Tasting Beer (The Basics)



Learning to taste beer properly, like anything in life, is worth spending a bit of time perfecting. If you do you’ll increase your knowledge, enjoyment and beer cred to a whole new level. A simple glass of beer offers dozens of sensations—colors, aromas, textures, and flavors. Developing a sense for those clues is useful in taming the chaos contained in a single glass of brew.

The Basics

Following are important terms used to describe general aspects of every beer.

Alcohol. Alcohol is sensed more than tasted. It may be a volatile, sharp note in the aroma or a warming sensation on the tongue—or even undetectable in low-alcohol beers. Alcohol is also lethal to foam, so if your head dissipates quickly, the beer may be boozy. Beers above 6% will exhibit an alcohol note, one that usually becomes prominent by 8 to 9%.

Attenuation. Some yeasts are finicky, and some are voracious; as a consequence, they consume different proportions of malt sugars. How well the yeast has fermented the sugars is known as attenuation. A highly attenuated beer will be thinner and have less malt flavor than a poorly attenuated one.

Balance. The balance of a beer refers to the harmony between contrasting elements—usually hops and malt.

Bitterness. While dark-roasted malt imparts a coffeelike bitterness, the term “bitterness” generally refers to that which comes from hops—a more tangy, resinous quality. Sometimes breweries include a rating of the International Bitterness Units (IBU) for their beers; above fifty is notably bitter, and below twenty is mild.


Color. In order to get a good sense of the color of the beer, don’t rely on what your glass reveals. Hold the glass up to the light and tilt it to create a shallow edge—beer will appear different in different circumstances. All of a beer’s color comes from malt, so while you may not be able to guess the entire grain bill, you can make inferences. Also, look to see if the color is opaque or clear, which gives clues to the degree of filtration and the presence of wheat and whole hops.

nose-150x150Hops. The character contributed by hops can vary broadly. In a standard tin-can beer, they fall below the threshold of human perception. In some beers, they are so abundant they exceed human perception. Beyond bitterness, they can add flavors like grapefruit, black pepper, or pine, or scent a beer with lavender, sage, or cedar—just to name a few.

Malt. Malt is responsible for the color of a beer, but it also adds flavor and some aroma. Like coffee, malt is roasted to different colors; the palest malts barely stain a beer, leaving it straw colored. Munich malts redden a beer, and dark malts blacken it. Malt also contributes flavors like bread, caramel, roastiness, nuts, leather, chocolate, and dark fruit.


Mouthfeel. One aspect of mouthfeel is body, but the term is broader. Qualities like creamy, flat or effervescent, hearty or thin are all aspects of mouthfeel.

Session. Both an activity and a beer category. “Session” beers are lower in alcohol to facilitate longer sessions of drinking without getting drunk.

NEXT UP: Flavor and aroma notes you’ll encounter and what causes them.

Alworth, Jeff (2012-02-08). Beer Tasting: Quick Reference Guide

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