Understanding Beer



This is an ongoing process, and with experience, you will have some idea of what a new beer you never have had should probably taste like. You also need to know if there are any problems with the beer so you don’t judge the style on a flawed example! And don’t be afraid to keep a notebook with your notes or use the beer judging sheets.




When you smell a beer, just like smelling a wine, you are searching for the essence of the beverage. Do you smell malts, hops, nothing? Sometimes you may smell something and not really know what it is. Therefore one of the main things you need to develop is relating a smell to a property in the beer.


The initial aroma is where the dominant scent is released when the bottle is opened. This can be malty or bread-like, maybe some citrus or piney hop scents. You will also begin to notice any flaws like paper, green apple, skunk or vinegar.


Next you will get some secondary aromas, swirling the glass can help bring these out. Here you may notice spiciness, floral notes maybe some fruit. These scents are the easiest for a novice to identify.


If you put down the beer (or better yet analyze it for appearance and flavor) and then come back to smell it (again swirl the glass), you will get some lingering scents that may be unusual. Some of these may be candy apple, wet grass, horse blanket, earthiness or nuttiness.



Looking at your beer you will gain a new appreciation of this complex beverage. A German Hefeweizen’s huge, thick long lasting snow-white head, the absolute clarity of Pilsners and German Lagers. The dark, tan head and ruby highlights on a German Schwarzbier. And how about the “Belgian Lace” that sticks around on a nice Abbey Dubbel.



When tasting beer it is important to begin in the right order. First take a slight amount and wet your lips. Yes your lips have receptors, so that your nose will also get another bit of scent. Then sip about 1oz and swirl lightly to make sure all of your taste receptors are coated.

It is always best to start with the lightest, sweetest beers when you are evaluating more than one beer at a session. The reason for this is that alcohol and “hoppiness” (bitter) tends to linger on the palette much longer and also fatigue the taste buds.

Meilgaard categorized beer flavors to include 6 general categories (fullness, mouthfeel, bitter, salt, sweet, and sour), and these 6 categories contain 14 flavors. Again see the wheel in Appendix



Mouthfeel is important because it also affects tasting. Meilgaard has a section on the wheel for this (mainly alkalinity and mouth coating), but other factors are included. Take note of the carbonation level, bubble size, how much foam and if there is a bite. These are usually the first things that are noticeable.

Next you will notice the density or fullness of the body, the astringency also called crispness or dryness in the finish. Hoppy beers tend to “dry out” the palette. You will also notice if the beer has slickness on the roof of the mouth (this usually indicates diacetyl).



Firstly these are general flaws. So the lesson is, make sure that it is really a flaw (e.g. in

Barley wines alcoholic is a part of the style).


Acetaldehyde – This compound has the taste and aroma of fresh-cut green apples, and has also been compared to grass, green leaves and latex paint. Acceptable in American Lagers, and some Belgian styles.


Alcoholic – This flavor may be detected as a spicy, vinous character in the aroma and taste and is often accompanied by a warm or prickly mouthfeel. Acceptable in Barleywines, Bock’s and other high alcohol beers.


Astringent – Puckering, lingering harshness and/or dryness in the finish/aftertaste; harsh graininess.


Diacetyl – Artificial butter, butterscotch, or toffee aroma and flavor. Sometimes perceived as a slickness on the tongue. Acceptable in some Ales and Bohemenian Pills.


DMS (dimethyl sulfide) – At low levels a sweet, corn-like aroma and flavor. At higher levels it may be perceived as cooked, canned, or rotten vegetables.


Estery – Aroma and/or flavor of any ester. Many are similar to various fruits, fruit flavorings, or roses. At high levels esters take on solvent notes. Fruity esters are acceptable in some ales, Hefeweizen and Belgian Ales.


Light-Struck – Similar to the aroma of a skunk. Not ever acceptable, Heineken and other “Green Bottle” beers notwithstanding.


Metallic – Tinny, coiny, blood-like flavor.

Oxidized/Stale – Anyone or combination of winy, cardboard, papery, or sherry-like aromas and flavors.


Phenolic – Anyone or combination or medicinal, plastic, smoky, plastic adhesive strip, or clovelike aromas and flavors. Clove and smoke are acceptable in certain Belgian Ales, Rauch (Smoke) Beers and Hefeweizen.


