Step by Step Guide to Beer Appreciation

Welcome to the step-by-step guide to beer appreciation.  By following these simple steps you will learn how to use your senses of sight, smell and taste to become a beer appreciation expert!

Step 1 - Appearance

First you must determine the appearance and colour of the beer. 

You are looking to determine whether the following characteristics are acceptable according to style:

Colour – colour should be appropriate to the beer’s style and should be consistent.  So for example, a lager should be yellow (not reddish) and a stout should be black (not brown).

Clarity or Limpidity– styles of beer which have been filtered such as lagers should be clear or even limpid (which means crystal clear).  On the other hand you obviously cannot expect a bottle conditioned ale or a wheat beer to be clear but even these should not be too cloudy.

Head – this is the foam on a glass of beer.  What is an appropriate head depends on the style of beer and the manner in which it has been poured.  Generally it should be firm and fall slowly.  Lacing should be left on the side of the glass once the beer is finished (a stroke for each sip – you can tell your drinking style by your empty glasses if they have too few laces then you’re guzzling and if they have too many then you’re dawdling).  The desired size depends on the style of the beer.  For example a lager or a stout should have a medium sized head of about 2cm.  Pilseners should have a higher head.

Step 2 - Odour

When you have determined the appearance and colour of your beer you should smell it to evaluate its odour.  Odour consists of aroma which comprises the pre-fermentation smells and the bouquet which comprises the smells which are the product of fermentation.

The smells you are looking for include:

Hoppy – this is the grassy, flowery or tangy aroma which comes from the essential oils in the hops.

Malty – this is the sweet brewery aroma which comes from the sugars in the malted grain.  It may have caramel (ie. slightly burnt toffee-like), earthy, roasted, molassess or coffee characteristics.

Fruity (estery) - this a fruity, sweet aroma which comes from the strain of yeast used.  For example it could remind you of bananas, apples or raspberries.  Strong fruitness is more common in ales than in lagers.

Undesirable odours include:

Cardboard or Wet-Papery – this a smell which comes from beer that is too old or oxidised, ie. which has been in contact with air for too long and has been damaged by oxygen.

Buttery or Honey (diacetyl) - a buttery, butterscotch or honey smell in beer is caused by bacterial infection (or sometimes by fermentation that was too short or conducted at too high a temperature).  Not to be confused with a honey taste in a beer brewed with honey such as the Beez Kneez.

Skunky – this is the sulphery smell given off by beer which has been exposed to too much light.  It is caused by the breakdown of hop oils by ultraviolet light.

Step 3 - Taste

When you first sample the beer you will sense its sting or “effervescence” (caused by the bubbles of carbon dioxide gas).  Then when you have the sip of beer passing through your mouth, you should ask yourself questions such as whether you are getting a sweet, sour or bitter sensation.  Sweet sensations come from the malt or sugar used in the fermentation process, bitter sensations from the hops and sour sensations come from problems with the beer. 

It is vitally important that you swallow your sample so that you can experience the full bitterness of the brew.  This is because as shown on the diagram of the tongue, the taste buds which detect bitterness are located at the back of the tongue.  Consequently, beer – unlike wine - should never be spat out during a tasting.  As if you were going to that anyway - not bloody likely!

When tasting, you are looking to determine whether the following characteristics are present: 

Bitterness – this is the bitter flavour imparted by the female flowers of the Humulus Lupulus plant (ie. the hops).  Bitterness is experienced at the back of the tongue.

Sweetness or maltiness – this is the sweet taste which comes from the sugars in the malted grain.

Body or Mouthfeel – the body or mouthfeel is how the beer feels in your mouth before you swallow it.  It may be thin, watery, or light on the one hand or viscose, big and full-bodied on the other.  Whether a beer is big and full-bodied is often dependent on the qualities and richness of the malt.

Balance a balanced beer is one where all the taste sensations that we expect of a beer are present in desirable proportions and one does not overpower the others.  In a well-balanced beer the malty sweetness and hoppy bitterness complement one another and neither predominates.

Finish – finish is related to bitterness but includes other sensations that linger in your mouth after you have swallowed your sample.  Bitterness and astringency contribute to a desirable clean finish. Beer Tasting Score Card 

When rating beers it may be helpful to record your ratings on a score card for consistency.  Here is one used by  It based on the wine judging score card of the Office International De La Vigne Et Du Vin


Best score




Appearance and Colour





Odour Intensity




Odour Quality





Taste Intensity




Taste Quality




Harmony or Balance









For a spectrum of taste of beers brewed by Lion-Nathan click here.  As a learning exercise, we recommend that you obtain the beers that are listed on the diagram and sample them considering why they fall where they have been placed in the diagram.  This is especially good for learning to distinguish maltiness from bitterness. 


So now you are equipped to skilfully rate and review beers for and to amaze your friends with your beer knowledge and expertise.  Perhaps you may become as accomplished as Acton, a character in Cyril Pearl’s novel Pantaloons and Antics, who shows off his superlative beer knowledge at a posh Sydney restaurant: 

‘No wine,’ said Acton.  ‘But I’d like to have a look at the beer-list, please?’

‘I beg your pardon, Sir?’

Surely the biggest hotel in the biggest beer-drinking city in the world has a beer-list?

‘I’m afraid not, Sir!’

Incredible.  Acton shook his head sadly.  Well, please ask the cellarmaster if he has a bottle of ’61 Foster’s.  It was a memorable year for Victorian beer, with that delicate flavour of bushfires in the hops.  The ’61 Foster’s is really a superb lager, brut, mou, charnu, petillante, fino, pizzicato, and faintly amertume.  It has that nobly fading straw-like pallor which is less a colour than a vestment, la robe: and an aroma that is distinctively Bouverie Street.  The bouquet is a discreet cuir russe, or Old Harness.  It is urbane, but quietly persuasive, and with a notable wet finish, soft on the taste-buds, and on the pocket too.’ 

The ’61 Foster’s was exhausted, but Acton found a tolerable ’62 Melbourne Bitter to go with the coffee.  He assured the wine-waiter that though it lacked chiaroscuro and clangtint, it had a compensatory verve, good-humoured spritzig, and almost the panache of a pre-war Export Bass.’ 

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


Hmmm, maybe this is going a bit far.  Perhaps the best way of going about ordering a great Australian beer is the traditional way: 

A pot/middy/glass of XXXX/Tooheys/VB/Boags/Coopers/etc, thanks mate!

And maybe the best way of enjoying it is by sinking an icy cold stubby after a tough day's work...