Beer Tasting Guide

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The official KegWorks beer tasting guide – complete with our best beer tasting tips and sampling methods.

Beer Tasting Guide

How to Choose Beer

If you (or your guests) are new to the world of craft beer, you’ll want to start with “crossover” beers (lighter styles like lagers/pilsners and blonde ales) that are similar to the beer that you know. Bolder styles and over-the-top hoppy beers can be a bit of a shock when you don’t know what you’re in for.

It’s good to drink what you like. Experimenting can be fun but if you find yourself gravitating to a certain style of beer you should investigate that style the best you can.

When you’re organizing a tasting, it’s important to remember that themes are good. Whether you do a flight from your favorite brewery, a style comparison or seasonal brews it’s much easier to select great beers when you’re working within a theme.

Check out these basic style suggestions to get started:

Pale Ales

A couple of our favorites: Honker’s Ale (Goose Island), Saranac Pale Ale (The Matt Brewing Company), Gray Whale Ale (Pacific Coast Brewing) London Pride (Fuller’s)
  • American Pale Ales – Range from gold to light copper in color and characterized by high hop bitterness, flavor and aroma. Slightly less malty than the English Pale Ales. Like their British counterparts, they have a strong fruity-ester flavor and aroma.

A couple of our favorites: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Mirror Pond Pale Ale (Deschutes Brewing), Alaskan Pale Ale, Alpha King (Three Floyds)
  • Belgian Pale Ales – Similar to the other pale ales but more spicy and aromatic in regards to the malt and yeast. There’s a low but noticeable hop bitterness, flavor and aroma.

Our favorite: De Koninick (De Koninick, Belgium)

India Pale Ales (IPA)/American Amber Ales (Red Ale)/ Scotch Ales

  • India Pale Ale (IPA) – Evolved when British brewers were making beer for export to India. Distinguished by high alcohol content, full flavor and intense hop bitterness. Medium maltiness and body.

A couple of our favorites: 90 Minute IPA (Dogfish Head), Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, Anchor Liberty Ale, Lagunitas IPA
  • American Ambers (Red Ales) – Range from a copper to light brown color and typically defined more by malt than by hops. Medium to high maltiness with caramel character.

A couple of our favorites: Red Seal Ale (North Coast Brewing) , Fat Tire Amber Ale (New Belgium), Levitation Ale (Stone Brewing Company), Nugget Nectar (Troegs)
  • Scotch Ales – Lightly hopped, malty and full bodied.

A couple of our favorites: Claymore Scotch Ale (Great Divide Brewing Company) Saranac Scotch Ale (The Matt Brewing Company), Chelsea 90 Shilling Scotch Ale (Chelsea Brewing Company), Traquair House Ale

Brown Ales

  • English Brown Ales – Deep copper to brown in color with a dry to sweet maltiness, very mild hops and a nutty character.

A couple of our favorites: Newcastle Brown Ale, Nut Brown Ale (Samuel Smith’s Brewing), PMD Mild Ale (Goose Island Brewing Co.), Hobgoblin (Wychwood)
  • American Brown Ales – Like the English but with a more obvious hop aroma and increased bitterness.

A couple of our favorites: Indian Brown Ale (Dogfish Head), Brooklyn Brown (Brooklyn Brewing), Hazelnut Brown Nectar (Rogue Ales Brewery)
  • German-style Brown/Dusseldorf-style Alt Bier – Well balanced, crisp, and flavorful with fruitiness and bitterness both evident. May be highly hopped, with a malty flavor.

A couple of our favorites: Long Trail Double Bag (Long Trail Brewing Company), Ten Years Alt (Victory Brewing Company), Otter Creek Copper Ale (Otter Creek Brewing/Wolaver’s)

Beer Sampler

How to Taste Beer

There are a number of things that to consider before you sit down with a good beer. Glassware, temperature, pouring, taste and your overall drinking environment will all come into play as you’re tasting beers, however the most important thing is to have fun!

