Tasting Beer

Like wine, beer has many styles and flavor characteristics. Unfortunately, many only know beer by the one or two styles that have been mass-produced and branded under hundreds of different campaigns. You know who I’m talking about. You can’t watch a Super Bowl without seeing their advertising. We say unfortunately, because it’s caused a false impression about beer that is best described with this quote.

“I don’t like the taste of beer” – said too many people

While it could be true that some people won’t like any beer you put in front of them, it’s actually more rare than you might think. Taste is the key factor in the quote above. Which allows the opposite perception of beer to be proven more true every day. We hear “that tastes good, I could drink that” spoken by the very people that routinely said the former.

If you’ve ever said, or hang out with folks that say…

  • ‘Beer is all the same, it’s just not for me’
  • I don’t like dark beers, they’re too _________ (strong, bitter, smokey, boozy)
  • I can’t drink IPAs they’re too ________ (hoppy, bitter, dank, etc.).

… You/They might be surprised to learn beer is more diverse than wine & easier to produce consistently over time. And, if you keep reading this article, you’ll be more prepared to make good beer decisions instead of more bad ones. (Assuming you don’t like it because the ones you’ve tried were bad.) We’re preparing you for the Beer Battle of Wits, you’ll have way more knowledge than the Average Joe/Jane.

Let’s Get Ready to Rumble… Beer Battle of Wits Training.

At the start of this article we mentioned wine and beer in the same sentence. We did it purposefully. Many regard wine as only for someone with a refined palette for tasting wine correctly. Beer drinkers might want to think about beer being more like wine vs water. It can be paired with food and has more similarities with wine than differences regarding how you should drink beer.

If you come into Kinetic and want to try a beer you’ve never had before, or perhaps you’re new to craft beer in general, here are a few things to be aware of.

The Big Points to consider…

Drinking temperature should match style
Like wine, not all beer should be drank at frigid temperatures. In fact some beers suggest super cold blue mountains to mask natural off-putting flavors and aromas that occur when brewed for mass-production instead of quality. Some don’t realize that beer is often poured at a temperature closer to 50-60° F in the parts of the world that invented the oldest beer styles. If we’re trying to taste what they made throughout history, we should serve it at the temperature they served it. For those that don’t know, commercial refrigeration didn’t exist back then. Even for newer styles, because some flavors are muted at lower temperatures, chocolate stouts or porters for example, often taste more rich and flavorful when allowed to reach 50-60° F.

Glass should match style, if possible
Glassware has been designed to emphasize certain aspects of beer tasting, aroma being one of the most common priorities. So if you drink from a Red plastic cup, a can, or a bottle, you’re not a bad person – you’re just less likely to get all that beer has to offer. Or perhaps better stated, your experience will be diminished in some way if you don’t use the glass best for that style.

Ingredients do matter
Real ingredients are harder to work with but often yield the best finished product. Flavor, Aroma, Bitterness, Color, Finish etc., will all be affected by the ingredients used. Remember, in any battle, knowing is half of it. Know what you’re drinking.

Your taste buds can only take so much
If you start with a forcefully-hopped, high hop bitterness beer it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to taste anything very accurately, but the beer in front of you, for some time. So, if you’re doing a beer tasting flight, it’s often suggested to start with the most balanced styles first and work outward from there. When you reach the extremes, the very sweet and the very hoppy examples, you’re probably better off going with the sweet beer first. It’ll fade more quickly than the most hoppy examples.

On this note, the scale for bitterness is helpful but not perfect. The IBU or ‘International Bittering Units’ scale assigns a grade to beer bitterness to better compare beers to one another. A beer that hits in the 70-100 IBU range is far more bitter than something in the 20-40 range. Many beers considered ‘balanced’ will be somewhere in the 25-50 IBU range.

Ultimately, taste it and judge for yourself. Some beers labeled 70+ IBU aren’t as bitter as they’d suggest, and likewise some < 20 IBU are more bitter than you’d expect. Why? Not all bitterness comes from hops, which we get into a bit more as you read further.

Trying New Things…

It should be said that each beer category has a spectrum of flavor profiles within it. Some specific beers are very close to the strict style guidelines and others are more creative and loose interpretations. There is a freedom in craft beer that affords some wonderful creativity and experimentation. So, if you’ve had one dark beer and it was really smokey for example, just ask for something that isn’t smoked next time, you might be surprised how many dark beers you could really enjoy. Also, it’s totally cool to ask for a taster to start, be sure you like it before you buy a whole pint.

One suggestion, don’t always ask for a style like ‘gimme your IPA, or Red, etc.’  Instead, decide what you’re willing to try and use the terms below to identify for the staff what you want from your beer.

← Malt ForwardBalancedHop Forward →
SweetStrong MaltLight MaltLight HopStrong HopBitter*
* All bitterness doesn’t always come from Hops. The chart above is good but not perfect. Take into consideration you might like hop bitterness but not smoked bitterness. Smoked bitterness doesn’t come from hops but is rather a flavor characteristic attributed to a malt roasting technique. Think burnt toast. Yes, in some beers it is desirable to have these flavors.

Understanding where flavors come from is pretty important. 
Sometimes you’ll see the name of a fruit in a beer name and immediately think it’s a beer that tastes like that ingredient. That’s not necessarily the case. Just ask your server, how dominant or forward is the flavor? Also of note, just because a beer tastes like citrus doesn’t necessarily mean citrus is actually in the beer. In fact, most of the citrus you’ll taste in a beer style is more likely due to the specific hops used in the recipe.

Malts can smell & taste like: Dark Chocolate, Coffee, Tobacco, Licorice, Tea, Toffee, Raisin, Caramel, Bread, Honey, Biscuit and others.

Hops can smell & taste like: Berries, Pepper, Herbal, Pine, Grass, Citrus, Tropical Fruit, Stone Fruit and others.

Staying Within a Style…

It’s probably true, if you’ve been around craft beer for any significant amount of time, you’ve probably formed a short list of favorites. We all do it. Sometimes, we find a beer within a style and then explore that style in more depth. For example, when you tried Afterburner for the first time. We hear regularly, that for many, that experience encouraged an exploration of the India Pale Ale category.

Whatever your inspiration for tasting within a style, we want to make one suggestion & we want to be clear… Try not to compare IPA example 1 to IPA example 2, but rather do the comparison against what each example claims to be. If an IPA claims to be a ‘West Coast IPA’ it wouldn’t be appropriate to say an IPA claiming to be ‘East Coast IPA’ is somehow inferior. Subjectively, you’re probably going to form a preference, which is fine and reasonable. But, as you drink more beer within a style, you’ll see sub-styles emerge with aims for different flavors so it makes sense distinct variety would exist and could be celebrated.