How to talk about beer like a pro

2 people enjoying beer on a summer's day on the dock by a lake

Learn how to describe the types of brews you like and you’ll always be happy with your choice

When beer sommeliers buy a few tall cans or order a pint, they always get what they want. That’s because it’s their job to learn about all the different beer styles — and know how to describe the qualities of each one. This understanding lets them talk about the beers they dig in a way that servers and salespeople can understand.

Looking to polish your beer-talking skills? Here’s how to describe what you want like a pro so you’ll always be satisfied with your purchase.

Master the basics of beer types and styles

Beer can be divided into two broad categories: lagers, which are crisp, clean and delicate, and ales, which are slightly fruity and often have bold flavours, ranging from hoppy bitterness to malty sweetness.

These two big families are then broken down into more than 80 different beer styles. They’re all categorized by two factors: hard numbers, like bitterness level or alcohol-by-volume percentage, and descriptive features, such as aroma and flavour.

Knowing a handful of styles you like best will help you find new beers to enjoy and order like a boss. Check out our style guide, and note a few of your favourites. Then, when you sip your next beer, read about that style and learn a little more lingo. Who says drinking brews isn’t educational?

Learn how to describe flavours and aromas

Let’s get one thing clear: No one is born with a good palate. But regular practice can help you taste beer better. No need to drop and give us 20 — this is a “sensory workout,” so your exercise is eating and drinking. No sweat, right?

Beer’s ingredients have flavours that remind us of foods. By smelling and tasting individual ingredients when you cook or eat, you’ll build up a memory bank of these experiences. Over time, as you smell and taste beer, it will get easier to pick out those culinary flavours and aromas. You can convince anyone that beer really is educational by throwing out learned statements like, “This pilsner has notes of cracker and bubble gum.” Here are two big taste categories to brush up on.

  1. Hop flavours
  2. Pretty flowering cones that grow on tall vines, hops are known for adding bitterness to beer. But their resinous oils bring tons of fruity, woody, spicy and floral aromas too. To describe “hoppy” beers better, pay attention to the aromas of plants — especially garden herbs, fruits and flowers. You can easily find these notes in American pale ales (APAs) and India pale ales (IPAs).

  3. Malt flavours
  4. During the brewing process, grains (such as barley, rice, corn and wheat) are malted. This means they’re allowed to germinate and then are kiln-dried or roasted to turn their starch into sugar. These toasty grains add sweetness, colour and flavour to the resulting brew. To describe malty beers better, imagine the smells in a bakery — especially crackers, pizza dough, toast, caramel and chocolate. You can find these aromas in lagers, and cream, brown, red and dark ales.

Zoom in on mouth feel

Let’s get one thing clear: No one is born with a good palate. But regular practice can help you taste beer better. No need to drop and give us 20 — this is a “sensory workout,” so your exercise is eating and drinking. No sweat, right?

  1. Body
  2. To figure out what you like, note the thickness or thinness of the beers you enjoy. Light-bodied ones are thin (like skim milk), medium-bodied brews are a bit thicker (like homogenized milk) and heavy-bodied ones are creamy (like, well, cream).

  3. Carbonation
  4. Do you like your beers with big, refreshing bubbles? Then lagers are probably your jam. Prefer tamer fizz? Turn to English-style ales, like ambers, cream ales and blondes. If you dig the more subtle, creamy carbonation often found in Irish stout, look to porters, stouts and red ales that have a nitrogen widget in the can, which ensures a beautiful, creamy head when you pour the beer.

  5. Texture
  6. Some brews can “feel” crisp and refreshing on the tongue, while others are creamy or silky. Pay attention to how a beer feels and note which textures you like best.

Go shopping for the brews of your dreams

Knowing what styles, flavours, aromas and mouth feels you like is the key to shopping for beer like a pro. You can search our online listings before going into your local Beer Store to find something new. Or, now that you’ve got your beer lingo down, talk to an associate, who can point you in a delicious direction.

Tips for pairing beer and food

Say you’ve got a few different brew options in the fridge and a steak on the grill. How do you choose which type of suds to drink? First, think about the food’s character. A steak is pretty intense, fatty, rich and savoury — so it requires a beer with intense flavours. Next, think about colour. It’s weird, but matching the colour of the food to the colour of the beer often works! Take that steak for example: A porter, stout or brown ale will match the meat’s gorgeous browned exterior and seared, caramelized flavours perfectly.

Sidebar: What are beer pros called?

You may be an expert at drinking beer, but there are actual professionals out there who’ve studied the ins and outs of brewing, serving and enjoying beers. Known as Certified Cicerones, these pros write a gruelling four-hour exam — with essays on brewing, beer styles and serving beer — and complete a blind tasting. There are 155 Certified Cicerones in Canada, who manage brewery taprooms and beer bars, train staff, host events and more.

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