Tasting and evaluating beer

I’ll be playing beer judge this Saturday at the NKY Homebrewer’s Association Moerlein Cup in Cincinnati. I’m excited, but a little nervous too since I’ll be judging for the first time. See, the only thing more intense than the Certified Cicerone exam is the Beer Judge Certification Program; Their tagline is “it’s tough, but fair” – these guys don’t mess around. I’m a Certified Cicerone, NOT a BJCP certified judge, so I’ll be paired up with one to guide me through the official, competition process. In preparation for my debut, I thought I’d freshen up by sharing a little of my knowledge about proper beer tasting and evaluation. They say that teaching is the best way of learning, right?

homebrew

Proper evaluation, especially at the competition level, is no laughing matter. There are strict rules at play. Definitely take a look a the BJCP Style Guide before even thinking of evaluating beer, especially if its a competition.

Whether you are preparing for a competition, or hosting your friendly neighborhood beer nerds for a casual beer tasting, there are things you should remember. A full belly is your friend, don’t be drinking a bunch of beers on an empty stomach (but don’t eat a fiery burrito right before hand either). Your palette should be fresh, so no chewing gum or smoking, or even chapstick wearing – and ladies, it might be super cute, but no lipstick either. God knows I love a smokin’ hot red lip, but I’ll save that for date night. Also, ditch the perfume or cologne. Basically anything that may interfere with your sense of smell or taste is bad bad bad. If you’re doing a lot of sampling like at a competition, make sure plenty of water and unsalted pretzels are available to cleanse the palate.

Now that you’re prepped and ready, pour yourself a beer! (Of course, proper glassware can aid you in the best sensory experience.)

Your eyes judge first. Look at the beer. Is it cloudy, or pristinely clear? How is the head volume and retention? What color is it? Light golden straw, or inky opaque black? Is it appropriate for the style. Take notes.

Now, smell. Place your nose deeply into the glass and take quick short sniffs. What aromas are there? Perhaps banana and clove, as in a hefeweizen, or pungent, dank hops as in a dry-hopped IPA. Hopefully not a skunky or sulfury smell, never a good sign. Take more notes!

Next, take a sip and assess the flavor. Swirl the beer around your mouth to get every possible taste sensation. Now, as you swallow, lift your tongue and breath retronasally by forcing air out from the back of your mouth through your nose. Sounds silly, but do this and you will have a better tasting experience. Aroma is a huge part of taste, which is why you can’t taste anything when you have a really bad cold.  What flavors are sticking out to you? Do you get peppery phenols as in a saison, or caramelly and rasiny malts as in a Belgian dubbel? Use descriptive words, not just “malty” or “hoppy” which don’t really explain the tropical fruit and citrus you get from the hops in that American wheat beer you just tasted. What don’t you like about the beer, do you notice any off flavors like a vegetabley, creamed corn aroma (DMS) or buttery slick taste (diacetyl)? Be specific.

In addition to flavor, what is the mouthfeel of the beer like? Does it coat your tongue with the rich body of a roasty, vanilla laiden imperial stout, or is it thin like a drinkable American lager. Does it taste crisp and bitter like an American Pale Ale? Or maybe sweet and even a little syrupy like an eisbock. How is the carbonation? Effervescent like a geuze or barely tingly like a British, cask conditioned ale. 

Blackberry Belgian Stout

Now that you’ve swallowed, assess the after taste. Is it bitter? Astringent, like sucking on a dry tea bag? Dry? Sweet? Take more notes.

Repeat.

There is nothing like practice to be a better beer judge. Whether for fun, or at a competition, lots of practice is important. It will help you identify styles and know how to compare them. Bottom line, drink more beer, and take great notes, and you will be a better beer evaluator. Reading is good too! It can help you with words to describe those flavors you taste.

Hope to see some of you at the competition Saturday! The after party is sure to be a good time. Cheers!

6 thoughts on “Tasting and evaluating beer”

  1. As an experienced BJCP judge, I get paired with novice judges all the time and they almost always do a great job of judging. And most of them haven’t given this much thought into being a judge! Please take the exam soon – we always need more good judges.

    1. Thanks! I’m definitely considering it… I’ve been so swamped I haven’t had much time to make any progress. We’ll see how tomorrow goes I guess!! Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  2. Hi! I love your blog. I found it yesterday when the AHA posted their brewer of the week. These are very good tips for judging & evaluating beer, but there’s one I’d like to offer a counter-opinion to: “a full belly is your friend.” While it’s true that you don’t want to get drunk during a juding flight, and it’s usually good advice to eat before a beer fest, it’s best to judge when you’re hungry. The reason is physiological: when you are hungry your sense of smell is sharpened. Your body is looking for food. You can more easily cue in on individual tastes & smells when you haven’t eaten. It more than just that big plate of channa masala you just ate skewing your palate; when you’re full your food sensors back off because they’re not needed at that time.

    My tip: eat a light, bland breakfast an hour before you leave home for the competition. A bowl of special K, a plain bagel, that sort of thing. If you need coffee, drink it at home well before you head to the competition. Avoid the coffee & “everything” bagels provided at the competition. You need to eat something so you don’t get sloshed during the 9:00 AM beer flight, but you don’t want to be full. It’s a balancing act. You want to do all you can to ensure your senses are sharp. The palate-cleansing bread on your judging table can be used to temper the intoxication throughout the flight as well. Then at the lunch break before the afternoon flight, skip the sliced onions on your deli tray sandwich.

    Keep blogging! We Pittsburghers will see you at Beer & Sweat.

    1. Awesome suggestions! Thanks so much for your extremely thoughtful comment 🙂 I hadn’t considered the sharpening of senses when hungry, but that makes perfect sense. My issue is going to be the coffee for sure. I don’t typically even eat breakfast so I’ll have to get up early and shove something down my throat, chug my coffee and go.

      We’ll definitely see you at Beer & Sweat, will hopefully have 3 or 4 kegs to contribute. Cheers!

  3. I’m a BJCP Nationally Ranked judge and your comments are spot on. I think most competitions offer French bread or unsalted crackers as a neutral tasting palate cleanser, rather than pretzels, but that is up to the organizers. Drink some water between each beer you judge to clear your palate. That helps dilute the impact of the total number of beers you will judge. Also, you don’t need to drink all of the beer poured out into the glasses for judging. Usually 3 or 4 sips will give you enough to form your evaluation. Try putting your hand over the glass and swirl the beer before you sniff the aroma. You will likely discuss each beer with your mentor after you have made an initial evaluation-sensory impressions are very subjective, so don’t be afraid of telling the mentor what you perceived (aroma, taste, mouthfeel, or overall impressions). Every competition is a learning experience for a judge, regardless of BJCP rank, so have fun and enjoy the experience!

    1. Paul, that is great to hear. Definitely need to remember not to drink the whole beer, and I’ll definitely be trying your swirling and sniffing technique!

      Thanks for the kind words and excellent advice!

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