The “How to taste beer” series explores the four steps of the beer tasting process and what each step can tell us about beer’s flavour and texture. New to the series? Start here.
Here we’re going to cover what we can learn from assessing our beer’s appearance.
Why? The first step in the beer tasting process isn’t actually to taste our beer… but to look at it!
A beer’s appearance can help set some expectations for the flavours and textures we might find. (That said though, just as you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, we shouldn’t judge our beer by appearance alone!)
When we think about a beer’s appearance, we want to think about the 3 C’s: colour, clarity and carbonation.
Beer colour can range from straw, to amber, to black and is largely determined by the type of malt that’s used in the brew.
Malt, shorthand for malted barley, is the main sugar source that’s used in brewing, but it also gives beer much of its colour and flavour, too.
At the end of the malting process, barley grains are exposed to heat. And it’s the length of time and temperature of this heat exposure that determines malt’s sugar, colour and flavour contribution to the finished beer.
We’ll pick up on malt’s role as a sugar source in a separate article, but here we’re going to focus in on its impact on beer colour and flavour:
- In straw coloured beers, like a Belgian witbier, we might expect to find doughy flavours, like bread dough or uncooked flour.
- Gold coloured beers, like a Czech pilsner lager, tend to have flavours of white bread or water cracker, from the golden coloured malt that is used.
- Amber coloured beers, like American pale ales, often taste biscuity, toasty and caramelly.
- Brown beers, like the British brown ale, should have a range of nutty, toffee, and chocolatey flavours.
- In black coloured beers, like Imperial stout, you’ll find roasted, burnt, coffee-like notes from the dark malts used.
Beer colour can be measured on one of two scales: the SRM scale, which stands for Standard Reference Method and ranges in colour from 2 to 40; or EBC (European Brewery Convention), which is approximately twice the SRM value.
Why measure beer colour? Because every different beer style will have an expected colour range, based on the ingredients that are used in the brew.
While malt plays a big part in determining beer’s beer colour, it isn’t the only contributor to beer’s flavour and texture.
Beer’s other ingredients – water, yeast and hops – all play their part.
Colour can help set some expectations for the flavours you might find, but don’t let it mislead you. Be sure to go into the rest of your tasting with an open mind.
A beer’s clarity can potentially indicate the textures we might find, with hazier beers having a fuller body and creamier texture compared to clear beers.
Most beers are filtered to be clear or bright, meaning we can see right through them.
But some beer styles, like the Belgian or German wheat beer or New England IPA are intentionally cloudy or hazy, meaning we can’t see through them.
Why? These beers are brewed with additional grains, like wheat or oats, which are higher in protein than barley. And it’s this higher protein content that gives these beers a hazy appearance, fuller body and creamier texture.
In between these two ends of the spectrum, it’s possible to find some beer styles with a slight haze.
Perhaps a brewery may have chosen not to filter their beer. If so, you’ll often see the words “unfiltered” on the packaging to give you a heads up about the haze.
Or it could be that the beer has been bottle-conditioned. This means that the beer contains a small amount of sugar and live yeast to help produce its carbonation right inside the bottle.
In this case, it’s best to let these beers stand upright before serving so that any sediment can settle. Then as you pour the beer you can decide if you want to leave the yeast sediment in the bottle, keeping your beer clear, or pour it into your glass.
Most bottle conditioned beer styles are served without the sediment, with the exception of Belgian and German wheat beers, which have the yeast added in to further contribute to their expected hazy appearance.
Our final ‘c’ is for carbonation. The amount of foam on top of a beer can potentially indicate the level of carbonation within the liquid. More foam means more fizz.
Some beer styles are expected to be very highly carbonated, like the Belgian golden strong ale and German wheat beer, so a thick white foam stand should be noticeable in the glass once the beer is poured.
Other beer styles, like best bitter, particularly if served on cask, will have a much lower level of carbonation. So we’d expect a much thinner head of foam.
While we can do a quick visual assessment now, carbonation will more detectable on the palate when we’re checking our beer’s mouthfeel, so should be assessed again then.
Now that we’ve assessed our beer’s colour, clarity and carbonation, we’ve completed the first step of the beer tasting process.
But, if we were to try to make a judgment about our beer now, we certainly wouldn’t have the full picture. This is just one piece of the puzzle that helps us set expectations for the next steps of our tasting.
Next, check out Step 2 on how to assess our beer’s aroma.