Beer Tasting

  Beer-drinkers have yet to learn to talk about brews as wine-drinkers talk about vintages.  Why don’t they, too, prate and prattle and ooh! and ah! and roll their eyes and twitch their noses and sniff and gurgle and gargle, when they raise a glass of foamy lager to their lips?  Why aren’t there beer-waiters as well as wine-waiters?  And why have so few restaurants beer-lists as well as wine lists?

Cyril Pearl, Beer, Glorious Beer (1969)

Wine tasting has beer around for quite some time.  Beer tasting is something that is quite new, new Down Under at any rate.  In this section, will teach you everything you need to know about tasting beer.  It will be useful whether you want to be a beer reviewer (and you can submit your reviews here for publication on, or if you want to impress your friends at parties, or if you simply want to appreciate your beer more.  But remember, you cannot become an expert overnight.  The key is practice, practice and more practice.  And what better thing is there to practise than beer drinking!


Let’s start with the basics.  “Tasting” is essentially the perceiving of flavour by using our senses, namely, by using our olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste) and tactual (touch) senses.

Physiologically, we detect smell by olfactory mucous membranes which detect odorous gasses.  We detect taste by nerve endings on our tongues (taste buds) – the four basic sensations are sweet, salt, sour and bitter.  They are detected on different areas of the tongue as indicated on the diagram below.

The area of the tongue where we have the most intense taste sensations is located towards the back of the tongue.  This is called the “middle palate”.  Here we have the most taste buds of all four types.

Touch is also detected by nerve endings in our mouths – the basic touch sensations we detect in our mouths in relation to liquids are viscosity and astringency.

The combination of all the smell, taste and touch sensations is what we call flavour.  In beer tasting you are looking for the magic flavour of the malt and the hops that the brewer has released and balanced in a masterly way.  

A good sense of smell is the key to tasting.  You no doubt have noticed how food tastes bland when you have a blocked nose.  The other important attribute is a good memory.  When you have tasted a particular beer you need to concentrate and attempt to store away the sensation so that you can compare against it later.  Most people have a very good smell memory – you may find that certain smells cause long forgotten memories of places and events to flood back.

The upshot of all this is that to properly detect the flavour a beer you should first smell it and then after sipping it you must move it over your tongue and mouth.  This ensures that all the taste buds are employed and it also releases pleasant vapours which waft up to your olfactory glands.  Finally, you must swallow the beer – this causes it to pass over the back of the tongue and provides you with important aftertaste sensations.  Throughout the process you must concentrate to try to categorise and remember the sensations that you are flooded with.  If they compare well with what you consider to be the ideal beer then you will find that it is a very good beer. 

Of course, not everyone will reach the same conclusion on a particular beer.  The taste for beer is an acquired taste; to a large extent you are conditioned to treat the beer that you were brought up on as what a beer should taste like.  Therefore, you are likely to dismiss anything which is too different as being a poor beer.  You should try to resist this temptation and approach each new brew with an open mind.  The golden rule is a simple one – a good beer is a beer that tastes good.


When rating beers, you must ensure that you rate them against others in the same style.  Just as it is pointless to rate apples against oranges, you can’t rate a stout against a lager.  You should also ensure that each class of beer is drunk at the correct temperature.  For example, many Europeans make the mistake of drinking Australian lagers at a far too warm temperature and then complain about the unpleasant flavours they’ve invoked.  Just as importantly, you have to ensure that the beer you are tasting is not too cold.  If the beer is on the verge of freezing then the nuances of aroma and taste will have been concealed by the chill of the beer.  It’s great as a thirst quencher on a hot summer’s day but not in a proper condition for tasting.

Another very important thing to watch – and we can’t stress this enough – is that the beer which you are tasting should be as fresh as possible.  The ideal place to taste beers would be at the brewery.  Unlike wines, most beers deteriorate over time.  They deteriorate particularly fast if exposed to heat or sunlight (that is why beer is usually sold in dark brown or dark green bottles).  Good storage and transportation of beer is crucial.  Often Australian beers which are exported overseas are simply too old to be rated fairly.  The same holds true for draught beer, if a keg was put on at the pub quite some time ago, the beer may have deteriorated.  This is one reason why you should not write off a beer after one tasting.  You have to try it from a number of different sources before you can fairly say that it is not a good brew.

One more thing to note is that the beers should be sampled in the same types of glasses because the size and shape of the glass may affect the way in which you perceive the aroma of the beer.  You should also ensure that the beers are poured consistently because this may affect the release of the aroma and, of course, the formation of the head.

Having learnt the theory you are ready to progress to's Step by Step Guide to Beer Appreciation.


Take a break from drinking like the author of this article did - Read why and how in his book Between Drinks: Escape the Routine, Take Control and Join the Clear Thinkers