While wine sommeliers have been mulling over tannins for thousands of years, beer connoisseurship is a relatively young art. That’s because there was a time when every beer in North America tasted exactly the same. Sure, some folks swore they could tell a Bud from a Miller, but to most of the populace, all wobbly pop was created equally. And cheaply. Hardly something you swirled in a glass.
Things are different now. The microbrewery revolution has swept the continent, with craft brewmasters cultivating just about every form and flavour of beer you can conceive — and some you’d rather not. It would be wise, then, to take the time to understand the careful craftsmanship that went into your pint’s production. We asked Mirella Amato, a beer cicerone (that’s a beer sommelier), how to discern superlative suds from skunky duds.
Before anything, raise your glass and eye your brew. “Your beer was intentionally crafted to look a certain way,” says Amato, “so appearance is an integral part of the experience.”
Colour and clarity don’t necessarily correlate with the beer’s quality, but are nevertheless aspects of its character. Pitch black? Stout. Straw coloured? Pilsner. Head, however, can tell you much more. If the foam doesn’t collapse immediately, this indicates a well-crafted beer made with quality ingredients. As you drink, see if the foam creates a lace-like pattern — known as Belgian lace — on the sides of your glass. That means it’s the good stuff.
Examine the nose — that is, the aroma — of your brew before sipping it. “Our sense of taste is greatly informed by what we smell,” says Amato. “So get an idea of what the beer’s dominant notes are.”
If you can’t smell anything, swirl the beer around in your glass — this releases carbonation, which carries the aroma up to your nose. Your beer will either be malt-forward (sweet notes of fresh bread, coffee or chocolate), hop-forward (sharp notes of tropical fruit, citrus or pine) or yeast-forward (chunky notes of pepper, clove or even hay).
This is the fun part. Your beer’s taste will be a natural extension of its scent. Refrain from chugging — instead, swish it around in your mouth and look for familiar flavours. Is it salty, sweet, spicy, bitter or sour? A quality beer will have a complex mixture of flavours. Pay attention to the intensity — is it faint or strong? Also note the balance between sweetness and bitterness. “Take a moment to enjoy your first sip,” says Amato. “The next logical step is to decide whether you enjoy that moment or not.”
Anything not covered by taste or aroma is the beer’s mouthfeel — as in, the sensations that are in your mouth. Examine its texture and weight. “This is similar to the concept of ‘body’ in wine,” says Amato. “Does it feel like water, skim milk or whole milk?”
A light beer is described as light-bodied, an India Pale Ale is medium-bodied and a stout is full-bodied. Also take note of the carbonation level. Is it pleasant or distracting?
One of the most important aspects of beer tasting is the part that comes after the sipping. The finish is what’s left behind once you’ve swallowed. “The brewer wants to leave you wanting more,” notes Amato. “Sometimes immediately after your sip, flavours will come forward, then fade, and others will come up.”
Cold ones with a long finish tend to have higher alcohol content, and will linger pleasantly on your tongue, but also slow you down. Beers meant for refreshment have a short finish, with a crisp, fleeting aftertaste that leaves you thirsty again.
Amato has some trusty rubrics for pairing beer with food.
Rule 1: “Match the intensity of your beer with the intensity of your food.” A Russian imperial stout, which has bold coffee notes and 11 per cent alcohol, will likely overpower a salad. You’ll probably have more success with a slice of chocolate cake.
Rule 2: “Line up the colour intensity of your dish’s main item with the colour intensity of your beer.” If you’re having white fish or chicken, you’ll want a light, golden beer. If you’re getting into pork, go for a deeper amber. Steak? Go brown. There’s no scientific explanation for this—it just works.
The Perfect Pour
There’s one pouring method that works universally. “Start with your glass at a 45 degree angle and pour gently onto the inner-rim of the glass,” advises Amato. That technique minimizes the head. But you still definitely want some foam. “So when you get to two-thirds of the way up the glass, straighten it up so you’re pouring right down the middle.” That stimulates the foam—ideally, you’ll have about an inch of it at the top — which helps release essential aromas.
Never, ever drink straight from the bottle or can.