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.
On the official beer judging score sheet, texture is listed as “mouthfeel,” but this is my boot camp and that works squicks me out. So texture it is! The two words are getting at the same thing: how beer feels in your mouth.
“Uh, wet?” you’re thinking, as you squint at the screen. Yes, but there’s so much more. Beer does actually have texture, and that texture or body can majorly affect whether a beer tastes good or gross to you.
There are numerous sensations that fall under texture:
Body describes viscosity, or how “full” a beer feels on your tongue. Some beers—think your standard American light beers—are “fucking near water” to quote the hackneyed joke. But it’s true; I for one love Coors Light on summer river rafting trips because it’s refreshing and highly carbonated. Miller High Life, for another, is the “champagne of beers” for its light and effervescent body. On the other side of the spectrum are imperial stouts and doppelbocks which can range into full-bodied, almost “chewy” territory. These can also be delicious in an indulgent, rich, sit-by-the-fire-and-sip way.
Brewers can manipulate the mouthfeel of beers in certain ways: namely through their ingredients and recipes. Grains like oats, and sugars like lactose, increase the perception of the beer’s fullness. Another way to manipulate body is by altering fermentation, the process by which yeast turns sugars into alcohol. If yeast don’t eat up much of the sugars in a beer, it feels thicker and sweeter; if they eat up almost everything, the beer feels thinner and less sweet. This is called attenuation: A well-attenuated beer is thinner in body while a less-attenuated beer is thicker. Attenuation is measured by the difference between original gravity and starting gravity, which are expressions of a liquid’s density (this is typically measured in degrees Plato). No starting beer drinking needs to know this stuff, but if you want some further reading on this topic, learning about gravity is the next step.
Most Americans expect our beers to have some degree of carbonation, though some still beers exist. Bubbles are in your beer for a reason. First, it makes a beer feel “lively” and refreshing. Highly carbonated beers like saisons or goses are often described as refreshing, whereas beers infused with nitrogen (served “on nitro”) feel creamier or smoother. Second, it “scrubs” a beer from our palate after the swallow, adding to that refreshing sensation we talked about. A less carbonated beer like a doppelbock tends to feel like it’s sitting on our tongue, soaking in a bit. In some styles, this is a pleasant thing. Lastly, carbonation can enhance other sensation, notably bitterness. A highly carbonated IPA tastes more bitter than an IPA with less carbonation.
Pay attention to other tactile sensations in your mouth while drinking, especially warming. If your mouth or throat feels a bit warm after a sip of beer, that’s an indication of higher alcohol content. Most people can’t perceive this until a beer reaches about 8 percent ABV; I find that anything 10 percent and over makes my chest feel warm and my cheeks nearly flush. If a beer has too high of alcohol and tastes like it’s “burning,” beer judges will describe the beer as “too hot.” Slickness or oiliness is another sensation to pay attention to; it can be an indication of diacetyl, a generally unpleasant buttery-tasting compound, in your beer.
Most beers won’t require you to think much about their texture. They generally fall into the medium-light- to medium-full-bodied range, with the right amount of carbonation for their style, and that’s that. We don’t even give it a second thought. But texture can be that extra cherry on top of a great beer, like a wonderful milk stout served on nitro, for example. Texture can also ruin an otherwise solid beer, say if your saison has gone flat. It’s a small but key portion of what makes beer so enjoyable.
And well, folks, with that, we’ve wrapped up the final day of Beer Judge Boot Camp. For those who followed along, thanks for reading, and I hope it made your next beer even more enjoyable. If there’s a beer topic you’d like to read about that I haven’t addressed, you know where to leave the comments.