We’ve all been there before. . . . someone asks you how your beer is or what it tastes like and the only things you can think of saying are “good” and “tastes like beer”. Ugh. So lame! How do you describe the characteristics of beer?
You’ve heard other people say things like “balanced”, “multi-dimensional”, “medium-bodied” and “creamy” without having a clue of what they’re really talking about. Where did they get that stuff? How do they know?
Well fear not. I get it! No one wants to sound like a wine snob when describing beer, but it would be great to not sound like an idiot either.
I’ve got a few simple tricks that will have you talking like a beer pro in no time. And the best part is that you don’t need tasting sheets, a beer list, or guidebooks to get you there.
Ready? Let’s go.
It Starts with the Basics
Luckily things start out very simply in the world of beer. There are really only two categories of beer: ales and lagers. The rest is just details, or the styles of beer, that fall under these two main categories.
What’s the difference between ales and lagers?
The difference between ales and lagers comes down to the type of yeast used and the temperatures they are brewed at. Ales are made from yeasts that float at the top of the tank and that prefer a warm fermentation environment. Lagers are made using different yeasts that tend to settle to the bottom of the tank during fermentation and prefer colder temperatures.
Whereas an ale might be brewed with a strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast, a lager is brewed with Saccharomyces pastorianus yeast. [There is one small caveat here in that there is technically a third class of beers that are brewed with wild yeasts. We’ll save that discussion for another day.]
The fermenting temperature range for an ale is around 20 to 22 °C (68 to 72 °F) while a lager is fermented at 7 to 13 °C (45 to 55 °F).
Ales tend to be darker, more complex and ready to drink faster. Lagers tend to be lighter, crisper and can be aged in cold storage for longer periods of time.
Common types of ale include: Brown Ale, Pale Ale, India Pale Ale (IPA), Stout, and even Wheat beer.
Common types of lager include: Pale lagers, Pilsner, Dark lagers, and Bocks.
The Secret to Describing Beer Characteristics
You don’t need guidebooks to help you describe a beer, because you have everything you need with you all the time. Can you guess?
It’s really easy. It’s four of your five senses!
Just Remember: See it – Smell it – Taste it – Feel it
If you remember that, you have it made. You can learn to describe beer based on these four main categories of traits that you experience with your eyes, nose, mouth, tongue and throat.
You can describe the characteristics of beer by noticing:
- Color (eyes)
- Aroma (nose)
- Flavor (mouth, tongue)
- Mouthfeel or Body (mouth, throat)
Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder
When you are looking at a glass of beer what do you see?
The color of beer is primarily affected by the malt (grain) used. The darker the malt, the darker the beer. But our perception of color, and the taste we anticipate based on that color, is also affected by how transparent the beer is.
We tend to think that an opaque beer will taste heavier than one that is clear. Dark malts and roasts tend to produce beers that you can’t see through which we associate with richer tastes of say coffee or chocolate. Lighter malts and roasts tend to produce beers that are golden, which you can see through more easily, and which are often associated with lighter, refreshing tastes.
Whether or not you can see light through your glass of beer may hint at the flavors to come, but be warned a great brewmaster can subvert our taste expectations! That is the fun to be found in so many beer styles and craft beer blends.
Your perception of the beer is also affected by the carbonation. Beers are naturally carbonated through the fermentation process, although some beers have added carbonation to boost their fizz and head.
You may only see a slow steady stream of bubbles drifting lazily to the head on some beers. Others may pop and fizz more along the lines of a soda.
The carbonation level affects the taste and mouthfeel of the beer and how you experience it. A beer without carbonation is called “flat” for a reason. It’s a disappointment! A beer with too much carbonation creates too much head, meaning there is less beer in your glass to drink – also not okay.
The head on the beer is the foamy cap at the top of the glass created by the carbonation rising up through the beer. That foamy cap contributes to the aroma, taste and mouthfeel of the beer. Therefore you want to see some head, but not so much that it is taking up important beer real estate in your glass.
So putting this all together – ask yourself – what do you see when you lay eyes on that beer? You can describe the color, transparency, carbonation and/or head, all of which are going to make you sound like a beer connoisseur instead of a bumbling idiot.
Smell the Difference
When that perfectly poured glass of beer lands in front of you and you drink it in with your eyes, next in line is your nose. Beer aroma is affected by the combination of yeast, hops and malt used in the brewing process.
Yeast contributes some of the fruity scents to the beer, mostly through chemicals known as esters, and creates the alcohol content and alcohol smell of the beer. The fermentation process may also contribute sweet, buttery, caramel notes (through ketones) or spicy notes (through phenols) although these scents also derived from the hops and malt as well.
The amount, variety and timing of the hops used during brewing is a major contributor to the uniqueness of a beer’s aroma. Different hops varieties can be distinguished based on their essential oils which are critical to the bittering and scent composition of beer.