Check out the hints below for a fool-proof tasting experience:

Drinking Environment and Palate Preparation:

First of all, you’re going to want to be relaxed. You’ll do your best beer tasting in a place without a lot of distractions, even if you’re tasting with multiple people. Beer this good deserves your undivided attention, right?

An easy and simple way to “center” your palate, especially if you’re tasting multiple beers, is to have a glass of cool water (preferably spring water) on hand, along with a handful of unsalted crackers or French bread to munch on in between beers. These will help to cleanse and refresh your palate, so you can get the most out of each taste.

Also, you’ll want to avoid tasting a beer after particularly greasy or spicy meal – the shock your palate takes from that kind of food may hinder your experience. Similarly, if you smoke you'll want to hold off lighting up while tasting; cigarette or cigar smoke is murder on the tongue and it greatly affects how you taste beer.

Glassware:

When tasting a beer, glassware is always better than straight from the bottle. This is especially true if that bottle is dark colored glass, versus clear or green. Your beer will look, taste, and smell infinitely better when you enjoy it from a clean glass.

Don’t be overly concerned with pairing the proper glass to the style you are tasting. In all honesty, a standard shaker pint will suffice. Clean white wine glasses will also work well for most beers. Keep in mind, you want to be able to see the beer and admire its color and brilliance.

If you’re unsure about a glass’ cleanliness, just give it a wash in the sink. Residue leftover from a dishwasher will quickly kill the head on your beer and it can even affect the flavor.

Temperature:

When it comes to most beers, temperature has a profound effect on flavor. If your fridge is too cold, those temperatures can chill your taste buds and also enhance the carbonation, dryness and bitterness of the beer, which ultimately lowers and inhibits your perception of aroma, flavor, and body.

The right temperatures will enhance body, aromatics, mouthfeel, sweetness, acidity and flavor.
There isn’t really a hard-and-fast rule but there are a few guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Lagers are best consumed in the range of 40-45°F
  • Ales are best at around 50°F
  • Barleywines and strong ales should be enjoyed at 55-60º F or “cellar temperature”

If you want to make sure that your beer is ready, pull it out of your fridge for about 30 minutes, then taste it. If it is no longer cold, stick it in a bucket of ice water for about 15 minutes.

Pouring:

There’s one big thing to remember when it comes to the pour; beer is designed to foam. The technique you use to fill your cup at a keg party isn’t the technique you want to use now. In fact, if you pour a bottled beer down the side of your glass its carbonation won’t be fully released, and you’ll basically swallow gas.

For a proper pour hold the glass at a 45° angle and pour slowly down the side. Once the glass is about ½ full hold it straight and pour the rest of the beer right down the middle, raising the bottle smoothly.

If you’re drinking a bottle-conditioned beer, there will be a delicious (and healthy!) yeast bed on the bottom of the bottle. It’s up to you if you want to drink it with your beer. If so, simply leave about a ½ inch of beer in the bottle, give it a vigorous swirl to disturb and agitate the yeast and then pour it into your glass. If you choose to leave it be, leave about an ounce of beer in the bottle.

Tasting:

Welcome to the best part! After you’ve taken a few minutes to examine the color, clarity and head retention of the beer, give it a hefty swirl and don’t be afraid to stick your nose right in the glass. Take note of what you smell, whether it’s hops, malt or other aromatics. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge what you smell; it’s all perceptive and relative. Take a sip, and let the beer roll all around your tongue and flood your mouth. Let every edge of your palate savor the flavor, and try to recognize how it feels on the inside of your cheeks. Take a few deep breaths to try and detect more flavors your tongue might not have picked up. And before your swallow, don’t neglect to notice the body, carbonation, warmth and creaminess the beer may have. When you swallow the beer, this is your chance to feel the dryness and any aftertaste it may have. This is the moment where you’ll start to form an opinion on how enjoyable this beer was to you.

