A beginner’s guide to judging beer

While looks might not be a top priority, a visual assessment can tell you a lot about the beer and what to expect.

Summertime is quickly approaching and with it comes endless opportunities to check out outdoor beer gardens and taste this year’s summer brews. Here in Philly, great local breweries are serving up some seriously delicious flagship beers, as well as seasonal varieties with hints of fruit flavors for a taste of summer. With so many unique beers and breweries to sample, we’ve gathered a list of tips to help you become an amateur beer taster and adequately judge different beers.

While beer judging is a serious business with official courses and certifications, these are just some starters to help you get a feel for assessing brews and expanding your beer vocabulary. With the tips below in mind, take the time to try multiple types of beers and brewers to develop a taste for the variations in flavors and expand your beer reference repertoire.

Olfactory Assessment

The first step in judging a beer, other than general taste or enjoyment of beer, is to smell the beer once it is opened or poured. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever tried to drink a beer with a cold, or while holding his or her nose. Without scent, you lose a significant part of beer’s complex and multifaceted flavor profile. A beer’s scent is the perfect way to prepare your palate to accurately taste the intricacies of the brew’s subtle flavors. Temperature and time out of the bottle affect the scent of the beer, so be sure to inhale its mouthwatering aroma the moment your beer is poured and before it dissipates. Take time to assess the way a beer’s scent titillates your taste buds and identify any surprising taste or flavor infusions you can pick up. It's important to note that beers out of a can, bottle or tap will all smell different. Sometimes a can will give the beer an "aluminum" quality.

When assessing a beer’s scent, two things to look for initially are the malt and hops, which should be easily identified by your nose. A malt aroma will be a sweet, caramel-like scent permeating from the beer. A hops scent will be identified by more herbal, earthy, or even spicy notes when you sniff. The hops aroma can vary based on how much hops was added and if aromatic hops were used in the creation of the beer. 

Visual Assessment

While looks might not be a top priority, a visual assessment can tell you a lot about the beer and what to expect, most of the time. For a darker beer like a brown ale or stout, the darker color should tip you off that the beer will likely have a fuller body of flavor and could consist of more malt than a lighter beer. Additionally, amber beers such as amber ales tend to have medium levels of malty-ness in comparison to a dark beer and less of a hops or earthy flavor than a lighter beer. 

Lighter beers, leaning closer to a light or translucent orange or yellow, tend to be more earthy and less sweet in flavor. A "cloudy" beer in the orange or yellow variety is most likely a Weiss beer or Hefeweizen, which will have more citrus-forward flavors like lemon or orange. While some beers don’t adhere to these color and flavor distinctions, it is a good place to start when learning to assess different beers.

Flavor Assessment

Taking a sip and getting a feel for the taste of the beer is where the work really happens when it comes to judging beer. Don’t take gulps of the drink but rather light sips to get a feel for the flavor. Swish it around your mouth so that the beer touches all of the flavor sections of your mouth. Our tongue's receptors or taste buds can identify multiple elements of flavor including sweet, bitter, salty, sour, and umami, all of which account for deliciousness. All of these flavors can work as a guide for you to identify your beer’s profile. This is also where developing a denser beer vocabulary and taste experience can help you differentiate and identify beers.

The flavor or taste assessment is where you’ll make note of the beer’s hoppy-ness and yeast flavors. Is the beer sweeter or more malt-like tasting? For a fall or flavored brew, do you note any hints of fruits such as blueberry or lemon? Take note of any unique or interesting tastes or experiences. The more beers you try, the more you’ll be able to understand the flavor variations in what makes a good beer. 

Enjoyment Assessment

Once you’ve worked out the flavor profiles and taken notes on the beer’s initial scent and overall taste in your mouth, it’s also valuable to assess your enjoyment of drinking the beer. Was there too much carbonation, which made you wince slightly when taking a sip? Was this possibly the best beer you've ever tasted? Did you love the mix of ginger and lemon to complement the body of the beer? All these things will help you make an overall judgement of the beer you’re drinking. While this might not account for real competitive beer judging, for an amateur judger this can be a great guide to get a start on trying new beers and noticing unique flavor combinations as well as knowing the types of beers you would enjoy judging.

Now that you’ve got the gist of beer judging, use your newly acquired skills to sample the brews at the 8th annual Taste of the Brewvitational, on May 11, 2017, from 7:00 – 9:00 p.m. at the Reading Terminal Market. At this inaugural public event, more than three dozen local breweries will be offering samples of their beers and attendees will vote for their favorite Flagship beer. In addition, two dozen Reading Terminal vendors will be offering beer-friendly small plates and event merchandise for sale. 

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