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Beer Tasting 101

After a long day at work, sometimes you just want a nice, refreshing beer to relax. But when the bartender asks, “Do you prefer a more caramel or citrus bouquet?” you may just give them a blank stare. Don’t let your lack of expertise keep you from kicking with the barkeep like a pro. Even if you’re a total newbie to beer tasting, that doesn’t mean you can’t strut your stuff. In fact, there are standards and best practices established for respectable beer judging set forth by the Beer Judge Certification Program. Being a beer judge may sound like the world’s coolest gig, but it actually involves rigorous study, examination and certification processes.

So, in lieu of all of that official training, we’ve created a Cliff’s Notes version for you to impress your friends on your next outing. The BJCP has released its 2015 Beer Judge Certification Program Style Guidelines, a 93-page PDF describing 34 types of beer and the factors that a discriminating beer judge would be looking for when analyzing each. Here, we’ve laid out the basics of what to look for when you taste a beer.

“Aroma” is a fancy way to describe “how a beer smells”, and “bouquet” is an even fancier way to express it. Make sure you always say “aroma” or “bouquet” instead of “smell.” To gain even more credibility, a beer’s bouquet is what you smell before tasting.

Your beer’s smell—rather, its bouquet—generally falls into a sweet or savory category. In the sweet category, you’ll want to look for (or claim to have noticed) aromas that are caramel, chocolate, roasty or nutty. In the savory category, sniff for qualities that describe the hops and use terms like “hoppy,” “floral,” “citrusy” and “earthy.”

A good beer buff will not only describe the actual appearance of the beer in the glass, but also how the beer behaves in the glass. So, you’ll want to point out whether the beer has a foamy head and whether the lacing clings to the inside of the glass, in addition to whether the beer is clear or cloudy. When describing the beer’s color, you’ll want to have a ton of different words to say “yellowish-brown.” Some good ones include “pale gold,” “amber gold,” “amber brown,” “ruby brown,” “blonde” and “straw.” Yes, “straw.”

When beer tasting, you’ll want to comment on 19 different things before you mention what the beer actually tastes like. But once you finally get around to describing the taste, there is an accepted formula for doing so.

You don’t describe the beer’s flavor with the actual word “flavor.” Instead, you refer to its “notes,” “tones” or “body.” If the beer is sweetish and smooth, you’d refer to it as “malty” or “roasty.” If the beer has a degree of bitterness, you describe it as “hoppy” and then use follow-up terms like “citrusy,” “floral,” “piney” and—if you really want to sound like a beer connoisseur—“juniper-like.”

It may sound like a silly term, but it’s integral to the art of beer tasting. “Mouthfeel” describes the texture of a beer once inside you mouth, whether it is effervescent and bubbly, thin or watery, or thick and tasty. If thick or heavy, you call it “chewy” even though you can’t actually chew it (it’s still a liquid). Mouthfeel doesn’t actually describe how a beer tastes, but how it feels inside your mouth.

So chew on those tips to taste beer like a real beer judge even if you’re just a budding amateur. This way your beer-tasting opinions will pass the smell test. Or, rather, the bouquet test.

Tap into the growing collection of 18 stops along the Tri-Valley Beer Trail and plan your trip.

By Joe Kukura