Reviewing:

If you want to remember how you feel about your beer in the morning, you may want to consider putting your thoughts down on paper as you’re tasting.

Check out How to Review Beer for everything you need, including free printable tasting note sheets.

How to Review Beer

General Protocol

As with any review process, there is certain etiquette that one must adhere to while sampling and appraising beers.

Do:

  • Remain as objective as possible to evaluate the beer properly. You should consider both your own personal reaction and what the brewer intended.
  • Make sure criticism is constructive and be respectful. Someone put a lot of thought and passion into that beer and it’s not your place to rip it apart for sport.
  • Keep an open mind as you review. If you know that you don’t like a particular style stay away from it.
  • Form your own opinion (don’t be a bandwagonner). Make sure the judgments of others don’t affect your conclusions. No one likes a copycat.
  • Be aware of your senses. To really enjoy a beer you need to be able to smell it and taste it. Don’t review beer if you have a cold, a burnt tongue, or an order of insanely hot wings on the table. You should also avoid reviewing while smoking, or if you’re in a smoky environment.

Don’t:

  • Review while you’re smashed. Your sense will be out of whack and your judgment isn’t where it needs to be.
  • Review samplers. It’s impossible to properly assess 4-ounce beers.
  • Review at beer fests. Although festivals are great fun, the sample sized portions, variety of styles and quickness of consumption make them less than ideal for reviewing.
What to Evaluate
  • Bouquet/Aroma (Malt, Hops, etc.)
  • Appearance (Color, Clarity, Head Retention)
  • Body (Mouthfeel, Light, Heavy)
  • Overall Impression (Balance and General Opinion)

Bouquet/Aroma: You must bring the beer close to your nose to really take it in. Take note of the aromatic qualities and observe what you smell as closely as you can. Here are a few questions to ponder:

  • Is it sweet, smoky, toasty or nutty? Can you pick up hints of chocolate or caramel?
  • What about the hops? Are they more grassy, citrusy, herbal, piney, resin-like or floral?

Appearance: It’s very much acceptable to judge a beer for how it looks. You’ll want to take note of the following:

  • How is the color best described?
  • What's the clarity like? Is the beer clear or cloudy?
  • How would you characterize the carbonation?
  • What kind of head retention does the beer have? How much head was there and how long did it last?

Body: You want to note how the beer feels on the palate. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is it light or heavy?
  • Can the beer be classified as thin/watery, robust, smooth or coarse?
  • What about carbonation? Did the beer seem to be flat or over carbonated?

Overall Impression: There are a lot of things to consider when you review a beer but you don’t want to lose sight of your overall impression. Remember to evaluate the beer as a whole. Here are a few things to mull over:

  • Did it smell a lot different than it tasted?
  • Did it taste a lot different than you expected?
  • Is there something in particular about it that you really liked or disliked?
  • Is it a beer that you could drink anytime, anywhere? In a small, or a large quantity?

When it comes to beer, drinkability is huge. Some fantastic beers go down so easily you could drink 5 or 6 of in one sitting, yet other beers are equally as enjoyable (and just as high quality) when you limit yourself to one or two.

It all rests on your mood and the situation. Remember, its all relative; what you love, someone else may hate and vice versa.

