How to taste craft beer
Posted on April 28 2021
Enjoying a fresh, thirst-quenching beer is one of life's finest pleasures. The sheer bliss of a refreshing craft beer that hits the spot is – for many – the pinnacle of beer drinking. But what if that was only half the story? What if, armed with a smidge of knowledge and a dash of curiosity, beer-drinking could be so much more?
Enter, then, the world of craft beer tasting. A wonderful intersection between taste, aroma, colour and knowledge that can help you fully appreciate great beer. No matter whether it's a rich, chocolatey-coffee porter, a creamy, tropical, hazy milkshake IPA, or a tart, complex sour beer that upends your entire preconceptions of what a beer tastes like, knowing how to taste craft beer is a skill worth learning.
Why learn how to taste craft beer?
Sure, great beer is there to be enjoyed with mates, accompany a nice meal and to celebrate life's events. Yet beer is also begging to be explored. Knowing what to look for and why a craft beer engages all your senses is a eureka moment that means you'll make more informed, knowledgeable choices when choosing craft beers in the future.
The good news is that tasting craft beer doesn't have the elitism that many people often associate with wine tasting. Craft beer tasting is inclusive. It's accessible. It's welcoming for newcomers. And because craft breweries are continually pushing the envelope and experimenting, it's an ever-changing taste landscape. That's why a little know-how when it comes to beer tasting can help you enjoy craft beer more.
Don't worry. You won't need a mountain of specialist equipment or any previous experience. While a proper craft beer tasting glass helps – the craftmaster glass included in a Brew Republic craft beer subscription is ideal – an open mind is far more important.
To help, we've enlisted Brew Republic's in-house Certified Cicerone & beer judge Jared to equip you with everything you need, straight from the source.
Craft beer temperature
The first rule of craft beer tasting club: temperature matters.
It's important that beer is served at the right temperature, so you'll need to pump the brakes a little and wait after retrieving a chilled can from the fridge. The right temperature allows the flavours to really shine – the actual temperature depends on the style of craft beer your drinking.
- Pale Lager – Best enjoyed chilled. Aim to wait a few minutes when taking out of a 5°C fridge for it to warm slightly to around 7°C
- IPA – Wait slightly longer with an IPA, as the ideal serving temperature is around 8°C-9°C
- Traditional Ale – This is best enjoyed after a longer spell out of the fridge, and the same applies for bitter. Aim for a drinking temperature of around 10°C-12°C.
- Stouts – Best enjoyed around 10°C-12°C but many come alive at a positively balmy 15°C.
Temperature affects beer in several ways:
- If beer is too cold – Taste can be compromised, resulting in a flat drink due to the carbonation not releasing into solution – while refreshing – means you miss out on the complex flavours and aromas.
- If beer is too warm – Left to warm too much, and the result can tend towards a more sticky, overly sweet and sickly taste that feels flabby in the mouth.
"Temperature certainly changes depending on the style you’re drinking and how beers are stored," says Jared. "Lager should be relatively cold when you need the refreshment. Malty, Imperial stouts can age gracefully at cellar temps, 10°C-12°C, but lower abv versions do best in the fridge still” . Hoppy beers can see the hops fade, so keep them fresh and in the fridge as well."
Pouring craft beer
Contrary to popular belief, all beers are pretty much poured in the same way, according to Jared.
"Beers are typically poured at 45 degrees, and don’t touch the lip of the glass or bottle, it’s an etiquette and hygiene thing" says Jared. "Tip the glass vertically as your about ¾ through your pour – this is what builds the head. Having a “beer clean” glass is, however, the most important aspect."
Stuck for a 'proper' craft beer tasting glass. No worries. A traditional wine glass for an aromatic beer is a surprising substitute that works well, according to Jared.
Beer poured? Take a moment to appreciate the colour, its carbonation and whether it is a clear liquid or a more unfiltered, hazy beer.
"Colour can run the gamut from pale and clear to hazy IPAs that are very cloudy," says Jared. And colour can give an indication of the brewing process and the type of flavours you may encounter.
"Hazy beer such as New England IPAs are intentionally made this way," explains Jared. "The addition of lots of oats give and protein heavy malts give a very creamy texture and a hazy appearance. A lot more hops are added at the end and that equals a lot of aroma."
They say that you taste with your nose, and this is especially true when it comes to learning how to taste craft beer. Taste and aroma are intrinsically linked.
With aroma a crucial part of the overall tasting experience, unsurprisingly there are lots of schools of thought in how to best capture the aroma. All are valid. You may be a long draw and sniff fan, or opt for shorter, quicker bursts of inhalation.
However your nose works, the best bet according to Jared is to simply cover the glass with your hand, give it a bit of a swirl to allow the aroma to build, then uncover and inhale.
The actual tasting
Time for a sip. Actually, to truly get a full-on taste, a sip isn't enough. Instead, take a decent mouthful and ensure it coats the entire tongue – it'll swamp your tastebuds in flavour, then, exhale through the nose.
Knowing what to taste – and how malt, hops and yeast play a role – is the most important.
The malts – "The cereals and grains that make the alcohol is a bit similar to baking bread and the resulting taste," explains Jared. "When you bake bread it goes from raw flour to being proved, then in the oven, going from white to brown, getting nuttier as it bakes. This is similar to the malt spectrum. Malt tastes range from light dough through nutty and toasty to charred and chocolatey."
The hops – "Hops used to be a bit simpler," says Jared. "It was either German hops – floral, maybe a little spicy – or woody, earthy English hops. But, American hops opened up a whole new world of citrus, tropical and fruit aromas and tastes. These are a fruit salad of hops. More recently, New World hops from Australia and New Zealand are very wine-like, with aromas and tastes of kiwi and white grape. Hops generally add bitterness when added at the beginning of the boil, but when added to the back of the process such as with modern, hazy and New England style IPAs, this actually eliminates some of the bitterness, resulting in more tropical, citrus characters with very little bitterness in a lot of cases."
- The yeast – "Yeast is a huge component in beer, more than wine," explains Jared. "It dictates what kind of beer the brew is going to be. Lager yeasts are very clean with not much yeast character. Ale yeasts adds tons of flavour and aroma. And yeasts have different characteristics. In Belgian beer, for example, you can experience fruity – apple, pear, peach – and spices such as cloves and pepper, sometimes resulting in an earthiness and funkiness."
"Find the bready maltiness, its yeast character and how these are layered," advises Jared. "Length and finish is important and how long it stays with you. For example, you might taste a brighter, hoppy character first – all lemon and citrus – but end with a malty, bread, caramel finish."
How you describe its taste can be difficult for newcomers. That doesn't matter, says Jared. Don't worry about trying to decipher the 'official' flavours. Simply concentrate on what you taste and run with your own description. You can then track down the terminology that equates to the descriptions that make sense to you.
The aim is to discover tastes and styles that you enjoy and appreciate while discovering why it tastes how it does – from the malts used to the stage hops are introduced. By knowing how to taste craft beer, you can confidently expand your palate with different beers, matching the perfect beer to the right occasion – from a tap room gathering with a few mates to perfectly pairing with a meal.