At HOOH Hops we feature the finest Canadian-grown and organic hops on the market including Cascade, Chinook, Golding and Horizon to name only a few. (You can find a full listing on our Shop page). Hops impart bitterness, flavors and aromas to beer depending on how and when they are added during the brewing process.
You may notice a fruity, citrusy or floral scent coming from the beer, depending on the variety of hops. There can be distinct notes that include grassy, earthy, pine, citrus, berry, tropical, or woody scents. Close your eyes and let your nose guide you on this one. What does the scent remind you of?
New varieties and combinations of different hops are being used in beer all the time so don’t be afraid to go out on a limb when you describe how a beer smells. Many beers have specific aroma hops added in the final stages of brewing to bring about these specific scents that can make a beer smell (and taste) unique. Your impression of the scent might be different from someone else’s and that is totally okay.
The final player in the beer scent game is the malt. The grain used in the malt can bring a nutty, roasty, coffee, caramel, or even chocolate scent to the beer. Darker malts tend to bring the heavier, roastier, scents than lighter malts. The key is simply to express what the smell triggers in your mind.
So putting this all together: Take a moment and breathe in the aroma of your beer. What does the scent remind you of? There are no wrong answers here.
Taste it! You Know You Want To
Clearly the best part of describing beer characteristics comes from the taste test. Tasting is believing.
Everything I’ve described so far about beer all comes together in that first sip. What you have noticed regarding the color and aroma now comes splashing into your mouth for that refreshing flavor that you have come to expect from beer.
That first sip tells you whether the beer is sweet, bitter or balanced. The sweetness is derived from the malt used. The bitterness is derived from the hops. And a balanced flavor derives from having enough malt sweetness to just counteract the hops bitterness.
Beers can range from having mild flavor to an intense bold taste experience. A mild beer might taste light, delicate, crisp and refreshing. A bolder beer might have stronger flavors that result in a sharper taste which might be described as intense, powerful, robust and hearty. In either case a beer might have one overriding flavor which could be described as simple or have many different flavors that provide a layered and complex taste experience.
Your nose has already primed you for this first taste, so you may notice the same types of flavors as the aromas you identified earlier – fruity, floral, citrusy, woodsy, buttery, caramel, or coffee at least at first. Your mouth and tongue are what identify that primary beer taste experience.
Putting it all together: Take that first sip with mindful practice. Be aware of the common ways taste is described, but don’t be afraid to add your own words to this list.
While mouthfeel may seem like a strange word, it is critical to the experience of beer. Mouthfeel is the sensation of the beer in your mouth and as you swallow. Mouthfeel is affected by the body, carbonation and aftertaste of the beer.
The body of the beer relates to its physical characteristics (density or weight) as being thin or thick as a liquid. Clearer, more transparent, beers will feel lighter in the mouth than a heavier and thicker beer like a stout. The body is generally described as light-bodied, medium bodied, or heavy bodied. Higher carbonation levels can make a beer feel lighter.
As mentioned earlier, the carbonation provides that fizzy sensation in your mouth that creates a satisfying drink. Too little fizz and the beer is considered flat. The taste will be dull, lifeless and unsatisfying. Beer with small bubbles (fine carbonation) may taste creamy and smooth. Beer with rapid efferecences may be considered edgy and refreshing. Too much fizz though and the mouthfeel is sharp or prickly, which may be unappealing to some drinkers.
The aftertaste of the beer is what develops after you have swallowed. You may notice distinct flavors that remain well after that first sip is down the hatch. These sensations are often described as a range or continuum with such goal posts as thin vs thick, light vs heavy, and smooth vs coarse.
Some beers may leave a lasting taste reminiscent of the scents and tastes already described – such fruity or earthy. Some beers may leave a lasting sense of sweetness or bitterness. Others may leave a tingling or warming sensation. One beer may feel thin to the point of seeming watery while another may leave an astringent or even sandpapery aftertaste. Again, there is no single answer here for aftertaste so be creative. Name that sensation!
Putting it all together: The mouthfeel of the beer is the final set of descriptors commonly used to talk about beer characteristics. It involves the body, carbonation and aftertaste of the beer which create your final impressions of the drink.
Go Forth and Describe Beer
That’s it my friends – the keys to the kingdom of beer characteristics are yours.
If you can remember the sequence: See it – Smell it – Taste it – Feel it, then you have it made. You will have at your fingertips the cues you need to make some meaningful beer talk with your friends.
But the only way to get really good at describing beers is to practice!
So be bold and adventurous and taste the spectrum of craft beer on the market today. Before you know it, your friends will be waiting for your wise and cultured opinion on what the beer is like. You’ll be talking like a beer pro in time.
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