How to taste beer like a pro

Overhead view of five different coloured beers in five differently shaped glasses on a grey stone background.

You’re here, so safe to say you like beer. But let’s level up your brew enjoyment even more with the pro tips and tricks in our step-by-step tasting guide

Beer sommeliers love to talk about what they’re tasting, digging into flavour and analyzing colour, mouth feel and finish. But being able to describe an IPA’s hoppy notes as “pink cotton candy and fresh mango,” or to pick up the malty, homemade-pizza-dough aromas in a kolsch? That takes practice.

Think of refining your palate like training for a marathon, only way more fun because you get to try a whole bunch of different beers. (Over time, of course — not all at once!) Sip mindfully using our expert-level tips and maybe you’ll discover some new favourite beer styles along the way. Here are seven steps for building your suds-tasting skills.

  • Warm up your beer

    Sipping an icy lager is super-refreshing on a hot day, but cold liquids can numb your taste buds, making it harder to pick out the subtle complexities that make each style unique. So, before you taste, pull your beer out of the fridge and let it warm up a little at room temp.

    Lagers and lighter ales can be served colder, while more complex beers, such as saisons and IPAs, need a bit more time on the counter. Here’s an easy guide for different styles:

    • 15 minutes: IPAs, saisons, quadruples, strong stouts and porters
    • 10 minutes: Pale ales, ambers, bitters, brown ales, tripels, regular stouts and porters

    • 5 minutes: Light lagers, wheat ales, European lagers, blonde and session ales

  • Know your styles

    Most experts agree that mastering beer styles can be a challenge — there are almost 100 different types, and the list just keeps growing. So kick off your tasting journey by learning the basics, and then rereading the style description as you taste to help yourself identify key flavours.

    Not sure where to start? For a good intro to an array of beer varieties, set up a series of tastings with friends.

    Here’s the plan: Pick up one of each style and sample a couple of ounces of each beer (if you have a set of small tasting glasses, now’s the time to get it out — it’s ideal for trying a flight of different brews). Try to notice what you like about each beer and how it compares to the others in the group.

    • Session 1: Get to know the lager family, and taste from lightest to darkest: pale or light lager, pilsner, amber or red lager, and dark lager.
    • Session 2: Explore different hops’ personalities, and taste from mildest to strongest: session ale, pale ale, India pale ale and imperial India pale ale.

    • Session 3: Dig into malty ales, and taste from lightest to darkest: cream ale, amber or red ale, brown ale, and stout or porter.

    • Session 4: Discover Belgian and German classics, and taste from mildest to strongest: radler, hefeweizen, witbier, and Trappist or Belgian golden strong ale.

  • Always use a glass

    Pouring your beer into a glass ups the flavour by creating foam. That pillowy cap on top of your brew traps aromas and keeps the golden liquid underneath fresh.

    To pour a just-perfect foamy head, tilt your glass at a 45-degree angle and pour the liquid gently down the side until it’s about one-quarter full, then straighten the glass pour straight down for a few seconds. Beer tasting requires lots of swirling and sniffing, so only fill the glass halfway.

    A tulip glass or wineglass is great for tasting — both are designed to maximize and concentrate aromas. If you’re into glassware, you’re in luck; there’s a vessel for just about every style of beer.

  • Take a sniff

    As soon as you pour your brew, take a whiff. Bold notes tend to pop out of the glass immediately, while subtler ones require a bit more nosing.

    First, take two short sniffs, and then cover your glass with your hand. Gently swirl, and then take a longer, deeper inhale. Try to describe what you smell: Does it remind you of other food flavours or places? Are the aromas strong or delicate?

    Here are some common beer flavour descriptions that might come in handy:

    • Malt flavours: Crackers, bread dough, biscuits, toast, caramel, toffee, chocolate, coffee

    • Hops flavours: Herbs, grass, flowers, citrus, tropical fruit, stone fruit, blackcurrants

    Pro tip: Smell everything around you all the time, from freshly cut grass to bread baking in the oven. If you start to notice the aromas around you, you’ll be able to describe them when they pop up in your beer.

  • Have a look

    Stop for a moment to admire your brew’s appearance. Raise your glass to the light and notice the colour (golden, amber, brown or black) and clarity (crystal clear, cloudy or opaque). It’s important to admire a beer’s hue, from golden to jet black, because it can tell you a bit about the malt and other ingredients that went into the recipe.

  • Sip a little

    On your first sip, make sure the beer coats your tongue and washes over your palate. (But don’t float your tongue, as the experts say!) Notice the bitterness and sweetness of the brew — and the acidity, if it’s a sour — then the overall flavour and whether that matches how the beer smells.

    Mouth feel is all about a beer’s texture. One trick is to compare it to milk: Is it thin and watery like skim milk, or thick and smooth like cream? Also, explore the carbonation, which can range from gentle to downright prickly.

    Finally, how does the sip experience end? After you swallow, does the flavour disappear quickly, or does it stick around for a long finish?

  • Explore

    Once you’re familiar with the styles and have mastered the basics of tasting (smell, look and sip), you’ll start to understand what makes every style unique. The more types and styles you try over time, the more exciting beers you’ll discover.

Tips to take your tasting game to the next level

  • Make tasting notes. Keep a record of what you’re tasting, noting any key flavour words and giving each brew a rating (such as a number from one to 10, or a letter grade from A to F). This will help you taste mindfully and keep track of your faves.

  • Try something new. Your go-to lager is awesome, sure, but the more variety you experience, the wider your taste horizons. On your next beer run, you might want to grab a single can of something new along with your usual multipack.

  • Pair your beer with a tasty dish. Try matching brews with foods that have similar flavours, like a bready pilsner with a grilled cheese, or an IPA that has tropical fruit notes with pineapple fried rice.

  • Taste together. In-person and virtual tastings are so much fun. Sampling with beer-loving pals can help spark new flavour discoveries, plus you’ll learn from their experiences. After all, this is how pro beer competitions are judged.

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