Beer Judge Boot Camp, Day 3: How To Get Better At Tasting Beer

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.

Day 1: Appearance

Day 2: Aroma

Today: Flavor

Day 4: Texture

Flavor is the most important aspect of judging a beer. When certified judges fill out their scorecards for a beer, flavor makes up the bulk (20 points out of 50) of the beer's score. What judges in most beer competitions are looking for isn't just whether a beer tastes good to them—though obviously that helps—but whether it adheres to the ideal version of what that style should be. How close is it to the perfect saison, or the perfect pale ale, or the perfect imperial stout? The requirements for those "perfect" versions are recorded in these guidelines, published by the Beer Judge Certification Program.

But that's probably not what you're after, as a lay beer drinker. You just want to think about whether a beer tastes good to you, and whether you'd drink another one. Considering a few technical aspects of a beer's flavor will help you arrive at that decision. And, more importantly, it will help you know what it is you like about a beer so that you can make choices more in line with your tastes moving forward. Soon, you'll be closer to batting—er, drinking—1.000.

So you've looked at your beer, swirled and sniffed it, and taken your first sip. When I'm evaluating a beer, I usually let that first sip just be an introduction: I don't try to overanalyze, I just ask myself whether it's pleasant, whether I like it. On subsequent sips, I try to figure out why or why not.

Beer's main flavors come from the interplay of malt, hops, and yeast. (Of course, American craft brewers add all sorts of other stuff to beers, too: spices, fruit, peppers, flowers, barrel-aging. If a beer has an additional ingredient like tangerine or chili peppers or vanilla, definitely ask your taste buds whether they're picking it up, and at what intensity.) Malts are the grains—barley, wheat, rye, etc.—that make up the base of the beer; hops are the flavorful flowers of the plant humulus lupulus; yeast are the fascinating organisms that convert sugar to alcohol. To be reductive, malts contribute sweetness which is balanced by hop bitterness. Malt, hops, and yeast can all supply additional flavors, too.

If you ever have the opportunity at a homebrew supply shop or on a brewery tour to sniff or even nibble on raw ingredients, it's a huge help in identifying those flavors in beer. Or just ask your friendly beer bartender or taproom employee: "Hey, I'm tasting a kind of banana flavor in here. Could that be from the yeast?" Eventually you'll get better at picking out why certain flavors are in your beer.

When people talk about "balanced" beers, they mean beers that have a close-to-even interplay of bitterness and sweetness. Too many hops and a beer becomes unbearably bitter; too much unfermented malt sweetness and it can become cloying and syrupy. Some beer styles lean more heavily one way or the other, with IPAs being hop-dominant and doppelbocks being malt-dominant, for example. The malt, hops, and yeast should work in tandem, each contributing its flavors without clashing.

Alright, so we've sipped our beer and thought about the ratio of sweetness to bitterness. After I sip, I also ask myself whether the flavor synced up to the aroma. If not, why? Was something more intense in the aroma than on the tongue? Did a new flavor emerge with the sip? Was I expecting something different? This is just another way of picking out flavors in the beer, since flavor and aroma are so closely linked. If I got a ton of hop-derived passionfruit notes out of the aroma, but then the flavor is much more malty-bready, that might be a letdown, depending on my preferences. It's just an exercise in evaluation that, again, will help you figure out what you like and don't like in certain beers.

In the beginning of your beer journey, it's important to be promiscuous when it comes to styles. Try as many types of beer as you can at first until you start to form a sense of what types you gravitate towards: cleanly fermented lagers, way-hoppy double IPAs, dry stouts. And keep an open mind, trying different versions of the same family of beer from different breweries: You might try a very sweet tropical stout and think you dislike stouts, but you'd be overlooking the dry, roasted joy of Guinness. Or you might try a pale ale that's heavy on one variety of hops that you really like, then be let down by another pale ale that uses a totally different variety.

I can't recommend enough that you find a beer bar or taproom with knowledgeable, friendly staff who can serve as your guides. I learned much from my time on a barstool, asking pesky questions as I'm wont to do. If you taste something, say something: "I like the lemony flavor in this beer. What does that come from?" or "I don't like when IPAs are too bitter. Can you recommend one that's a bit softer?" This might not work at a dive bar or airport watering hole, but good beer bartenders love talking about this stuff. You can also ask me questions on Twitter!

Most of all, keep drinking and keep thinking. The more you pay attention to the flavors you're tasting and try to sleuth out the reasons they're in your glass, the closer you'll be to beer enlightenment. After years of drinking beer as part of my job, I have a pretty good idea of what I like and what turns me off in a beer. Every now and then I'm still surprised, though, either by a beer I didn't think I'd like or a new combination of ingredients or just an exquisitely well-made version of a classic style. If there were no surprises, where would the fun be in that?

Tune in tomorrow for our last day of Beer Judge Boot Camp, when we discuss beer's texture and try as hard as we can to avoid the word mouthfeel.