It Takes All Your Senses to Taste Beer

We got our Director of Quality Control to help us teach you some of the ins and outs of becoming a pro beer taster.

Posted in Love Beer

“Tasting” a beer is another term for evaluating a beer. It can be as casual or as structured as you want. Not everyone thinks of beer tasting the same way, but evaluating a beer does, in fact, involve all 5 of your senses. We like to break it down like this:

Visual Assessment:

In some ways, beer evaluation begins before you even get to taste the beer.

If you’re at a bar or restaurant ordering a draft beer, how does it look? Is the foam correct? Does it have the expected amount of haze for the style & brand? Does the glass look clean? The answers to all these questions will offer clues as to what the beer drinking experience will be like.

If you’re at a package store or other retailer, how does the packaging look? Dusty? Beat up? Fresh and crisp? A brewer who can package beer in good looking cartons, put labels on straight, etc. has probably also solved a lot of the challenges of making great beer.

Pour the beer into a glass.

Does it make a good, long lasting head? Some styles are known for being quite foamy (Bavarian Hefeweizen) and should build an inch or more of foam on top, even with a careful pour. For others, like fruity lambics, the head retention may be much lower and the beer might still be good. For most “normal” styles of beer though, about ¾ inch of foam with a typical pour is a pretty good indicator of fresh, well made beer. An exceptional beer will maintain some of that foam throughout the drinking experience, leaving progressive rings of what brewers call ‘lace’ on the side of the glass as they are consumed. Excessive foam (for the style) or complete lack of foam are indicators that all may not be well…

Is the beer appropriately hazy for the style? Some beers (Hefeweizen again, or NEIPA) should have a robust, stable haze that doesn’t settle to the bottom of the glass. In these beers, large particles are a bad sign. Others, like pilsner and traditional IPA’s should be brilliantly bright; haze in these beers can be a sign of age or microbial contamination.

Hearing Assessment:

That’s right! What you hear in your beer can have some key indicators of how your drinking experience is going to be when you finally taste the beer.

When you open the beer, does it sound right? Lack of any pressure release when a can or bottle is first opened is a sign the beer will have little or no carbonation, seldom a good thing. Over-carbonated beers will have excessive CO­2 release upon opening, occasionally accompanied by gushing (think beer volcano); also usually not a good thing.

Temperature Assessment:

Now we’re getting into what the beer feels like (are you keeping track of all these senses?). When you pick the beer up, is the temperature appropriate?

A too-cold beer can suppress a lot of the aroma and flavor components. For a beer that is designed to be light, dry, crisp, and refreshing this can add to that perception. For a beer designed to have lots of malty, hoppy, yeasty character it can hide some of the beer’s desirable traits.

Smell Assessment:

It’s not commonly known, but virtually all of beer’s flavor is aroma-based, so training your palate has mostly to do with learning to recognize aromas.

Yeast is a major contributor of flavor and aroma; most of the many aromatic/flavor compounds in beer are either directly produced by yeast or modified by it during fermentation into a more desirable state.

Yeast is a major contributor of flavor and aroma; most of the many aromatic/flavor compounds in beer are either directly produced by yeast or modified by it during fermentation into a more desirable state.

Among the many secondary metabolites attributable to yeast are esters (fruity), phenols (spicy), aldehydes (also fruity), and many others. And this is only a partial listing, there are lots more!

Malt and hops contribute some aromas.

Components of beer’s sweet, malty, and roasted attributes come from malted barley or wheat.

A large part of beer’s pleasant bitter counter note to malty sweetness comes from hops.

Resinous, citrusy, perfumey, floral, and grassy flavors and aromas are due in large part to hop additions.

Taste Assessment (FINALLY!):

As mentioned above, beer “flavor” is almost exclusively aroma compounds. The human palate only has the ability to differentiate 5 “basic” flavors:

Sweet: derived from sugars. Properly finished beer has only a little sweetness, unless the brewer does something to specifically accentuate this characteristic. Sweet flavors are detected mostly, but not exclusively, by taste buds concentrated at the tip of the tongue.

Salty: also not a major component of beer flavor, salty is mostly detected by receptors clustered (mostly) in the middle part of the tongue.

Umami: the brothy or mushroomy savory flavor; not usually a component of beer character

Bitterness; a major component of beer character, bitterness offsets sourness and malty sweetness. It is provided primarily by hops, but also can be from  malts or yeast fermentation.

Bitterness is most often registered strongly by receptors at the back of the palate.

It builds over time; each subsequent sip builds a layer onto the one that preceded it. This is why the most drinkable beers have bitter/sour ratios that assist with palate cleansing.

Sour: an important part of all beer character, sourness is perceived mainly on the sides of the tongue and can (in greater concentrations) initiate salivation response.

Sourness is a byproduct of yeast (and occasionally lactic acid bacteria) metabolism.

Most beers have some lactic acid character at slight to moderate levels

When sourness is equal to or just lower than bitterness, it has palate cleansing effects and enhances drinkability.

That’s all in the senses when it comes to tasting beer effectively. When you get to actually drinking it, there’s also specific ways that you should be consuming the beer to get the best understanding of what you are tasting and why. Stay tuned for more blog posts on tasting beer!



15Harpoon & UFO Director of Quality Control

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