Welcome to Beer Judge Boot Camp, a four-day crash course that will make you a more astute beer drinker. I’ve been certified as a beer judge through the (aptly named) Beer Judge Certification Program, which requires both a written and in-person tasting exam. In four installments, I’ll break down the major components of beer evaluation and help even brew newbies think more critically about their next pint.
Day 1: Appearance
Day 3: Flavor
Day 4: Texture
Yes, I’m going to suggest you swirl and sniff your beer. Yes, you’re going to think you look like an asshole. And yes, you probably do, just a little bit.
So confine the swirl-sniffing to the privacy of your home or the company of trusted friends, but by all means, do take the time to enjoy beer’s aroma. It’s the second-most important criterion for judging beer—behind only flavor—and the two are so closely linked that you’re missing half the equation if you go straight for a gulp without getting your nose in the glass a bit first.
This Scientific American article written by neuroscientist Dana Small is an easily digestible primer on how aroma plays a role in what we commonly describe as flavor. We experience a bit of a beer’s aroma each time we drink, even if we’re not sniffing it, but taking time to smell a beer before taking a sip will help you pick out more nuanced flavors. Really. (Ever notice why you food doesn’t taste as flavorful when your nose is stuffed?)
Once I began paying more attention to a beer’s aroma, I became better able to describe its flavors. I believe this has several causes: First, considering a beer’s aromas gets our brains working, like a light jog warms up our leg muscles. It turns on those areas of the brain that think about flavor, so that by the time the beer hits our mouth, we’re fully open to appreciating it. Second, it offers a preview of what’s to come. Often I’m able to pick up a certain note in the aroma, say Citra hops’ grapefruit calling card, and then better identify it in the beer’s flavor. Some scents are magnified for me aromatically whereas they’re quieter on the palate, so smelling them first helps alert me to “look for them” in the beer’s flavor.
When you’re ready to explore a beer’s aroma, here’s how to start: Pour your beer out of a can, bottle, or tap, and into a type of glass that’s going to funnel aroma toward your nose. Curved glasses like tulips, Tekus or even wine glasses do this best. Get your nose in past the rim of the glass as soon as the beer’s poured—just don’t get it in the actual liquid. Some beer aromas dissipate quickly, so professional beer judges often start taking notes on aroma before they evaluate anything else. Take a breath in through your nose, pulling those aromas deep into your nose and back of your throat. After a couple breaths, you might want to give that beer a little swish around in the glass—no need to go crazy or you’ll shake all the carbonation out of it. Just giving it a little twist around the glass will help further open up its aromas.
So, what do you smell? It doesn’t yet matter if you know why these aromas are there, whether from hops or malt or yeast, but just concentrate on identifying them. Some of my total newbie beer-drinking friends are great at describing beer aromas because they’re not thinking about what should be there; they’re just relaying what it reminds them of. Very broadly: Beer malts tend to give off bread-, cereal-, nut- or pastry-like scents. Hop aromas can range from pine to citrus to mint to onion to tropical fruit to earth. Yeast can translate to anything from banana to cloves to hay to horse-blanket funk (really!) to pear. And that’s before we even consider additional flavors like fruit or spices or barrel-aging. So just think in free association: Does a beer remind you of banana bread or Honey Nut Cheerios or a grapefruit sorbet or a piece of Nutella toast?
Taking notes on a beer’s aroma generally takes me a couple minutes, if I’m trying to be thorough. But even just 30 seconds of consideration will give you a clue into what you can expect from the beer’s flavor—and it can also alert you to potential off-flavors or problems with the beer before you put that glass to your lips. Aromas of butter, cooked corn, skunkiness, or vinegar can all be red flags alerting you to a potential off-flavor in your beer.
Finally, after you’ve thought about a beer’s aroma a bit, take a sip. Some beer and wine judges do what’s called aspirating, where they sip in a way that draws air in along with the liquid, then let it sit on their tongue for just a moment. (The first few times I tried this, I almost choked and spit out my beer. Good work, Kate!) But most important is not how you inhale but how you exhale. After you’ve swallowed the beer, keep your mouth closed and exhale back out through your nose. This activates all the retronasal receptors at the back of your throat, which are quite powerful. Often this is where I notice new flavors and aromas that I didn’t perceive at first.
If you want to get better at understanding beer’s aromas, the answer is as close as your pantry. I routinely sniff almost every ingredient I cook with—imagine how strange I look preparing a dinner party—to expand my aromatic vocabulary. It helps me become more specific with my beer descriptions: I can say clove instead of spice, mango instead of tropical fruit, key lime zest instead of citrus. If I was ever unattended in a Whole Foods bulk section, I’d stick my face in every bin. (Well, food safety concerns would probably rein me in.)
Alright, now that we’re all nose-deep in our beer glasses like total nerds, we’re ready to move on to the most important component of evaluating beer: flavor. Tune in tomorrow when all the secrets of the beer tasting world will be revealed.