Beer Judge Boot Camp, Day 1: Why A Beer's Appearance Matters

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.

Today: AppearanceDay 2: AromaDay 3: FlavorDay 4: Texture

Beer is a really beautiful beverage, with a range of colors and textures from bubbly and straw-colored to still and mahogany-hued. Beer's appearance isn't a detail we give much thought to, but it's the first aspect of formally judging a beer. In fact, a beer's appearance can already give you some clues as to its other qualities. Getting better at evaluating a beer's appearance mostly involves taking the time to consider it, and expanding our visual vocabulary.

Next time you crack open a can or get slid a beer at a bar, take a long look. (You'll have to pour that packaged beer into a glass, obviously.) Hold it up to the light. Look at it from the top and the side.

The first thing you'll likely notice is its color. Beer color is standardized by a scale called the Standard Reference Method, a code with numbers from 2 to 40-plus. Technically, SRM expresses beer color density by measuring the attenuation of a certain wavelength of light when passing through a 1 cm sample of the beer, then multiplying that by a constant—it involves an equation and a spectrometer and it's completely unnecessary to know how it works. What the average person should know is that there are is a standardized way for describing beer's color through a numeric scale, but that most people don't talk about beer that way. Instead, use your words! There are many shades of yellow, amber, brown, and black; get creative in how you think about the beer in front of you. Some color phrases I've used on my judging scoresheets include pale straw, deep golden, rich amber, copper, etc.

Then, look at the beer's clarity (or lack thereof). Some beers are crystal clear while others are impenetrably dark or opaque, with all levels of hazy and murky in between. Clarity is good in certain kinds of beer but not others; you'd want a German pilsner to be brilliantly clear but a hefeweizen should have some haziness because of the wheat in its recipe. Mostly, consider whether the beer looks appealing to drink, and appreciate a lovely-looking pour. We expect our food to be plated in an appetizing way; why not our beer?

Next, look at the beer's head, the foamy, bubbly part atop the pour. Some beers, owing to the protein structure of their ingredients, have thick, rich heads while others have hardly any. Depending on the style of beer you're drinking, sometimes you'll want to see a fluffy head and others you won't. So, how present is the head on your beer? Does it swell up and quickly fade, or is it persistent and long-lasting? What's its texture: moussey, craggy, smooth, rocky, rich, fine? Heads have their own colors, too. In official beer judging, you're tasked with describing the head's texture, color, and lifespan: describing one as "A long-lasting, creamy eggshell-colored head of good retention" would earn you high marks on the beer judging exam. If you say this aloud, it will earn you long eyerolls from your friends.

Fourth, look at the beer's carbonation. Does it have giant, lively bubbles like Champagne, or fine, delicate bubbles you can barely see? Again, whether or not this is desirable depends on the beer style; no one expects a fizzy imperial stout. The carbonation or lack of it can clue you in to what the beer will taste like: If your witbier looks totally flat, you're in trouble.

Since a beer's perfect color, head, carbonation, and clarity vary from style to style, you're not so much looking for one exact character in all beers. It'll just make you a more informed, thoughtful drinker if you pause before taking a sip and quickly consider the beer's appearance. To get better at this, talk aloud with someone—preferably a nonjudgmental friend who doesn't mind a bit of beer nerdery—and think creatively. Use color words from nature or art, and think in terms of intensity, too: moderately hazy, richly amber, delicately fizzy.

Some of my favorite judges are a group I used to meet with when I was doing beer reviews for a magazine; they each had their own linguistic quirks to describe certain beers. One said a certain beer was so clear you could read a newspaper through it; another said a beer was murky like a swamp. If you're not beer judging professionally, you can be as weird and descriptive as you want.

Tomorrow, we'll discuss how to evaluate beer's aroma—yes, by swirling it around like an asshole.