Beer Tasting Glossary

Acidity – A sour or sharp flavor characteristic that will yield sensations of vinegar or lemon juice. A little acidity will make the beer crisp and fresh tasting. It’s unusual for sweet beers to seem acidic because usually the sweeter something becomes, the less acidity it has.
Alcohol by Volume (ABV%) – The standard measurement that indicates how much alcohol is in a beer, expressed as a percentage of the total liquid volume.
Ale – Beers made using top fermenting yeast strains, which are low in carbonation and typically served warm.
Amber – Beer that is amber in color, thus falling somewhere between pale and dark.
Aroma – The combination of smells given off by the malt, hops, yeast and any additional components of the beer.
Balance (hoppiness vs. maltiness) – The complexity of the interaction, used to measure the quality of the beer.
Barley – One of the four main ingredients in beer. A cereal grain malted for use in brewing.
Beer – A fermented alcoholic beverage made from barley, hops, water and yeast.
Bitterness – The sensation of bitter flavor, felt on the back of one’s tongue. Most often identified with hops. Desirable in IPAs and barleywines.
Body – Characterized as the fullness of the flavor and mouthfeel, and can range from watery or characterless to satiating or thick.
Bottle-conditioning – Allowing a beer to mature and experience secondary fermentation in the bottle, to create complex flavors.
Bouquet – The assortment of smells (usually floral) experienced before tasting beer. Often described as a combination of hop character, malt aroma and the fruitiness given off by esters.
Carbonation – Carbon dioxide (CO2) gas dissolved in a liquid, which gives the liquid a fizzy or bubbly quality.
Caramel – Cooked sugar that adds alcohol content and color to beer. A cheaper alternative to malted barley.
Caramel Malt – A sweet malt with a reddish-brown color that gives beer a sweet flavor, imparts color and increases head retention.
Cask – A container for beer that is shaped like a barrel and usually made of metal. Available in a variety of sizes.
Cask-conditioning – Allowing the beer to mature and experience secondary fermentation in the cask, which results in light carbonation.
Chill Haze – Cloudiness caused by low temperatures. Only affects appearance, flavor remains intact.
Clovelike – A characteristic of some wheat beers marked by spiciness (like that of cloves).
Conditioning – Allowing the beer to mature, such that natural carbonation occurs.
Dry-hopping – The act of adding dry hops to beer that is already aging/fermenting to amplify the overall hoppiness (i.e. bitterness) of the beer.
Ester – Incredibly aromatic flavor compounds produced by yeast during fermentation. Most often noted as being fruity or spicy. Desirable in most ales, particularly Belgian and British styles.
Fermentation – The process used to make beer, during which yeast converts sugar into alcohol and CO2.
Fruity – Similar to ‘Estery,’ the flavor or aroma reminiscent of apples, bananas, strawberries, cherry, raspberry and other fruits. Often attributed to beers made with particular yeast strains or using high temperature fermentation.
Grainy – A taste that resembles that of cereal or spent grain. Acceptable in some lagers, but never in ales.
Hang – Lingering bitter taste.
Hops – One of the four principle ingredients of beer. Herb added to beer to give it a bitter flavor and aroma.
Hoppy – Strong aroma and/or flavor of hops.
Lager – A common style of beer, made with bottom-fermenting yeast, which undergoes a longer and colder fermentation period than that of ales. Most popular German and American beers are lagers.
Malted Barley – Created when barley is steeped in water, germinated and dried quickly. This process provides starches that convert to sugars, which then ferment into alcohol and CO2.
Malty – A sweet or dry “earthy” flavor. Heavier roasted malt will contribute a “roasted” taste to the beer.
Mouthfeel – The sensation in the mouth that provides a measure of the texture of beer, ranging from thin to thick/full.
Palate – Taste which is influenced by the grains, hops, water, yeast and adjuncts used in production.
Sour/Acidic – Perceived on the sides of the tongue towards the rear of the mouth, a negative taste similar to that of vinegar or lemon, often caused by a bacterial infection.
Sweet – A sugary taste due to the presence of reducing sugars, experienced on the front of the tongue. High levels are desirable in most strong ales and lagers, and low levels in American light lagers and lambics.
Yeast – One of the four principle ingredients in beer; living plant microorganisms that change sugars to alcohol and CO2.

Beer and Food Pairing

When suitably paired, delicious beers and incredible food really bring out the best in one another. As with wine, there are certain combinations that accentuate flavors and add depth and dimension to your meal. As you begin exploring which beer styles and flavors work well together, there are a few basic principles you should keep in mind.

1. Choose a beer that can stand up to the flavor of the food you’re eating. If the beer will get lost completely, choose another style.

