Evaluating Beer: Tasting and Judging For Style

Evaluating beer is an art as much as a science. We are judging beer every time we drink, whether we realize it or not. Evaluation is something that can be learned, with practice and a little knowledge of the descriptors and terminology.

I want to present you with some of that terminology used by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP). Since beer has been around since the dawn of civilization, so has beer tasting and evaluation. These days, the science behind the sensory evaluation of beer has become so advanced that the subject can fill a book.

Today, more than ever before, homebrewers and beer enthusiasts alike are interested in the flavor, aroma, body, and even the history behind the beers they make and consume.

Today's beer drinkers are more sophisticated than ever.  They are not afraid of ordering the darkest beer on the menu.  To debunk some myths about dark beer, click here.

So why would you want to learn the art and science of evaluating beer? For the home brewer it seems obvious, to make better beer, to be able to improve your beer each time you brew it or to brew it consistently each time.

You must be able to describe a beer before you can refine your processes or ingredients to improve your beer's characteristic flavor, aroma, or mouthfeel. Click here to check out a universal list of Beer Flavor Descriptors to be used during the evaluation of your beer. These beer flavor descriptors describe a beer's visual aspects, flavor profile, aromatic characteristics, and tactile impressions, both good and bad.

How the BJCP Teaches You to Evaluate Beer

Beer Judging

 You may want to become a beer judge and work your way up the ranks evaluating beer to the Grand Master level. The BJCP hopes to remove as much of the subjectivity involved in evaluating beer during competitions as possible by giving all certified judges the tools needed to objectively evaluate the beers they judge.

We need to be able to categorize a beer in just a few words which will immediately identify its major characteristics. This is known as the beer's "style".

Brewers originally brewed with the ingredients, water, and technology available to them. The resulting beers have now been grouped into a style, which we use to describe all beers brewed which display the same general characteristics. It's really just a way for us as beer enthusiasts, when evaluating beer, to communicate the common characteristics of a group of similar beers.

You can send your beer to a lab and the technicians can describe it down to the molecular level. But we as homebrewers must rely on our senses to judge a beer's quality.

The BJCP has broken down a beer's qualities into a beer score-sheet used during competitions.

How your senses are used when evaluating beer during competition:

  • Smell - The first thing on the judges score-sheet will be the beer's aroma and bouquet. You want to evaluate that first because it is the most fleeting once the beer is opened.

    The aroma changes with time and temperature, so you want to quickly evaluate the beer's aroma before it changes. A beer's aroma is such an important aspect of its enjoyment that the AHA/BJCP allocates 24% (12 points out of 50) of a beer's score to its aroma.

    The beer's aroma is also integral to the beer's taste (try tasting something when you have a cold!) which accounts for 40% of the beer's score. So, aroma is involved in 64% of a beer's total score. In addition to relative levels of chemicals and contaminants, its aroma may also spark an emotional response while evaluating beer. You may recall a wonderful trip to Germany, or the wedding you went to where you got hammered on a similar beer and spent the night hugging the toilet. Guess which beer will be scored higher? Because you are actually sensing chemicals in the air, it is important to maximize your ability to sense them. A beer's volatile chemicals are carried into the air with the CO2 as you swirl the beer, and this occurs more easily when the beer is a little warmer, around 45-50°F (7-10°C).

    To get the beer's aroma to the olfactory sensors in the nasal cavity, it is important to take several short sniffs, or a long deep sniff (whichever works for you) to get the aromatic vapors into the small pocket of dead air (olfactory epithelium) in your nasal passage in which all the "detectors" are located.

    Contemplate the aroma for a moment. Notice the natural smell of fermentation and the aromas derived from the ingredients. Try to locate any odors that don't belong and then try to identify them. Record your observations. Your sense of smell can be impaired by a cold, using nasal sprays, cigarette smoke, certain drugs, and spicy foods. It can even become anesthetized from repeated use while judging or evaluating. That's why some candle stores have a bag of fresh coffee beans for you to smell so you'll be able to continue smelling (and buying) their candles.

