Ben Stange on November 5, 2014 2 Comments Sometimes, it just feels good to crack open a beer, pour it in a glass, and drink it. Just enjoy it for enjoyment’s sake. Other times, though, it’s important to get the full sensory experience of the beer, which takes a bit more attention and a bit of knowledge on how to get the most out of a beer. One of the most important skills a home brewer needs to refine their craft is the ability to evaluate a beer. While anyone who brews their own is capable of cracking one open and deciding whether or not they like the beer they have made, it takes a more refined approach to really understand what you are tasting and how to address potential problems you might find when tasting your beer. Discussing what each of the potential flavors in your glass are telling you about what went wrong will be an entirely different article. In the meantime, we should start with the basics of evaluating a beer. To get started, I recommend using a beer you really love, whether it is a home brewed stout or your favorite commercial IPA. The Setup is Important First, make sure the beer is being served at an appropriate temperature in the appropriate glass. It is also very important to make sure your beer glass is very clean. If you see sediment or oils on the side of your glass, the glass is not clean enough for your beer. This is beer that you made, remember? It deserves respect. If the glass is dirty or you are unsure if it is clean enough, there’s an easy trick to removing most oils and soapy residues from beer glasses. Add a small amount of baking soda to the bottom of the glass and add some hot water. Wash the glass carefully inside and out with the baking soda, periodically looking through the glass to ensure visible residues are removed. Once it is cleaned of residue, rinse it with cool, clean water. Allow it to air dry or dry it manually with a clean paper towel. Once you are sure your beer glass is clean and your beer is ready to pour, crack open the bottle and pour carefully. Pour down the side of the glass for the first half of your sample, and then straighten the glass and pour right down the middle. Make sure to leave enough room in the glass to capture the aroma and allow some room for swirling. Pour slowly and smoothly as to not disturb the sediment at the bottom of the bottle. If it is bottle-conditioned homebrew, there will be yeast in the bottom that you may not want in the glass. However, don’t avoid the head. It needs the head to get you that amazing aroma. Look at the Beer I mean really take the time and look at it, observing its color, clarity, and the color and consistency of the head. Don’t hold it up to bright light, as that will change your perception of the color and clarity. Ask yourself questions about the appearance of the beer. Does it seem thick with a creamy head? Are the bubbles in the head large or small? Do they dissipate quickly? Is the color of the beer dark or light? Is it ruby in color, or more like straw? It the beer clear or hazy? Make a note of these qualities in your brewing journal or your beer journal. Swirl the Beer Gently in the Glass After you have taken your notes, the head may have dissipated significantly. If so, it will be important to gently swirl the beer in the glass to stimulate the release of carbonation, which will carry the aroma of the beer. Do this gently, as it doesn’t take much agitation to release aroma and you don’t want to flatten the beer. Continue to look at the beer while you do this. Smell It It’s important. 90-95% of what you experience when tasting a beer is through your sense of smell. Breathe in through your nose in two quick sniffs, and then do it again with your mouth open, then with just your mouth. Your nose and mouth are connected in the experience of smelling, but each organ senses the particles which make up aroma differently, so using them independently and together will help you pick up more subtlety. Agitate it again in between sniffs if you need to. Finally, we Taste Now it is time to sip the beer. Don’t swallow yet. Let it wander over your tongue, filling your mouth and covering your entire palate. Feel your taste buds wake up and stretch to the flavors, and pay attention to how the beer “feels” in your mouth, paying attention to carbonation and body. Breathe out while tasting the beer, as this releases retained stimulations at a warmer temperature, allowing you to perceive more complexity. Look for sweetness, salty flavors, tart acids, and bitterness. Use associations to try and place the flavors, such as butterscotch or caramel, plums, grapes, figs, or chocolate. Citrus flavors such as limes, grapefruit, and orange may also be common. As you sip your beer, note how this experience changes as it warms up. Try agitating and smelling and tasting again as you go along. Colder temperatures mask some subtle flavors in beer. Those flavors become more pronounced as the beer warms, resulting in a fuller experience. If you’re evaluating your own homebrew, make sure and take good notes as to what the final product is like. Keeping a brewing journal will not only allow you to remember which recipes you liked the most, it will help you troubleshoot your brewing process to reduce off-flavors and improve the consistency and quality of your beer. Once you’re confident that you’ve taken the full measure of the beer, feel free to gulp away. It is beer, after all, and is meant to be enjoyed as such. After all, even the pros usually prefer drinking beer to the painstaking process of careful evaluation.