Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

A guide to tasting craft beer

Once, the method for tasting beer went like this: crack open can, put can to lips, drain, repeat.

North America’s craft beer revolution – with microbreweries steadily stealing market share from beer-making giants like SAB Miller and Anheuser-Busch InBev – is changing that. Today, small-batch beer compares in quality, complexity and character to fine wine and whiskey. And it demands similar respect.

That said, Nicholas Dolan (Geomatics Engineering Technology ’11) knows craft beer hasn’t been lost to the connoisseur. "Sometimes on a really hot day a beer is just what you need," says the veteran homebrewer and certified beer judge. But even on a hot day, that certification, which involved a 10-week course and a lengthy exam, "allows me to take my time and appreciate what I'm drinking.”

For Dolan, that means focusing on the interaction between the primary ingredients: water, malt, hops and yeast. How does that differ from most Big Beer? The key is aroma and flavour, explains Dolan. Understanding those involves adding a few simple steps to the tasting process: sniff, sip, consider and savour. Repeat, happily, remains the same.

So much style

Nicholas Dolan has been a certified beer judge since 2010.Craft breweries, smaller and more nimble, tend to be more creative, Dolan points out. The result is an extraordinary range of style. In fact, the Beer Judge Certification Program 2015 Style Guidelines include 34 types, each with its own subset.

Just as ingredients and brewing processes are variables, so is appearance. Beers might be crystal clear or unfiltered and cloudy due to special ingredients left in the final product, such as wheat. As for colour, says Dolan, “You can have a straw yellow to black as night and everything in between.”

The basics of aroma and flavour

Hops – "The thing that can dominate is the hop aroma, depending on the style of the beer," says Dolan. There’s variety here, too. Old World or European hops, he says, tend to smell milder, even vegetal. English hops can even be minty. New World hops, which tend to have strong citrus or fruit characteristics, originate from the U.S., New Zealand and Australia.

Hops has a similar effect on flavour. Both contribute to beer’s bitterness, though the New World varieties may also taste of pine, grapefruit, or even herbal, such as with American India Pale Ales.

Malt – The nose may pick up beer’s grain – barley that has been germinated then dried – as bread or toast for lightly roasted malts or chocolate of coffee for darker. Malt is also the source of a beer’s sweetness. “That can range from a toffee-like sweetness to a bready, dry taste,” says Dolan. A dark-roasted malt of a stout, for example, can give it a taste similar to coffee with relatively little sweetness.

Yeast – Yeast isn’t just responsible for alcohol content – it affects aroma and flavour depending on strain or brewing conditions. “A classic aroma would be a banana- or bubble gum-like aroma in a hefeweizen,” says Dolan. “There's a huge spectrum of chemicals produced by yeast that can be detected by your nose.” The same goes for taste.

How to identify flavours

"It takes a lot of practice and being open to the process,” says Dolan. His trick: take a sniff or a sip, pick one scent or flavour and try to name it. He gets specific: raspberry rather than fruit, say, or graham wafer instead of malty. Then he moves on to the next flavour, gradually building the profile of the beer.

It’s not easy, he admits. “Everyone will have blind spots when tasting; even experts have that.” The point is to be aware of the variety of each sip. Beer has become more complex in recent years but that doesn’t mean inaccessible. Spending time talking about the quality of a beer with friends is just another a social activity, not a competition.

“It's an enjoyable thing to do,” says Dolan. “It’s not a snobby thing.”

3 craft beer recommendations from Nicholas Dolan