  • Sight - Although your sight is an indispensable sense in your everyday life, it isn't as important to a beer's evaluation. The AHA/BJCP allocates 3 points or 6% of a beer's score to appearance.

    The beer's appearance includes its clarity, head size and retention, the head's texture, the beer's color, amount of sediment and the beer's fill level. For the most part anyone can evaluate these with accuracy. Only one is fairly subjective.

    A beer's color can be influenced by the light and background in which it is viewed. Try to evaluate beer in good light sources, such as sunlight and fluorescent lights which contain a large proportion of the wavelengths of light which the eye can see. Also try to use a white sheet of paper as a background when evaluating a beer's color. A red background might make an amber beer appear deeper than it is, or a green background will make the same beer lose all it's red hues.

  •   Taste - You might want to believe that what you taste in a beer is what constitutes its flavor. In reality, your beer's flavor is influenced by its taste, smell, appearance, mouthfeel, and even your memories. It is such an important part is the enjoyment of the beer that the AHA/BJCP has allocated 40% of a beer's score to its flavor. New research has revealed that there six basic flavors that humans can perceive. These flavors have evolved through evolution to help us determine which foods are nutritious and which are poisonous. The six basic flavors are:

               1.   Sweet: This familiar flavor evolved to alert us when something his highly nutritive that will provide us with lots of energy. In the hunter-gatherer days of human life, the environment we lived in had few sweet things to eat. This may be why the taste is so pleasurable, it lets us know that this foodstuff is good for us and generally safe to eat.

    There is some sweetness in most beers, although it is most often overshadowed by the bitterness, roastiness, etc. in the beer. Sweetness is usually a balancing aspect of the beer's flavor and is only prevalent in a few styles, milk stout, Scotch ale, barleywine and a few others.


                2. Sour: The sour taste developed to allow us to differentiate between ripe and unripe fruit, as well as rotten or spoiled food.Beer is an acidic beverage (normally 4.0-4.5 pH), although some Belgian beers are in the range of 3.4-3.9 pH. Sourness is a minor flavor in beer and really only becomes important in fruit beers.

                3.  Salty: Salty flavors come from our ability to detect mostly sodium (and to some extent potassium) ions in our environment. Most of these ions are important to our body's cellular activity and are not produced in the body. Thus, they must be obtained from our surrounding environment. 

     Salty tastes in beer are only a minor player, coming mostly from the water source in which the beer is made. When present, these flavors can give the beer a richer fuller profile. When in excess, the beer simply tastes "salty".

                4.  Bitter: This is an important taste sensation in that it alerted early humans to a potentially toxic substance. The substances most often responsible for the strong reaction to bitterness are the alkaloids in many toxic or poisonous plants. The bitterness sensation takes a moment to register in the brain, unlike the lightening quick reaction we have to sourness (think of biting into a lemon).

    The delayed reaction is one reason why you don't perceive the bitterness of hops immediately upon taking a sip of beer. It usually develops slowly and then lingers for a little while after the beer is swallowed. Bitterness plays a big part in beer flavor these days. Previously, it was used for balance and interest, but today, a whole genre of beers, which I call hop bombs, have sprung up to satisfy many "Hopheads" craving for this taste sensation.

                5.  Umami: This is the flavor sensation you get when eating a succulent piece of meat. The Japanese word means "deliciousness" and sums up the flavor of aged meats, fermented foods and especially soy products such as tofu.

    According to Randy Mosher in Tasting Beer, An insiders guide to the world's greatest drink, Umami becomes noticeable in beer after the beer has aged and a rich maltiness shows itself. He also notes that given enough aging time, notes similar to soy sauce may develop.

                6.  Fatty: The final, and most recent addition to the basic flavors, is fat. The flavors associated with fat were developed to alert is of a nutritive source of food. It is very similar to the sweet flavor in that it is one of the pleasurable sensations. More research needs to be done on the role of the flavor of fat and beer. This receptors for this flavor were only found in 2005 so it is a recent addition to the basic flavor profile.


