This approach is sometimes called, “retronasal” stimulation, and works by forcing beer aroma through your nasal passage as it warms in your mouth.

Step 6

Finally, you are left with the aftertastes of the beer.  Certain compounds in beer can contribute to a slight feeling of oiliness, a puckering and drying of the mouth (e.g. like the feeling you get after drinking tea that has been steeped for too long), or a sweet coating of sugars (try smacking your lips).  Depending on the type of beer, there might also be a lingering bitterness, sweetness, or the warmth of alcohol.  Hopefully, you are left wanting more, so take another sip, and enjoy it all over again.

With these few basic tips, you should now be better armed to take on the great and varied world of beer.