With City Weekly's fifth-annual Utah Beer Festival just around the corner, my thoughts turn from wine—my usual libation of choice—to cold brew. Many who attend the festival are coming to taste the many crafted beers available, not just drink them. And tasting and evaluating beer isn't so different from wine. The same principles apply, although it's usually not expected that you spit beer out as you taste it.
In past years, I've had the good fortune to attend the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, sampling beers with experts such as Squatters founder Peter Cole and former brewmaster Jenny Talley. Talley is now the brewing operations manager at Redhook Ale Brewery, but while she was at Squatters, she taught me much of what I know about tasting beer. By the way, Talley helps judge some of the competitions at GABF, so learning how to evaluate beer from her was quite a treat. Here's a quick step-by-step guide to enhance your beer-festival experience.
As with wine, your eyes come first in the "tasting" process. Look at the beer in a clear glass. Each style of beer has its own particular color and head. Get to know the different major beer styles, and begin evaluating a glass of beer by how true it is to that style. You wouldn't expect an oatmeal stout to be straw colored, for example. Since beer runs the color spectrum from pale yellow (think Coors Light) to almost black (like schwarzbiers), color matters.
Is the beer clear or cloudy? A Czech-style pilsner should be clear, not cloudy, and vice-versa for a beer like a Hefeweizen. Also, pay attention to the head and the lacing it leaves on the side of the glass. An Irish stout such as Guinness will have a creamy-looking head with bubbles that are nearly imperceptible. In contrast, American IPAs will typically have rocky heads that look like craters and valleys once it begins to settle in the glass.
Next, use your nose. Swirl the beer gently in the glass. Given its carbonation, you won't want to subject it to the beefy swirl you would with wine. Get your schnoz right down into the glass and take a good whiff. How does the beer smell? A beer's aromas will tell you a lot about what's in the glass. As with wine, smelling beer is a good way of identifying problems and flaws, as well as desirable beer characteristics.
For example, flavor compounds called esters are common in certain beers—aromas that might remind you of bananas or bubble gum—and they're quite common in yeasty Hefeweizen beers. However, you wouldn't want the esters to be overpowering, nor would you expect to find them in something like an English session beer. Similarly, butterscotch aromas in beer come from diacetyl, which is the same compound used to flavor microwave popcorn. Most of the time, diacetyl is considered a flaw in beer, although low acceptable levels are sometimes found in British-style ales.
Finally, get that beer onto your tongue. Try to identify different flavor components in the beer. Is it bitter? Earthy? Are there fruity flavors? Smoke? How about grassy, herbal flavors? Zeroing in on the various flavors in different beers will help you begin to isolate the styles that you like the most.
As with wine, evaluating beer isn't only about how it tastes, but also how it feels. Different beer styles have different textures; think of the bubbly, effervescent feel of an IPA in the mouth versus a creamy porter or stout.
Finally, try beers with various foods. Similar to pairing wine with food, matching beers with your favorite dishes will open up an entire universe of fascinating partnerships and affinities.