Tasting Craft Beer
Here’s what to look for and note in your journal
The three components of a beer’s appearance are clarity, color, and foam. Clarity ranges from clear to hazy to so cloudy you can’t see through the beer. Color can be light, medium, or dark. For foam, consider the texture, amount, and how long it lasts. The attendant will tell you how the type of beer you’re tasting should appear—so you can judge whether it’s successful or not.
You’ll get the best sense of a beer’s aroma right after it’s poured. You’re looking for characteristics of malt, which can smell like baked goods, roast coffee, or chocolate; hops, which has plant-related scents like citrus, pine, hay, herbs, or spice; and yeast, which can be fruity or spicy like bananas, oranges, cloves, or pepper.
In addition to the flavors you noted in the aroma, when tasting, you’ll also find elements of sweetness, bitterness, and balance. Also, pay attention to the same qualities you noticed in aroma, and note which you taste most. Is it mostly malt? Mostly hops? Mostly fermentation?
Here you’re paying attention to the body of the beer. Is it a really light, crisp beer, or is it full and chewy? Carbonation also comes into play. Some will have really low carbonation; others are super-effervescent. Also notice the creaminess—is it velvety?—or astringency, and whether it warms you as you drink.
This plays into both aroma and taste. If the beer isn’t well brewed, it will feel and taste solvent-y and hot. But if the alcohol is well integrated, you’ll find some nice sweetness or even roselike, floral tones.
Appearance, aroma, taste, mouthfeel, and alcohol content are more objective observations—you shouldn’t make any judgments when noticing them. But the overall impression is subjective: It’s what you feel after tasting, when you sum it all up and decide whether you like the beer or not.
What does “craft” really mean?
Webster’s dictionary defines craft as “an activity that involves making something in a skillful way by using your hands.” But the Brewers Association defines a craft brewery as an independently owned, “small” brewery—one that produces 6,000,000 barrels or fewer—that uses traditional ingredients and processes. “But that definition says nothing about quality, and some small operations don’t fit under the guidelines,” says Michael Agnew, a Certified Cicerone and author of A Perfect Pint’s Beer Guide to the Heartland.