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Evaluating beer is 50 percent science and 50 percent perception, but it's a hobby anyone can enjoy, and a skill anyone can develop, once given the basic tools.
Women can be just as good as men at judging beer, perhaps even better. They often have more highly developed palates and are better at identifying flavors and aromas thanks to their traditional role as cook of the household.
If you enjoy your beer served icy cold, you're not experiencing its full character as the subtleties of aroma and taste are masked by the chill of the beer. Imagine trying to savor the rich flavors of a French pastry while eating it frozen. It wouldn't be very satisfying.
Each style of beer offers its own medley of characteristics if enjoyed at its prescribed serving temperature. Beers are best served at temperatures ranging from 45 to 65ÉF. No beers are best served at temperatures in the mid-30's, as is the case in most bars and restaurants throughout the United States.
If you're planning to impress your date with your beer tasting skills, keep in mind that any cologne you put on before stepping out for the evening may overwhelm the aroma of your beer. Chapstick and lipstick affect the flavor of your beer as well and can quickly kill the creamy head on top.
(Oh and by the way, that three-alarm chili you're downing with your beer will quickly numb those taste buds, so don't expect to get the true flavor of your beer while eating spicy food. Nevertheless, pairing food and beer can be great fun as you discover flavor influences and your personal pairing preferences.)
As with any food or beverage, evaluating beer begins with sight and smell. Before you ever look at or smell your beer, how it was handled in transportation and storage can affect the aroma and flavor. Beers in clear or green bottles have a high probability of being light-struck. A skunky odor occurs when bottled beer is exposed to ultraviolet light, such as florescent lights or sunlight. Brown bottles offer the most protection, but even they can't protect beer left in the sun or under florescent lights for an extended period of time.
Likewise, oxidation can occur when too much oxygen is introduced to beer during brewing or bottling. Oxidation imparts a wet cardboard-like taste to beer and can often flag an old beer or one that was stored at warm temperatures.
A well-brewed, properly handled beer should deliver an appealing bouquet or aroma. The bouquet is more important in some styles than in others, but generally a desirable aroma is complex yet balanced. Ales are fermented at higher temperatures than lagers which often imparts a fruitiness to the nose. This is the most recognizable difference between ales and lagers.
Some lagers, such as a Bohemian Pilsener, should be herbal and hoppy while darker styles, such as a Bavarian Oktoberfest, should offer more maltiness in the nose. Dark ales, like a porter, should have a roasted aroma, but an American Pale Ale should have fruit in the bouquet but never any roasted traits. Each characteristic should be balanced according to the style profile. For example, more hops may be added to counteract the sweetness of malt.
A glass of beer should look attractive. The desirable colors of beer range from light straw (as in a Belgian trippel) all the way to the opaque ebony of a stout -- with a wide range of goldens, reds, and browns in between.
The clarity of beer is not an indication of quality because some styles, such as a hefeweizen, are unfiltered and meant to be hazy.
A rocky, creamy head is always a delight to behold, but some styles of beer, such as high alcohol barleywine, are topped with little or no head at all.
When quaffing a beer with a head, each swallow should leave behind "Brussels lace," a term describing the head that clings to the side of a glass. Brussels lace is a strong indicator that you're drinking a fresh, natural beer.
Like the bouquet of differing beer styles, the flavor profile varies widely too. An India, Pale Ale should have an assertive hop flavor as well as hop bitterness, but a stout usually tastes either sweet or dry with coffee or chocolate in the palate. There are hundreds of flavor and aroma descriptors for beer, and the balance of these characteristics along with appearance and body is what gives beer its complexity.
Each beer should have a front, middle and finish with flavor lingering on the palate briefly after swallowing. A good beer should invoke the senses and arouse the appetite offering a sense of well being. The description of a beer's complexity may at times be elusive, or satisfyingly captured. This is the intrigue of beer.
While each beer is best judged according to its style profile, any beer taster can certainly find pleasure in evaluating a beer according to his or her own preferences. Today's craft-brewed beer is not the thin, bland beer we've been force-fed from cans at bone chilling temperatures.
It's important to keep an open mind and be willing to experience new flavors and sensations in beer. Just like a novice must develop a taste for dry red wine or sushi, so too must a beer apprentice acquire a taste for unique and full-flavored beers. Our tastes and palates are continuously changing and evolving, thus a beer you despised last year may become your heart's desire this year given the opportunity.
So join the fun of beer tasting, and you'll be feeling like an old pro in no time.