I’m pretty sure that as a homebrewer, you enjoy the occasional beer, right? If you brew beer but don’t drink beer, you’re a bit strange, but hey, it takes all sorts.

For the rest of us, drinking homebrewed beer is a wonderful conclusion to the hard work and effort that went into brewing. And while there are plenty of occasions where just knocking back a few cold ones is a fine pleasure in itself, homebrewers can also improve their brewing by taking beer appreciation to the next level.

In drinking your (and others’) homebrew, as well as commercial counterparts, you can learn a lot and in doing so, brew better beer.

To do that, you’ve got to focus carefully on the different components of beer, and do what I like to call, “drinking analytically”. Let’s take a look at what that is.

I’ve had the good fortune to train as a beer sensory analyst, and what that really means is you get used to spotting and prying apart the different desirable and not-so-desirable flavors that make up a typical beer.

While I would heartily recommend you seek out some training in sensory analysis as well (your local craft brewery may offer this), there are a few tricks-of-the-trade that any homebrewer can immediately use to get more out of sampling their beer.

Delay your drinking

A whole heck of a lot of valuable information can be gleaned from using your sense of sight and smell when appraising your brew. So hang on before you take that first sip! To drink more analytically, you’ve actually got to delay drinking the beer.

Take a good look

First, have a look at the beer in a beer-clean glass. What do I mean by beer clean? It turns out that most dishwashers or detergents leave some kind of residue on the glass. Not always, but often. This residue rarely influences taste but will affect beer foam and head retention.

So, before you sample your brew, rinse the glass outside and inside, with clean water. If I’m going to sample some homebrew, I often make sure to rinse a few glasses and leave them on the dry rack for later use.

Now that your beer is in a clean glass, it may be useful to get a good sense of color and clarity. Do help with that, hold up a white piece of paper or cardboard behind the beer, and try to sample in a room with good, natural lighting.

Right away, color can tell you a lot about how your beer turned out. If you brewed an amber ale, is the color a good, rich red or more of a dirty brown? Clarity also reveals much about the brewing process. I’ve written in other articles about the joys of clear beer (and how to achieve it), but suffice it to say that if your beer is cloudy or murky, it may be indicative of a problem in your brewing methods.

Do a drive-by

Not to be confused with the similarly named criminal enterprise, doing a drive-by describes the method of sampling a beer by moving the beer briefly underneath your nose to detect any strong or distinctive aromas. Repeat a few times, and you’ll uncover the subtle and complex aromas that your beer brings to the table.

Often at this stage, you’ll already start to get a good idea about potential off-flavors as well as the taste of the beverage. Don’t ignore this vital component of drinking analytically! Sure, it may seem a bit pretentious to be wafting the glass past your face, but it really does the trick!

Close and swirl

If the drive-by doesn’t yield enough information on the aroma of your beer, you can always try to close the glass with the palm of your hand, swirl the beer a few times, and then quickly sample its aroma.

Your palm will trap a lot of the volatiles you’ve just released and make them more obvious.

Just make sure that your hands are clean!

Time to drink

Finally, it’s time to drink your beer! When taking your first few sips, focus on predominant flavors first. If you’ve brewed an IPA, you’d expect to detect a lot of bitterness and depending on the hops used, perhaps strong grapefruit or floral flavors.

If they’re absent, it will clue you in on what may have gone wrong in your brew.

Next, try to describe the mouthfeel. Is the beer thin and dry, or juicy and lingering? Mouthfeel reveals a lot about mash efficiency, fermentation processes and the general level of balance in your beer.

Don’t forget to evaluate the carbonation of your brew. Compare it against commercial examples of the same style. Is it too fizzy or not fizzy enough? Is the carbonation “hard”, creating a burning sensation in the back of your throat, or nice and gentle, adding to the enjoyment of drinking?

Drink warm

While it may seem a bit extreme, a lot can be learned by letting your brew come to room temperature and then sampling some. Cold temperatures can hide a multitude of sins in brewing.

But, once your beer is at room temperature, any hidden flaws will readily emerge. Although warm beer is never that pleasant, a well-brewed one should at least be drinkable at room temperatures.

Time will tell

Once you’ve got a good sense of your brew’s aroma and taste, it’s also a good idea to take note of how long the beer foam and head last. Does it dissipate quickly or hang around for the duration?

Head retention and beer foam are indicative of brewing methods (and flaws). For instance, oils released by hops or other adjuncts may negatively influence head retention, while some malts can help in creating a more lasting and full foam.

Apart from the progression of time during your initial tasting, it’s also a good idea to let a few of your beers age. Yes, it’s always tempting to finish all of your hard-won homebrew, but leave a couple of bottles at room temperature. Sample them after a month, three months, six months, and so on (at least as long as you can resist the temptation!).

Flavor stability across time is another powerful indicator of brewing processes and much like head retention, can be affected by a number of elements of your brewing method such as the mashing temperature (if brewing all-grain), the malts used, as well as any adjuncts you’ve added.

Final Thoughts

I hope this article gave you some food for thought. Next time you crack open a fresh homebrew, try to drink with analysis in mind – it might be a fascinating experience!

Now go brew (or drink some homebrew)!


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