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How to Review a Beer

by: Todd on 04-19-2005
Version: 1.02 - last updated on 03/16/2011

First ...
This info is long overdue, and I was amazed at how little info there actually was on "reviewing beer." There's some pro-stuff, but nothing for the average beer lover. So I hope that everyone finds this useful in his or her beer adventures.

I've had the idea for this for a while now, but I'd like to send some props out to Abe Kabakoff, of the Trailhead Brewing Company, for giving me the kick-in-the-ass that I needed to get this thing started. I plan on revising the how to as my thoughts on the topic continue to form and I collect more people from within the industry.

And now for something complete different ...

Stop, think and drink!

Review beer, judge beer, rate beerOne day you might find yourself enjoying a beer, when all of the sudden you begin to have an opinion on the beer, beyond just enjoying it - or not, as the case might be. From there, you might decide to discuss it with others or take some notes. But before you do: stop, think and drink! Although taste is very subjective, there are ways to compose your thoughts and remain as objective as possible. The following tips will allow you to evaluate a beer, while respecting what the brewer was trying to achieve.

Note: you don't need to be a beer geek to follow these tips either.

Respect brewers
Behind each beer is a person with feelings and pride. Beer might be their passion, livelihood or entire life. Even if you don't like a beer, at the very least have some respect and be constructive with your criticism.

Form your own opinion
It's important to not be influenced by others when reviewing a beer. Everyone is going to have a different experience, so make sure your opinions are your own. Don't allow others to lead you before you review the beer yourself - this includes reading on-line reviews of the beer that you're about to review.

Keep style in mind
Say you don't like light beers. We suggest that you do one of two things: 1) don't review them if you know you already don't like them - your opinion will be tainted. 2) Review with an open mind and for what the beer is trying to be, not what you think the beer should be or pit it against the kick-ass India Pale Ale that you had earlier. It's also important to note that a beery character that you might not like, could be "to style," and shouldn't be deemed a flaw. Example: buttery notes (diacetyl) in a Scotch Ale or ESB, the vinegary sourness in a Lambic, or the intense smokiness in a Rauchbier.

Know your beer styles, checkout our Beer Styles section for more info. And if you really want to geek out, study to become a certified beer judge: www.bjcp.org - in general, a great reference, but keep in mind that these guidelines are but one opinion (like our styles are) and in place for pro-judging a fests and homebrew competitions.

Flavor and aroma are tightly connected, so make sure you have your senses in check. Don't attempt to review a beer if your senses are out of whack, like: you've got a cold, burnt your tongue with coffee in the morning, just ate a plate of atomic wings, tasted too many beers already, you're exhausted or simply in a bad mood. Taste buds can get ruined and tired, so be flexible and try a beer more than once.

Speaking of senses, never review a beer in a smoky environment or while smoking. Smoking inhibits your sense of smell and taste in a major way, and smoking (first- or second-hand) can damage your senses, sometimes permanently.

What to look for
There are five categories to evaluating a beer with your review:

Appearance - Note the beer's color, carbonation, head and its retention. Is it clear or cloudy? Does it look lackluster and dull or alive and inviting?

Smell - Bring the beer to your nose. Note the beer's aromatic qualities. Malts: sweet, roasty, smoky, toasty, chocolaty, nutty, caramelly, biscuity? Hops: dank / resiny, herbal, perfumy, spicy, leafy, grassy, floral, piney, citrusy? Yeast will also create aromas. You might get fruity or flowery aromas (esters) from ales and very clean aromas from lagers, which will allow the malt and hop subtleties to pull through.

Taste - Take a deep sip of the beer. Note any flavors, or interpretations of flavors, that you might discover. The descriptions will be similar to what you smell. Is the beer built-well? Is there a balance between the ingredients? Was the beer brewed with a specific dominance of character in mind? How does it fit the style?

Mouthfeel - Take another sip and let it wander. Note how the beer feels on the palate and its body. Light, heavy, chewy, thin / watery, smooth or coarse? Was the beer flat, over-carbonated?

Overall - Your overall impression of the beer.

Many drink their beer too damn cold. Cold temperatures will numb the taste buds and literally masks the beer's true flavors, aromas and nuances. Use color (malts) and alcohol content to determine the best drinking temperatures. Try around 40-50 degrees F for paler or lower alcohol beers, and 50-60 degrees F for darker or higher alcohol beers.

Glassware (clean)
Is important. Instead of listing out the hows and whys, checkout our Glassware for Beer section. If you're at home, stock up on some of the basics, otherwise do the best you can.

Serving preparation
As mentioned, clean glassware is a must. You should take note to not review a beer if: you know that the tap lines are dirty or your sample is from a recapped or abused growler sample - like a growler shipped across the US or growler that is poured into bottles and recapped to ship to multiple reviewers.

Many suggest that beers should be tasted from the old "lightest to darkest" heuristic method. While this generally works, today it's dated and flawed. Sure, malt flavors will intensify with increasing kilning temperatures, but often times color has nothing to do with tasting a beer. Color can be an indication of what you might be in for, but for the most part, and with most drinkers, it's psychological. You'll want to consider two things: alcohol content and hop levels. Keep your hoppy and high alcohol beers towards the end so you don't ruin your palate early in the tasting. Exceptions to this might be certain specialty ingredients that have very bold and distinct characters, like: smoked malts in Rauchbiers, intense fruit beers, or the wild yeast and bacteria used in Lambics - all of which can be light in color, hence the flaw. You'll want to save these for the end as well.

Don't review a "bad" beer
Not a beer that you simply don't like, but rather a beer you know to be spoiled due to reasons outside of the brewer's control - like a skunked beer and beer past its prime. If you come across a beer like this, alert whoever you purchased it from and send a note to the brewer. Using your review to bitch about it won't help anyone.

Don't review at beer fests
If you're planning on taking notes at a beer fest, don't. With small sample sizes (usually 1 to 4ozs), loud environments, slew of smells, and tasting of numerous beer styles back-to-back, beer fests are not the ideal environment in which to review a beer. Doing so does a disservice to the brewer and could mislead others. It's also not a good idea to have multiple people review from the same small serving or review by cell-phone light at night.

Don't review from samplers
Along the same lines as beer fests, many brewpubs and beer bars offer samplers - typically 4ozs servings of a range of offerings. You shouldn't review these either. Between the presentation and sample size, samplers are simply not worthy of reviews. You're not going to get to know a beer off of a single 4oz sample.

Don't review while intoxicated
You should always practice moderation when drinking, but never review a beer if you're intoxicated. Your judgment will be clouded, as will your senses.

Cleanse the palate
It's highly recommended that you have some water as well as plain bread, crackers or even air-popped popcorn on hand to cleanse the palate between beers and to help stave off inebriation. Avoid salty and greasy foods or anything that could overpower the senses - you want to clean/scrub the palate, not destroy it.

Take notes
Many view this as a rather geeky practice, but note taking can really help you to learn more about beer, train your palate and broaden your beer vocabulary.

For more info on appreciating beer: Beer 101

Respect Beer.
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