How to Fake Your Way Through a Beer Tasting

September 2009
We're just a few days into Denver Beer Fest, Denver's 10-day-long celebration of local brews leading up to the Great American Beer Festival. As you start to browse through all of the events, those new to beer might feel a bit intimidated. Lucky for you, I've been through all of this before. I wrote about beer for four years as a columnist in Boulder, and my Killian's-only palate, just moved from Iowa, had to be educated in the ways of craft beers. Based on what I've learned since then, here are four ways to sound like you know what you're talking about at a beer event.  And after you're done with this tutorial, check out a few tastings today. There's a blind taste test at Scruffy Murphy's and a flight tasting at the Paramount Cafe. 1. Look your beer up and down. Many of us are used to slugging our beers straight from the bottle, but at a tasting you always want to pour the beer into a glass. Hold it up to the light and check out the appearance. Unless you're drinking an unfiltered beer, most craft brews have a clear, rich color. Also, looking at the colors can help you organize a tasting flight; it's usually best to drink from lightest to darkest. Sample line: "Check out how rich the color is on my red ale." 2. Waft it. Well, not really. But before you start gulping, smell your beer. Pale ales and IPAs often add aromatic hops (responsible for the bitter character of your beer), which are there simply to please your nose. You may notice some citrusy smells (I often think hops can smell like grapefruit) or a bitter or spicy aroma. Sample line: "There's a lot of grapefruit on the nose; it almost smells dry-hopped*." 3. Tasting notes. It's finally time to drink. The easiest way to describe a beer is to take note of the very first sip. Brewers know they're making a first impression with their beer, and they take it seriously. Sample line if the beer is bitter: "I wonder what mix of hops they used?" (Bonus points for mentioning the hops shortage, which has driven up the cost of making beer for many craft brewers.) Sample line if the beer has a bready or caramel-like flavor: "That's an interesting malt character." (Bonus points for mentioning that the cost of malt has also gone up, impacting craft brewers.) Sample line if you taste spices or unusual flavors: "I hear people are making a lot of harvest beers* for the fall season." Sample line to compare the flavors: "I feel like the malts could better balance the hops." 4. The finish. Before you reach for the pretzels, consider what you sensed just after swallowing the beer. Do you still taste a film of bitterness? Is there a syrupy sweetness left from the malts? Or, instead, does your mouth feel clean, with no lingering flavors? The lack of lingering flavors is my personal preference; I love announcing that a beer has a "clean finish." Sample line: "There were a ton of malts in this beer, but it finished really clean." *"Dry-hopped" is a term for adding more hops after the boiling of the beer, which adds a significantly hoppier flavor. *"Harvest" is a name used to describe fall seasonal beers, which are often richer and employ spices. Sorta like a pumpkin-spiced latte, but for beer.