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Beer Tasting Descriptions

Lately I have been very interested in the art of beer tasting. This started when I read Gary Vaynerchuk’s book Crush It!, which frequently references adventures in wine tasting. This morning I did a little exercise with beer tasting in mind, and it made me realize just how many home brewing and beer drinking terms I don’t understand – when I encounter them I must usually skip over them or make a guess as to what they mean.

So here’s what I did: I went through an entire home brewing supply catalog and highlighted every word that was used to describe beer tastes. My survey included 62 different beer kits that were described in the catalog, and from these I pulled out 192 descriptors of which about 134 were unique terms. It is important keep in mind, though, that these descriptions are being used to sell the beer kits. There were no descriptions of off-flavors or off-putting tastes (although “tar” was listed as a flavor in one of the stouts!). Even so, I think that the results are interesting, and they show me just how much I have to learn about beer tasting.

Here’s what I learned:

  • There are many, many flavors that I am not familiar with. If I am going to become a more prodigious beer taster I will need to become familiar enough with flavors like coriander, plum, and buttered pastry to pick them out of the complex flavor profile of a beer.
  • There are a bunch of terms in the advertising literature that are supposed to be luring me in, but instead they are blocking me out. Over the next few weeks I will use this blog to explore terms like “nose,” “body,” “bouquet,” “finish,” “esters,” “phenolic,” “quaffable,” “dryness,” and “hop-bursting,” specifically with how they relate to beer making and tasting. I can make a pretty good guess as to what each word means given the context, but it is still just a guess.

Most Common Terms To Describe Beer Tastes:
My little study was not scientific – I sat down with a highlighter, turned on some loud music, and went through a single company’s catalog. Many beer styles are represented, from pale ales to Belgian ales to IPA’s and stouts. This wide variety of beer styles clearly necessitates a wide variety of descriptors. Even so, below are the top 6 general words that were used to describe the beer flavors. These six comprise about 22% of the total descriptors used in the magazine. The rest of the descriptors are just used once or twice.

  1. Fruity (used 10 times)
  2. Spicy (used 8 times)
  3. Caramel (used 7 times)
  4. Citrus (used 6 times)
  5. Coffee (used 6 times, including descriptions like light-roast, dark roast, etc)
  6. Floral (used 5 times, usually referring to hop flavor)

Finally, below are each of the descriptive words that I found in the catalog.  Are there any words below that you wouldn’t know how to use when describing beer taste?

All Descriptors Found In the Catalog:

apricot coriander hop-bitter shot of hops
baking chocolate cream hoppy smooth
big finish creamy textured hops smooth mouthfeel
biscuit character crisp lemon-citrus snappy
bitter chocolate character crisp finish light sweet malt sour apple
bitter orange peel dark fruit light-bodied spices
bittersweet finish delicate floral note lighter body spicy
bittersweet roastiness dried fruit lingering bitterness spicy cloves
bittnerness drier malt spicy English hop profile
black tea dry maltiness spritzy
bread dough overtones dry  and mildly bitter finish malty spine subtle fruit notes
bread tangles dry finish medium-bodied sweet
bready earthy medium-full body sweet finish
burnt earthy hop bitterness medium-light body sweet graininess
burnt caramel english biscuits modest bitterness sweet malt body
butter toffee estery multigrain bread sweet malt profile
buttered toast fig neutral finish syrupy malt
buttered-pastry sweetness floral maltiness nutmeg tangerine
candied citrus floral nose oats tar (!)
candy-like sweetness floral notes oilier mouthfeel tart
caramel flowers peppery finish toasty
caramel toffee flowery hops phenolic toffee
caramelized sugar fruity pine tropical fruit flavors
chewy minerals full-bodied plums turbinado sugar
chocolate ginger pumpernickel bread vanilla
chocolate liqueur grain-and-bread malt raisins warm cereal
cinnamon grainy flavor rich in malt complexity warming
citrus grainy sweetness rich spiciness warming alcohol note
citrus hop profile grainy-spicy ripe pear fruit wheat malt character
clean grapefruit roast grain
clean-finishing herbal roasted chocolate
cocoa herbal hops roastiness
coffee hint of grain roasty notes
complex finish honey rum
complex malt hop flavor rye
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