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Learn to evaluate beers for the Top of the Hops Beer Festival

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With the 2nd annual Top of the Hops Beer Festival in the Cajundome right around the corner, I thought it would be helpful to present everyone with some tips on tasting, or evaluating beer. You may be thinking that you don't need any help tasting beer, you've been doing it since you were 12 years old (OK, maybe 14). Here are some reasons you may want to learn this art and science:

  1. To be able to describe a beer to others. Try it sometimes, you'd be surprised at how difficult it can be to describe a beer to someone that hasn't tasted it yet.
  2. To review a beer. There are many websites that get their reviews from beer lovers just like you. Some are: beeradvocate.com, ratebeer.com, and thebeercritic.com to name a few.
  3. To judge a beer. Whether you are judging a beer for yourself or at a competition, learning to evaluate beer is a must.
  4. To enhance your enjoyment of the beer. Learning how to evaluate a beer hightens your senses and teaches you what to look for in a good and a bad beer.

Those in the craft beer industry evaluate beer for other reasons, such as quality control, recipe evaluation, etc.

Main steps in beer tasting or evaluating:

  1. Observation: pour your beer into the glass. Take a second to make some basic observations about the beer. These will create expectations for the later steps. For example, when you pour a dark beer, most people will expect the beer to be strong, possibly roasty or astringent and heavy. You might be surprised at how wrong these expectations can be. Look at the beer to see if it is relatively clear or cloudy, what color it is, how big and fluffy the head is, whether there is any lace (beer foam sticking to the side of the glass after the head dissipates), and whether the beer is bottle conditioned or filtered (when it's bottle conditioned, it will have a fine sediment on the bottom of the bottle which is the left-over yeast used to add carbonation to the bottle). A well made beer will have a nice head that lingers with lots of nice lace clinging to the sides of the glass.
  2. Aroma: after observing the beer for a couple of seconds, you then want to smell the beer. This is done quickly because the aroma changes fast because of temperature and time. Because you will be sensing the relative level of chemicals released from a beer, you want to maximize this sensation by swirling the glass and taking several quick sniffs (or a long deep smell, whichever works best for you). Contemplate the aroma for a moment. Look for the odors from the ingredients such as grain and the hops. Try to pull out the aromas derived from fermentation such as fruitiness, or spiciness (cloves or black pepper). If you are recording these characteristics, write them down while they are fresh in your mind. For help with flavor and/or aroma descriptors, check out this page on my website: Beer Flavor Descriptors. The more you practice and the better your vocabulary gets, the more enjoyment you will begin to get from drinking some of the great craft beers you will taste at this year's Top of the Hops
    Beer Festival. Plus, many of the aromas you will sense will show themselves in the next step in beer tasting.
  3. Taste: You might want to believe that what you taste in a beer is what constitutes its flavor. In reality, your beer's flavor is influenced by its taste, smell, appearance, mouthfeel, and even your memories. From my website's page on evaluating beer, here is some info about a beer's taste: New research has revealed that there six basic flavors that humans can perceive. These flavors have evolved through evolution to help us determine which foods are nutritious and which are poisonous. The six basic flavors are:

1. Sweet: This familiar flavor evolved to alert us when something his highly nutritive that will provide us with lots of energy. In the hunter-gatherer days of human life, the environment we lived in had few sweet things to eat. This may be why the taste is so pleasurable, it lets us know that this foodstuff is good for us and generally safe to eat. There is some sweetness in most beers, although it is most often overshadowed by the bitterness, roastiness, etc. in the beer. Sweetness is usually a balancing aspect of the beer's flavor and is only prevalent in a few styles, milk stout, Scotch ale, barleywine and a few others.

2. Sour: The sour taste developed to allow us to differentiate between ripe and unripe fruit, as well as rotten or spoiled food. Beer is an acidic beverage (normally 4.0-4.5 pH), although some Belgian beers are in the range of 3.4-3.9 pH. Sourness is a minor flavor in beer and really only becomes important in fruit beers.