2. Don’t necessarily try to pair beers with foods of the same flavor profile. Think of flavors that compliment rather than resemble one another.

3. Don’t be afraid to try pairing styles with foods that other people might not recommend; at the end of the day, all that matters is which combinations taste good on your own palate.

Looking for some inspiration? Check out these classic pairings, organized by beer style:

American Amber/Red Lager

Caramel malts, a touch of fruit flavors, and a kick of citrusy American hops typically characterize this popular style. A great example of this is Flying Dog Old Scratch Amber Lager.

Suggested Food Pairings
Red sauce pizza, steak, fried or barbecued chicken and lasagna. You’ll want to steer clear of overly spicy foods, as amber lagers aren’t hoppy enough to cut through.

American Pale Ale

A pleasant hoppiness is present up front, leading to a dry, medium body with a light backing of malt and a crisp finish. Think Sierra Nevada Pale Ale as a standard for the style.

Suggested Food Pairings
Spicy Mexican dishes, Indian dishes, Caribbean foods, pizza, salsa, rare or delicately seared tuna, Thai dishes and chili. If you’re snacking, nuts make a great match as well.

Belgian Dubbel

Rich flavors define this style; dark fruits like raisin and plum mixed with caramel, toffee and rum. A go-to for this style is Westmalle Dubbel.

Suggested Food Pairings
Gamey meats like venison, lamb, duck and rabbit are a perfect accompaniment for this type of beer. The dark flavors pair well while its high carbonation cuts through the meat nicely.

Belgian Golden Strong Ale

Characterized by dry, highly carbonated fruitiness, this style of beer can work with some foods that many other styles can’t touch. A good example of this style is La Chouffe.

Suggested Food Pairings
You can’t go wrong with shrimp cocktail or a super-garlicky dish alongside this style. Pesto with chicken or sausage will also pair nicely. If you’re into seafood, try this style with almost any fish, light or oily.

Belgian Tripel

Light hops melding with fruit and spice give the tripel a malty sweetness in the middle but it typically finishes dry. A standard for this style is Westmalle Tripel.

Suggested Food Pairings
Tripels go well with alfredo pastas, asparagus, ham and salmon because they are light on the palate, despite usually having a higher ABV, around 9 percent.

Doppelbock

Smooth, sweet, bready malt wraps up the alcohol that hits over 7 percent, with just enough hops to keep the style from being syrupy. You’ll find caramel and biscuit flavors in doppelbock, and sometimes even chocolate or coffee. Weihenstephaner Korbinian is an excellent example of this style.

Suggested Food Pairings
Venison, duck, pork with apple and potato, ham, gruyere, squash-stuffed ravioli and yams would all work nicely. You might also want to try it alongside a dark fruit and nut salad with goat cheese or Gorgonzola.

English Brown Ale

The nutty, caramel aroma and palate from the malts cut with a medium hop bitterness make this style a good companion for many dishes. A great example of English brown ale is the ever-popular Samuel Smith Nut Brown Ale.

Suggested Food Pairings
Steak (mmm, steak) or almost any beef dish, Stilton, Gorgonzola, mild chili, scallops or just about any mushroom dish. In true English fashion, brown ale also finds itself at home with a big slice of mincemeat pie.

Gueuze

The acidity lends a fantastic sourness to this style, which is highly carbonated, like champagne. Some people find this style far too sour for their tastes, but for those out there who are looking to give it a try, Lindemans Cuvée René is a delicious example.

Suggested Food Pairings
The best foods to pair with gueuze come from the sea; sweet mussels and escargot compliment the sour of the brew well. Also try oysters, spicy crab cakes and any oily fish.

Hefeweizen

This cloudy, unfiltered wheat beer is a great summertime brew with clove spiciness and the taste of banana. Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier is a prime example to start with (not to mention the oldest brewery in the world).

