With more than 6,000 breweries in the United States and more coming every day, the craft beer shelves are groaning under the weight of hundreds of tempting—if confusing—choices. Beer labels barely describe the beer, let alone say anything about its quality. Staring at the crowded shelves, our eyes go crossed, and we randomly reach for a new beer to try. As a result, a number of online beer review sites such as RateBeer, Untappd and BeerAdvocate have stepped in to fill the void.
In a perfect world, this would be a great thing. In reality, the usefulness of any review depends on the skill, vocabulary and bias of the reviewer. In addition, these are not blind tastings, and raters inevitably bring their bias and preconceptions to bear. Reviews can even be something of a popularity contest as people pile on to show their true fan status, which sometimes means that highly rated brewers can do no wrong, no matter the actual beer.
Since the bulk of the content on these sites comes from the reviewers, the detail and accuracy of the ratings can be improved as the participants get more experience and hone their technique, vocabulary and attention. If you’re an online reviewer and truly care about the quality of the information there, for the sake of your brewery friends and your own beer journey, it is worth some effort to make sure you’re posting the best, clearest and most accurate reviews you can.
Becoming a better taster is also an enjoyable journey for its own sake, giving you insight into all foods and drinks, not just beer. And drinking deeply of all these pleasures is what life’s all about, right?
So where to start? I say with the beer right in front of you.
If you haven’t ever tasted beer blind, enlist some help to open bottles and cans in the next room and serve the beers in identical unmarked glasses. Wine glasses are great, but any glass that curves inward at the top will work. Fill no more than half full so the aroma can accumulate in the upper half.
A checklist or form can remind you to cover all the sensations beer has to offer with every review. Tasting/judging forms can be found at my own website, as well as the Beer Judge Certification Program’s site. So go ahead and pour that beer, and get started.
First, give the beer a very delicate sniff from a few inches away and see if you can smell anything. Some lighter aromatics present themselves best this way, including skunky mercaptans and other sulfur compounds. Next, swirl the glass a little and get your nose in there for a few quick sniffs. Focus on as many different smells as you can detect. Record them under the heading of aroma, using whatever words pop into your head; these first impressions are nearly always correct. Try to go from general to specific, like fruity > tropical > mango + pineapple. Look for aroma contributions from these areas:
Malt: bready, cracker, cookie, caramel, toast, roast, coffee, chocolate
Hops: pine/resin, dank, citrus (orange, lemon, grapefruit), fruit, tropical, herbal
Yeast: fruity, clove/allspice, white pepper
Other: wood, specialty ingredients, wild/sour fermentations
Flaws (generally): buttery, creamed corn, Band-Aid, vinegar, cheesy, goaty, papery (oxidation)
We’ll come back to aroma for a second shot, but for now get that beer in your mouth. Don’t swallow too quickly; let it warm up and make an effort to get the liquid all over the inside of your mouth. Wine experts “chew” their wine for this reason. We’re looking for a couple of things at first: taste and mouthfeel. Beer tastes can be sweet, sour, bitter, acidic and possibly salty. Pay attention to the way this changes over time. Bitterness will take the longest to build and will linger for a while.
Mouthfeel is also important. In beer we’re specifically looking for carbonation, creaminess/oiliness, crispness and for any tannic astringency, which usually lingers after most everything else is gone. Astringency, if delicate, can be a pleasing quality (think of red wine), but is undesirable when harsh. Again, write all this down in as much detail as you can muster. Here it might be appropriate to comment about the overall balance of the beer. Are things in harmony or out of whack? Is it a one-note samba?
Take another sip, fill your mouth and swallow gently. Then, exhale through your nose with your lips closed and you’ll likely get a strong impression that may be somewhat different than your first sniff. This is called retronasal olfaction, and your brain has now combined aroma, taste and mouthfeel and presented it to you as something called flavor. Whatever you call it, the complexities come from aroma, so comment on these under the aroma heading.
It’s appropriate to describe the appearance, although you should know that this may be deceptive, as colors do not always match flavor. Also important (and style-dependent) are things like clarity and head retention.
Make some comments about how this beer lives up to the description on the label or to the style it claims to be. The latter obviously requires some knowledge of what makes different beer styles tick. Most competitions are judged by style, just like a dog show. The competition guidelines from the BJCP or Great American Beer Festival are available online for free and are great resources.
Styles relate to all of beer’s sensory characteristics: aroma, taste, balance, appearance, overall impact, alcohol, mouthfeel and more, and what’s appropriate in one style may be very unwelcome in another. It’s a heartbreaking fact that there’s often a fabulous beer on the judging table that is just not quite right for the style. I sometimes take one wistful goodbye sip before dumping into the bucket of infamy and moving on. For a brewery, knowing how to enter beer can sometimes be as important as the brewing.
At the end, make some general comments. Is this a well-conceived beer or a mess? Is it well crafted or flawed?
If you can find a printed date code, please make a note of it. It’s deeply unfair to brewers to slam a beer that’s old or has been mishandled along the way. Even if you don’t know the age, the signs of staleness are pretty consistent and easy to learn: wet newspaper or weird honey-like sweetness; saddle leather character most common in amber and brown beers; a blackcurrant/grape jelly aroma in hoppy beers. Learn these warning signs, and your own beer experience will improve dramatically. Make a note of those when you’re reviewing, and let people know the sample was not pristine. No brewer’s beers are immune to the ravages of time and temperature. It probably tasted much better at the brewery.
Now, go back and read your review before you post, and give it a gut check. If you have given numerical scores, do they jibe with what the point ranges generally mean, from world class to dumper? You really want to choose carefully and make sure the numbers align with your experience. There’s nothing to prove by being either a hard-ass or super-fan. We’re looking for ruthless honesty here, nothing more, nothing less. Also be aware that numbers reduce beer’s endless complexity to almost nothing, so in your reviews, try to be descriptive and help people tell if this is something they might like, numbers be damned.
It’s hard to be dispassionate. While it’s fun to root for brewers you may know or like or punish those you may feel are over-hyped, in the end the job is to comment on this one beer, not the brewery. Brewing is hard work, and owning a brewery these days is often a white-knuckle ride. The people I know in the business put their hearts and souls into the effort. I guess the golden rule applies here. Treat brewers the way you would like to be treated.
There are plenty of resources that can help one become a better taster. There are books that cover the basics as well as technique, vocabulary and styles. Programs like the BJCP and Cicerone Certification Program offer training and certification for those who want to get serious about being a beer expert. If you have never judged beer in a formal setting, I urge you to try. It’s an eye-opening and quite humbling experience that will remind you in the most fun possible way that nobody knows it all.
Randy Mosher is the author of Tasting Beer and is a senior instructor at the Siebel Institute.