How To Taste Beer

Beer comes in a wide variety of styles and colours.

Some are big and bold while others are light and breezy; some are richly malty while others burst with citrusy aromas; some are purposefully sour while others might even be slightly salty. In other words, there’s a beer for everyone, and half the fun in tasting craft beer is exploring the incredible range of options at breweries, pubs and tap houses — or during Victoria Beer Week.

The best way to experiment is with a tasting flight of four sampler glasses, which generally adds up to the equivalent of a pint. You can order flights at several breweries in Victoria, as well as at pubs or tap houses like Garrick’s Head or The Drake Eatery, and this way you actually get to taste several different style of beers in one sitting.

Here’s some advice on how to go about tasting beer.

Take a look. What do you see?

Look at the beer. What colour is it? A darker beer might imply flavours of roasted coffee or chocolate, though not always, while a lighter coloured beer might be more bready or grainy. Is it clear or cloudy or something in between? Though many beer styles should pour crystal clear, others like hefeweizens or hazy IPAs are meant to have yeast in suspension so they should be cloudy. A beer’s head is the foamy portion on top. Depending on the style of beer, it might look like meringue or more like a bubble bath.

What does your beer smell like?

Next, swirl the glass a bit and smell the beer. Start at a distance and do a “drive-by” with your nose — in other words, don’t stick your nose in the glass right away. Move the glass closer until the beer is right under your nose, and sniff it gently. What do you smell? Hoppier beers might exhibit aromas of pine, fruit or citrus, while maltier beers might have lighter smells of bread, grain or caramel.

Take a sip and think about what you taste.

Finally, the best part: take a sip and think about what you taste. Malty flavours might come across biscuity, toasty or nutty. Hops can generate bitterness as well as tropical, citrusy flavours. The yeast might give it an extra spicy zing or even a banana/clove-like flavour in the case of German or Belgian wheat beers.

And how does the beer feel in your mouth: is it creamy or crisp; does it finish dry; does it have an enticing aftertaste that makes you want to take another sip?

Chatting about beer.

Think and Talk About It
Brewery tasting rooms are very social places — people love to talk about the beers they’re tasting, compare notes and share opinions. What do you like about the beer? Maybe it’s the big burst of citrusy hops in an IPA or perhaps you really enjoyed the oaky, vanilla character in a barrel-aged beer. Did you find the beer well balanced or too extreme in one aspect? What sort of food can you imagine going well with it? Would you recommend it to someone else?

At first, you might find it difficult to answer some of these questions, but the more you practise — and by practice, I mean drinking beer — the more you ask yourself these questions as you try different beers, the more you will discover about them, and the more you will realize about what types of beer you like best. You might not like West Coast IPAs, but maybe you’re all about sour beers. Light lagers bore you? Well, what about a hearty stout or a sweet and smooth barleywine?

A tasting flight at Coast Mountain Brewing.

Worried You Don’t Know Enough?
Relax. The craft beer community is very welcoming and unpretentious. Sure, there are “beer geeks” out there who know an awful lot about beer and may turn their noses up at certain breweries or beer styles, but generally speaking, most people you’ll meet at a brewery or taphouse or at one of our events will be happy to share what they know or to recommend beers they like. And pretty soon you’ll find yourself recommending your own favourites to folks looking for something new to try.

Photo by Christian Tisdale

Tasting Opportunities During Victoria Beer Week
Virtually all of the events held during VBW are designed as tasting events — we provide you with a sampler glass (yes, a real glass!), a beer menu, and several beer tickets. We work hard to curate a beer list for each event that showcases a wide range of styles and approaches. Roam the room, visit the beer stations and find out more about each beer, and if you and a friend work together, you can even double down if you don’t mind sharing sips of each other’s tasters.

Our Beer School program also includes several classes that might help you refine your tasting skills. Check out the full schedule here. Cheers!