    You only need about a tablespoon of beer per sip when evaluating beer for taste. Swish the beer around so it contacts all parts of your tongue and the palate of your mouth. Then swallow to finish the examination.

    On the first sip you record the character. With the second, you record the beer's sweet, sour, salty, and bitter qualities as they occur to you. With a third sip you record the mouthfeel. And with the fourth sip you can look for qualities of the aftertaste.

    The residual chemicals from the previous drink will affect the flavor of the next one. So when judging or evaluating beer, it is important to clear your palate with something bland, like crackers, before evaluating the next beer.

    Since a beer's flavor is influenced by all the other factors like smell, mouthfeel, and appearance, it's important when evaluating beer to realize that when one of the senses is off, it will affect other senses as well.

  • Feel - The tactile sense, or the sense of touch or feel, is perceived in a beer's mouthfeel or body, and temperature when evaluating beer. It is allocated 5 points or 10% of a beer's score. You will sense the beer's texture and perceive it as being thin, thick, silky, oily, warm, cooling (menthol-like), and dry. You can also sense a beer's astringency which manifests itself as a mouth puckering sensation. It is most often caused by the tannins extracted from the grain's husks. Mouthfeel is such an important aspect of a evaluating beer that many go to great lengths to manipulate it to their liking. For example, adding oats will give a beer an oily silky-smooth texture, decreasing the mash temperature will give a beer a thinner, more crisp finish, and controlling fermentation temperature can affect the beer's alcohol, making it less harsh or hot.

  • Pleasure - The final category in the AHA/BJCP score-sheet is the overall impression of the beer. To me this means how much pleasure did it give you. Would you want another beer just like it? Could you drink more than one pint? Would you seek it out and pay money to drink this beer again? This is the most important aspect of evaluating beer because that's what most of us are left with the next day or the next year, is that overall impression you take away each time you evaluate a beer.


Off Flavors Encountered While Evaluating Beer

Image: Homebrewers Association.org BJCP

There are many constituents to flavor. Since we are talking about a fermented malt beverage, we need to understand what causes the normal flavors in a beer, what causes the abnormal flavors in a beer, and what can we do about the off-flavors we perceive when evaluating beer. To better understand what causes a beer's flavors to taste as they do, we need to examine the constituents more closely. These include:

Click on each of the beer flavor items in the list above or go to the article on Off Flavors to learn more.

Once you become more adept at evaluating beer, you may want to share your reviews with the rest of the beer enthusiasts of the world. One way is to write beer reviews of your evaluations and publish them online.

There are several good places to do this. One such site about evaluating beer is BeerAdvocate.com.  It is also a magazine and here is what their website says about it: "BeerAdvocate magazine is the only monthly publication that covers beer from every angle: culture, cuisine, homebrewing, history, science, business, travel and more. Filled with candid interviews, in-depth features and beer reviews from the Bros, it’s required reading for passionate fans and industry professionals alike. Because great beer deserves great stories." 

Another great site is RateBeer.com.  From their website: "RateBeer is widely recognized as the most accurate and *most-visited source for beer information. RateBeer is an independent world site for craft beer enthusiasts and is dedicated to serving the entire craft beer community through beer education, promotion and outreach. Since May 2000, RateBeer has remained an active forum for beer lovers to come together and share opinions of beers, and beer retailers in a free environment. Established and maintained by dedicated volunteers, RateBeer has become the premier resource for consumer-driven beer ratings, features on beer culture and industry events, weekly beer-related editorials, and an internationally recognized, annual RateBeer Best competition. A vibrant community of hundreds of thousands of members from more than 100 countries have rated hundreds of thousands of different beers around the world. Our mission is to provide independent, unbiased, consumer-driven information about beer and breweries and to enhance the image and worldwide appreciation of beer."

There are many smaller websites dedicated to reviewing beer, but to my knowledge, these are the "big 2".  Many find it fun to belong to a community of beer lovers and if you are one of these people, check out the websites at the links above.

This article was adapted in part from The Beer Enghusiast's Guide by Greg Smith and Evaluating Beer written by various beer gurus and edited by Brewer's Publications.


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