Solvent – Aromas and flavors of higher alcohols (fusel alcohols). Similar to acetone or lacquer thinner aromas.


Sour/Acidic – Tartness in aroma and flavor. Can be sharp and clean (lactic acid), vinegar-like (acetic acid), or lemony (citric acid). Sensation experienced mostly on the side of tongue. Acceptable in Belgian Iambics and Berliner Weiss.


Sulfur (hydrogen sulfide) – The aroma of rotten eggs or burning matches.

Vegetal – Cooked, canned, or rotten vegetable aroma and flavor.


 Beer Flavor Wheel

Understanding Beer



Alcohol Content – This is the amount of alcohol in a given liquid. It is measured as ABV or

ABW. The formula is:

ABW to ABV multiply ABW by 1.25

ABV to ABW multiply ABV by .8


Adjunct – Any fermentable not derived from malted barley. These include, wheat, rice, corn, sugar cane, flaked barley, oats etc.


Ale – Beer produced with a top fermenting yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Generally they ferment quicker and usually have fruity esters and a more “complex” character than a lager.


Base Malt – These are malts that need to be mashed and aren’t toasted. They also provide almost all of the sugar. Examples include, Pilsner Malt, Pale Malt, Munich and Vienna.


Belgian Beers – Typically ale, but Belgian beers have significant taste profiles, as well as different brewing processes to warrant a separate style. Generally, the yeast is a major contributor to this style, and some styles such as Lambic actually use bacteria as well.


Fermentation – The anaerobic conversion of sugar to carbon dioxide and alcohol by yeast.


FG – Final Gravity or Ending Specific Gravity, when the yeast have done all the sugar

conversion they are able to do.


Gravity – The amount of sugar in a solution. Also measured in Brix.


Hops - A twining vine (Humulus lupulus) used for bitterness and preservative power.


IBU - International Bittering Units; parts per million of isomerized hop resins in beer, related to the amount of alpha acid of the hops.


Lager – Beer produced with a bottom fermenting yeast, Saccharomyces carlsbergensis or the old Saccharomyces uvarum. These beers are known for their clean and mellow flavor profiles.


Lagering – Lagering is literally cold conditioning.


Lambic – Lambics are Belgian style beers that use several wild bacteria as well as a special yeast of the Brettanomyces genus. This makes a sour beer, but different than other sour styles such as Berliner Weiss, by the use of bacteria.


Light Struck – See Skunky


Malting – Steeping, germination and kilning of grains.


Mashing – The process of converting starch to sugar.

OG – Original Gravity or Starting Specific Gravity refers to the amount of sugar in a wort. A higher number is denser and has more potential alcohol.


Pilsner - A pale lager with strong flavor of hops; first brewed in the Bohemian town of Plzen (Pilsen).


Proof – This refers to ABV and is double the ABV (i.e. 10% ABV = 20 proof).


Roast – Technically malting and roasting are the same, but in normal usage, roasted malts are dark malts such as Chocolate and Black Patent. These are dried to 5% moisture and then kilned at high temperatures until the desired degree of “roast” is achieved.


Skunky – Ah, that Heineken smell. This is actually a fairly significant flaw. It is caused by the interaction between ultraviolet light and hops. Specifically, when ultraviolet light cleaves an isohumulone molecule. This forms a free radical that combines with a sulfur compound. Almost all beer in green or clear glass bottles are subject to this, although darker beers seem less affected. Also note that Miller Brewing uses a form of stable hop essences and the beer they bottle in clear bottles is not affected either.


Specialty Malts – This is any malt that isn’t a base malt, but many people refer to the caramel or crystal malts as specialty.


SRM – This is a standard for measuring beer color in the USA. In Europe, EBC is used. In both cases the lighter the color the lower the number.


Wort – The liquid that is produced after the brewer does his magic with the barley. This is beer before the yeast does it’s thing, but since there is no alcohol, it is not technically beer yet.


Yeast - Any of various unicellular fungi of the genus Saccharomyces, especially S. cerevisiae, reproducing by budding and from ascospores and capable of fermenting carbohydrates.