Suggested Food Pairings
Brinner, anyone? This style goes great with eggs and bacon. It’s also a great match for hummus, sushi, salads, lobster and bratwurst. If you're in the mood for sweet snacks or desserts, you might want to try this style with banana and melon.

IPA (India Pale Ale)

Hops! IPA is hoppy and bitter with a great bite, especially American IPAs. You’ll find ester, citrus, pine, grass or floral undertones. There are a lot of great examples of India Pale Ale out there, but we seriously recommend that you give Southern Tier IPA a try.

Suggested Food Pairings
When pairing foods with IPA, stick with flavors that can stand up to the ferocity of the style. Think spicy, like Buffalo chicken wings, Mexican food, spicy sausage, burgers loaded with toppings, smoked oily fish, nachos and the like.

Irish Dry Stout

Medium light to medium full in body, Irish dry stouts offer a thick, creamy head, roasted malt flavor that often comes through as chocolate or coffee, medium to high hoppy bitterness and a dry finish. The most popular Irish dry stout is Guinness Draught, but Beamish Irish Stout and Murphy’s are classics too.

Suggested Food Pairings
This style is perfectly at home with oysters, in fact some are even brewed with oyster! Also try beef stew, Shepard's pie, lamb, steak and chocolate.

Märzen (Oktoberfest)

Märzen, or Oktoberfest beer, is malty sweet with a toasted character, a mild hops profile and a smooth, medium to full body. Spaten Oktoberfest is a standard example of the style.

Suggested Food Pairings
When pairing food with Märzen, German fare will always work well, like bratwurst, potato pancakes, spaetzle and the like. But don’t feel the need to stop there! It’s also a great option when you’re serving baked ham, barbecued beef or pork, pizza, grilled vegetables and chicken, steak and more.

Pilsner

This style is light, thirst quenching and well carbonated. Both hops bitterness and malt sweetness can range from low to medium high, depending on the brewer. A favorite American version of this style is Victory Prima Pils, but if you’re looking for the real deal, choose a pilsner from Germany, like Bitburger.

Suggested Food Pairings
Pure, simple and clean, pilsner pairs great with spicy Thai dishes, Mexican food, shellfish, ham, sausage and caviar.

Porter

Dark roasted malt lends a sweet, biscuity flavor along with dark chocolate and coffee, but not quite as bitter-chocolate as the flavor you might get from a stout. Samuel Smith Taddy Porter is a beautiful representation of the style.

Suggested Food Pairings
Scallops, burgers, steaks, barbecue, meatloaf, pumpernickel, chocolate, pumpkin pie and pecan pie are all good choices.

Saison (Farmhouse Ale)

Light and refreshing, saison is another style perfectly suited for summer, offering flavors of fruit, hops, spice and a desiccating tart finish. If you’re looking for a farmhouse ale straight from Belgium, try Saison Dupont, but American versions, like Ommengang Hennepin, are great too.

Suggested Food Pairings
Saison is an agreeable style that goes best with steak, salmon, sausages, spicy Thai cuisine and crab cakes.

Sweet Stout (Milk Stout)

Also known as milk stout, this style has flavors of chocolate, coffee and an overall sweetness perfect for dessert. Young’s Double Chocolate Stout is an English favorite and can be found just about anywhere, but we must also Lancaster Milk Stout. If you can get your hands on it, do yourself a favor and try it.

Suggested Food Pairings
You’ve got options! Chocolate, pecan pie, pumpkin pie, apple pie, cream tarts, ice cream, tiramisu and even sweet glazed chicken all make remarkable combinations with sweet stout.

Witbier

Citrus, light spice, a touch of apple and a dry finish make this beer another great choice for hot weather. Try Hoegaarden Original White or Ommegang Wit for a taste of what this style should be like.

Suggested Food Pairings
Witbier goes great with any fresh salad dressed with vinaigrette. It’s also great for brunch as it pairs nicely with eggs, ham, swiss and salmon. Other seafood works great too; think lobster, crab and shrimp.

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