How To Review a Beer
Before you review a beer, there are certain points you should keep in mind. Here is how you should review a beer.
With the rise of the craft brewing phenomenon, the general public’s knowledge and appreciation for different beer styles is also on the rise. And that has led to more festivals, more events and more competitions where the average consumer is given a chance to rate and evaluate beers. Beer blogs are filled with the latest reviews – some of them highly subjective – of regional and local beers. But what is the best way to review a beer?
Understand different beer styles
In many ways, the fundamental starting point for any beer review is simply gaining an appreciation for different beer styles. Some of these styles – such as India Pale Ale (IPA) – might be very familiar to you, due to their popularity. But the important point to keep in mind here is that each beer style has certain characteristics that are part of beer style guidelines. That might sound obvious, but too many casual reviewers make the mistake of assuming that certain characteristics – such as sourness or buttery notes – are a flaw rather than a defining trait. So the general rule of thumb is only to judge a beer on what it is trying to be – not what you would like it to be.
An objective beer rating system
The next step in reviewing a beer is deciding on a beer rating system that is as objective as possible. A review of any kind (beer, movies, restaurants) will necessarily be somewhat subjective, but it helps if there is some kind of rating system in place that enables you to compare Beer A vs. Beer B as objectively as possible. The good news here is that the beer industry already has a commonly agreed upon rating system in place that relies upon scores for the basic attributes of a beer:
- Feel (also known as “mouth feel”)
Different rating systems can assign different weights to each of these attributes. One common weighted rating system, for example, assigns a weight of 6% to appearance, 24% to smell, 40% to taste, 10% to feel and then 20% for an “overall impressions” category. Scores assigned a value of 1 to 5 for each of these categories, a weight is assigned for each category, and then a final score is tabulated.
In most rating systems, taste is the single most important variable, so it is the one that typically receives the most attention in a review.
Here, you should describe any malt, hops, fermentation byproducts or other flavour characteristics that you detect. You should also try to describe any balance, finish or aftertaste of the beer. In terms of balance, is there one single ingredient or flavour that stands out? What is the aftertaste (if any) of the beer?
For people reviewing a beer for the first time, one good way to write about taste is by using examples from the world of food. Do you detect any fruity notes in lighter beers? Do you detect any caramel or chocolate notes in a darker beer?
And, while you are free to use any style you would like to taste a beer, there is a process that many experts use. You first sip a beer, and then let it warm on your palate. Swallow, and then breathe out. This final step of exhaling will release additional taste and flavour stimulations, some of which might be very different from what you first experienced.
The second most important attribute or characteristic of a beer is the smell. The proper way to smell a beer is through a process called olfaction. During olfaction, you will assess the beer in 3 different ways. First, breathe in beer solely through your nose with your mouth closed. Then, breathe in the beer with your mouth open. Then, breathe in the beer with your mouth only. Doing so will expose you to the full range of possible smells. Moreover, you can also swirl the beer in its glass to release as much flavour as possible.
This category is where your knowledge of different beer styles can really be put to use. For example, there are several terms that are generally used to describe a beer with high malt content: sweet, roasty, smoky, toasty and nutty. As well, there are several terms usually used to describe beers with high hops content: herbal, spicy, leafy and grassy are some of the most popular.
Basic do’s and don’ts of reviewing a beer
You will also want to keep in mind some basic do’s and don’t of reviewing a beer. For example, while you may enjoy a nice, ice-cold beer (especially when the weather is very hot), you need to keep in mind that cold temperatures will mask the true taste and smell of a beer. The general rule of thumb is that pale and/or low alcohol beers should be reviewed at a temperature of 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit, while darker and/or high alcohol beers should be reviewed at a temperature of 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit.
You should also keep in mind the order that you review beers. For years, the generally accepted practice has been to review beers from those lightest in colour to those darkest in colour. However, there has been growing acceptance of a slightly different approach to reviewing beers that starts with those lowest in alcohol content (as measured by alcohol by volume, or ABV) and ends with those highest in alcohol content.
And, just like you’ve probably seen in wine tastings, you should always cleanse your palate between reviewing different beers. Most people use water and a cracker or bread to cleanse the palate. This is far preferable to using food that is oily, greasy or fatty as a palate cleanser (as you might encounter at some street festivals or other events).
Also, there are a few “don’ts” to keep in mind. Don’t ever review a beer, for example, if you are intoxicated (or becoming intoxicated). This will only dull your own senses that are needed to properly review a beer. Don’t review a beer after smoking (or while being exposed to secondhand smoke). And don’t write a review that consists only of 1’s (the lowest mark) or only of 5’s (the highest mark).
As you can see, reviewing a beer is about offering a very nuanced consideration of the different attributes of a beer, and then objectively coming up with a score for that beer that will make it possible for others to understand why they may (or may not) also like that beer. And don’ forget – the more you review different beers, the more you will learn about beer and the more you will train your own palate to recognize different flavours, tastes and smells. In doing so, you will be boosting your own beer expertise and exposing yourself to the true breadth and variety of beers available today.