Learn some quick beginners’ tips for real ale and craft beer tasting with contributions from some of Hampshire’s top brewers.
Since the Government introduced a scheme to give tax breaks to smaller breweries in 2002, the number of breweries in the UK has almost tripled from around 500 to more than 1,400.
And with the average brewery producing eight varieties of beer, the Campaign for Real Ale estimates there are more than 11,000 different UK beers and ales on the market. That’s a lot of beer to get through!
Of course, there’s no harm in sticking with your favourites. But one of the reasons that drinkers are shunning the corporate breweries in favour of smaller producers is that each of these 11,000 beers has its own unique flavour and characteristics.
This means you can have a lot of fun tasting different craft beers and real ales, whether you’re in the pub with friends, at a beer festival or working your way through a craft beer subscription box at home. You’ll not only find out more about which styles and varieties you prefer but you’ll also learn about the subtle differences between beers of the same style.
I’ve been drinking real ale and craft beer for a good few years. But I’m a beginner when it comes to beer tasting. So I asked several of Hampshire’s top brewers for their advice.
Here’s a beginner’s guide to beer tasting with top tips from Jimmy from Unity Brewing Co in Southampton, Rob and Meg from Botley Brewery, Tony from Hop Art Brewery near Farnham, Steve from Alfred’s Brewery in Winchester and Graham from Mash Brewery also in Winchester.
Beginners’ craft beer and real ale tasting tips
Before you get started
OK, I know you’re desperate to get stuck in. But it’s important to take care of a few things before you get started if you want to get the most out of your beer tasting session.
Looking after your palate
First up, think about the order you’re going to drink your beers in.
Jimmy from Unity advises starting out with beers that are likely to be lightest in flavour first: “Really dark beers and rich stouts will knock out your palate.”
This doesn’t necessarily mean starting with beers with lowest alcohol (ABV) or those lightest in colour. “If you start out with a double IPA for example, then you won’t be able to taste anything else” he adds.
Rob from Botley Brewery recommends having some water handy to sip between beers: “If you get a particularly strong beer, it’s going to leave an aftertaste.”
Mash Brewery’s Graham recommends finding out a little about your beers before you taste them.
“A beer taster can find a whole range of information at their fingertips before they embark on any tasting session” he says. “There’s now a huge amount of information available on beer when compared to 10 or 20 years ago.”
“Previously a brewery would merely state what type or style the beer was and that was about it. Now pretty much every brewery provides information on the flavours and aromas for a specific beer.”
Graham highlights the Cyclops Beer website as a useful resource. “This can give a beer taster a simple but comprehensive framework from which to compare your tasting notes versus what has been published about a specific beer.”
Temperature is key
The temperature of your beer can also affect your experience.
It “can impact the true flavours of the beer” says Mash’s Graham.
Rob from Botley Brewery agrees: “Real ale should be served at around 13 degrees centigrade.” But he also acknowledges that some craft beers and summer ales are best served chilled.
It’s best to serve your beers at a little under room temperature, unless the label or brewer advises otherwise. This means giving them enough time to warm up slightly if you’re storing them in the fridge or if you get a particularly cool beer from the bar.
Drink from a glass – not the can or bottle
It may seem obvious, but how you serve your beer is also important. “Ensure that you taste from a glass and not from a can or bottle” advises Graham. “This allows for the release of aromas and some of the residual carbon dioxide.”
Transfer into a glass is especially important for bottle-conditioned beer, where you’ll need to allow any sediment in the bottle to settle before you pour it.
Let the beer tasting begin
Now you’re ready to start the tasting process. You’re going to judge the beer’s appearance, aroma, flavour, ‘mouthfeel’ and ‘finish’.
You can tell a lot about a craft beer or real ale by the way it looks. So before you sniff or snip, take a good look at what’s in your glass.
“Really well made beer will always hold its head reasonably well unless it’s a very sour one” says Jimmy. He advises looking at the ‘lacing’, which is much like the ‘legs’ that people describe when tasting wine. This is the “touches of foam around the glass. You’re looking for how well that foam stays.”
Graham from Mash asks: “What is the beer’s colour, what degree of carbonation does it have and is the head on the beer being retained or does it disappear quickly?”
No carbonation or lacing could signal a problem with the beer, especially if it’s served on draught. “From a hand pump, if there’s no head on it then there’s something wrong with it” says Botley Brewery’s Rob. “It could be down to the way they’re handling the beer but it could also be down to the beer itself.”
As well as the colour, carbonation and lacing, you can also describe the clarity – in other words, how clear it is. However, “clarity isn’t an indicator of quality; it’s just an indicator of the style” says Jimmy.