3. Salty: Salty flavors come from our ability to detect mostly sodium (and to some extent potassium) ions in our environment. Most of these ions are important to our body's cellular activity and are not produced in the body. Thus, they must be obtained from our surrounding environment. Salty tastes in beer are only a minor player, coming mostly from the water source in which the beer is made. When present, these flavors can give the beer a richer fuller profile. When in excess, the beer simply tastes "salty".

4. Bitter: This is an important taste sensation in that it alerted early humans to a potentially toxic substance. The substances most often responsible for the strong reaction to bitterness are the alkaloids in many toxic or poisonous plants. The bitterness sensation takes a moment to register in the brain, unlike the lightening quick reaction we have to sourness (think of biting into a lemon). The delayed reaction is one reason why you don't perceive the bitterness of hops immediately upon taking a sip of beer. It usually develops slowly and then lingers for a little while after the beer is swallowed. Bitterness plays a big part in beer flavor these days. Previously, it was used for balance and interest, but today, a whole genre of beers, which I call hop bombs, have sprung up to satisfy many "Hopheads" craving for this taste sensation.

5. Umami: This is the flavor sensation you get when eating a succulent piece of meat. The Japanese word means "deliciousness" and sums up the flavor of aged meats, fermented foods and especially soy products such as tofu. According to Randy Mosher in Tasting Beer, An insiders guide to the world's greatest drink, Umami becomes noticeable in beer after the beer has aged and a rich maltiness shows itself. He also notes that given enough aging time, notes similar to soy sauce may develop.

6. Fat: The final, and most recent addition to the basic flavors, is fat. The flavors associated with fat were developed to alert is of a nutritive source of food. It is very similar to the sweet flavor in that it is one of the pleasurable sensations. More research needs to be done on the role of the flavor of fat and beer. This receptors for this flavor were only found in 2005 so it is a recent addition to the basic flavor profile.

4. Feel - The tactile sense, or the sense of touch or feel, is perceived in a beer's mouthfeel or body, and temperature. It is allocated 5 points or 10% of a beer's score. You will sense the beer's texture and perceive it as being thin, thick, silky, oily, warm, cooling (menthol-like), and dry. You can also sense a beer's astringency which manifests itself as a mouth puckering sensation. It is most often caused by the tannins extracted from the grain's husks. Mouthfeel is such an important aspect of a evaluating beer that many go to great lengths to manipulate it to their liking. For example, adding oats will give a beer an oily silky-smooth texture, decreasing the mash temperature will give a beer a thinner, more crisp finish, and controlling fermentation temperature can affect the beer's alcohol, making it less harsh or hot.

5. Pleasure - The final category is the overall impression of the beer. To me this means how much pleasure did it give you. Would you want another beer just like it? Could you drink more than one pint? Would you seek it out and pay money to drink this beer again? This is the most important aspect of evaluating beer because that's what most of us are left with the next day or the next year, is that overall impression you take away each time you evaluate a beer. At this years Top of the Hops Beer Festival, try your hand at evaluating the many beers that will be available for you to sample. Get something to write with and write down your observations. There should be evaluation sheets available for everyone to take notes on.

To get proficient at evaluating beer you really have to practice, practice, and practice some more. Learn the beer evaluation vocabulary and use it often. Although you probably won't find any "off flavors" in any beers at The Top of the Hops Beer Festival in Lafayette's Cajundome, knowing what to look for may be helpful in the future. Check out this page about Troubleshooting "Off Flavors" in your beer. Although it is written for those who brew their own beer, it is a helpful exercise to see what some of the faults are, how they end up in your beer, and how they are prevented by a brewer.

Have fun at the beer festival, but most importantly, drink responsibly. Make sure you eat well before going. Drink lots of water while sampling, and have a designated driver available to pick you up just in case you sample twenty or thirty too many beers.

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