Rob agrees: “It doesn’t matter if it’s cloudy or not to me. It’s a marketing thing… If it’s cloudy there’s nothing wrong with it as long as it tastes fine.”
Graham adds: “The question here is what was the brewer trying to achieve – clear or cloudy? Either is perfectly acceptable.
“The clarity of the beer will vary. Typically most will be crystal clear but that does not have to be the case with stouts, dark ales, wheat beers and increasingly cloudy, unfiltered beers.”
It’s almost time to – finally – taste your beer. Before you do that, give it a sniff.
“The aroma will give you the first impression of what the beer will taste like” says Graham from Mash. Does it have an intense aroma? And if so, what’s the main characteristic? ‘Malty’, ‘hoppy’ or ‘fruity’ for example.” To enhance the aroma, Graham advises swirling the beer around your glass first.
Next, “have a quick, little blast under your nose” adds Jimmy from Unity. “Then stick the glass right underneath your nose and take a few short, sharp sniffs.”
Flavour, mouthfeel and finish
At last – now comes the actual drinking.
Graham says to take a sip and identify the flavour. “What is the intensity of the flavour from weak through to strong and how is it balanced from sweet to bitter?”
Also consider the ‘mouthfeel’ by swirling it around before you swallow it. Identify how much body the beer has as it sits in your mouth and how much carbonation it has. Is it too flat or overly gassy?
Once you’ve swallowed your beer, consider the ‘finish’. Graham says to ask yourself: Is it “quick or lingering, faint or intense, sweet or bitter?”
Don’t just take small sips of your beer though. Jimmy says: “The first sip you want to just sip. Then have a good swig. That’s the best way to taste and get what’s in there in your senses.”
When describing flavours “it really helps to be specific” says Steve from Alfred’s Brewery. “If citrus springs to mind, dig a little deeper and see if you can narrow it down to mandarin or lime or grapefruit and so on.”
Don’t feel that you have to take things too seriously though. “Sometimes when I find a good beer I leave subjective tasting at the door and get on with enjoying it!” adds Steve.
What makes a good beer?
So, once you’ve tasted your beer, how do you know if it’s any good? Most of the time, it comes down to personal choice.
“The first thing to say is that any tasting, regardless of whether it’s beer or something else, is a subjective matter” says Graham from Mash. “Everyone will taste things slightly differently and some flavours will be more pronounced than others and you may find that you cannot detect some flavours whilst other people will.”
Rob from Botley Brewery agrees: “Beer is beer – as long as it tastes good.”
Tony from Hop Art Brewery looks for “good body with some underlying sweetness to balance well with the alcohol and hoppy bitterness. This balance will produce beer with lasting flavour and character that keeps giving.”
“The main thing is to have fun trying different beers and styles. No doubt you’ll hit upon some real gems you’ll love and want to try over again” says Mash’s Graham.
Steve from Alfred’s Brewery warns that “not all beers are made equal. If you try a new style and don’t like it, try the style again from another producer – you might be delightfully surprised!”
Jimmy from Unity’s view is similar. Rather than treating beer tasting as a competition between the beers you’re trying, he recommends using it to learn more about different varieties and styles.
“Get a nice rich stout, get a pale ale, get a sour beer and a wheat beer and Belgian style and a lager even. Get a couple of each different style.
“You’ll learn what you like and don’t about each style. Do you like sweetness, do you like dryness, do you like big aroma, do you like fruity flavours, spicy flavours?”
Ultimately though, “the main thing is to just enjoy drinking beer!”
I’ll drink to that.
About the breweries
Alfred’s Brewery, Winchester
Steve and Isabelle Haigh founded Alfred’s Brewery in 2012. It’s won several awards including beer of the festival for its “Winchester Pale” beer at the Winchester Beer Festival in 2016.
Botley Brewery, Botley
Botley Brewery is based at the Botley Mills complex in Botley, just outside Southampton. It brews four regular beers as well as various seasonals including a strawberry beer to celebrate the local area’s strawberry growing history.
Mash Brewery, Winchester
Mash is another young Hampshire brewery. It’s based in East Stratton, north of Winchester. It brews seven regular beers and has recently won a Hampshire Farmers’ Market Award for the Best Drinks Producers.
Unity Brewing Co, Southampton
Based in the Portswood area of Southampton and launching soon, Unity specialises in Belgian-style beers. Head brewer Jimmy honed his craft at other Hampshire breweries, Flack Manor in Romsey and Red Cat in Winchester.
Hop Art, Farnham
Hop Art is situated on the Hants side of the border with Surrey near Farnham. Founders Tony and Erik brew seven regular beers encompassing everything from a golden ale to a porter.
Over to you
What are your top beer tasting tips? Leave a comment below or let me know on Twitter.