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The Beer Basics: What to Look For, and How to Develop Your Palate


I still remember the first craft beer I bought after I turned 21. It was a Leinenkugel's Autumn Explorer Pack, a sampler that took me out of the realm of watery collegiate 30-racks and introduced me to Harvest Patch Shandy, Oktoberfest and my first dunkel—a very different experience from being handed a Busch Light.

Once upon a time, beer was simple. By old German law, only water, barley and hops could be used to brew beer, a limited recipe that ensured high quality and good taste. Then, a craft beer renaissance started in the late 20th century, exploding in popularity over the last decade, and simple recipes gave way to innovation. The average beer drinker is now exposed to an ever-expanding range of brews.

With more than 60 breweries across Idaho—and 20 in Ada County alone—it's a daunting task to figure out what to drink. Gazing at the menu of the local taproom is nerve-racking. Questions abound: What is the difference between a double and an imperial IPA? How do porters, stouts and Scotch ales compare? IBUs are bitter, right? North Fork Lager sounds Idaho-y, does that mean it's good?

To help BW readers navigate those nuances, I sat down with a panel of local beer connoisseurs at Craft Brewers of Boise to learn how to properly order and taste craft brews.

First up was Eli Taylor, the owner of Craft Brewers, a combined home brew supply shop, taproom and brewery. As a taproom manager, Taylor said he usually takes himself out of the picture when tasting new beers in order to focus on what his customers will enjoy.

"Most beers we get in here are good beers, but then it becomes whether other people are going to drink it, will they like it enough, is it the right season for this," he said. "These are the questions I have to ask myself."

Our second panelist was Stacy Connelly, the founder of online news and events hub Boise Beer Buddies. It's nearly impossible to name a local beer she hasn't tried or a brewer she doesn't know by name.

Rounding out the group was Mick Iacofano, a recent Boulder, Colorado, transplant who beertends at Hops & Bottles and Bella Brewing, and was a brewer at Boulder Beer Company.

"I never really have a problem spending a lot of money on beer because I know it's going to be more unique," he said. "And that's become more of a norm now, people actually sitting down to enjoy every aspect of a beer."

  • Micah Drew

Over the course of two flights, the panel gave out their tips for drinking a pint (starting with not actually drinking it).

Ease Into It

"Start with baby steps," said Connelly, a sentiment echoed by the other panelists. "Someone who does the Bud-Miller-Coors, you bring them to a place like this and you start with tasters."

Getting flights of tasters is the best way to figure out what flavors and styles you like without having to commit to a whole pint or six-pack. But even for tasting, there's a right way to do it.

"Always try to go from light to dark," said Taylor. "It makes it easier to handle a dark beer or a very hoppy beer."

Taylor recommended starting off with a Pilsner, which he compared to ordering a spicy tuna roll from a sushi restaurant. For the most part, they taste about the same bar to bar and can be used as a baseline no matter where you are. He also suggested either the lightest IPA on the menu or a cream ale as good introductory beers.

Beyond that, Taylor said he usually starts with a customer's past experiences.

"Lots of drinkers don't know what they're talking about, but they know what they taste. If someone said they drink Blue Moon or Shock Top, I know I can give them a tangerine wheat and know they will like it," he said. "For them it's whether they can drink it and will want another one."

He noted that this is a dilemma among brewers—it's difficult to know how to fulfill drinkability for the masses, while also making something unique and different for people to try.

  • Micah Drew

Love at First Sight

Connelly pointed to a taster in the middle of the flight.

"I like the amber color with this one," she said. "I can pre-judge the beer off that."

Characterizing beer by color has been done for centuries, first using colored slides and currently with laboratory spectrophotometers. A basic scale can be just as useful for the laydrinker.

On the lightest end come lagers, witbiers and Pilsners, which are usually a pale yellow. IPAs usually come in as a darker yellow, and ambers are aptly named for their color and place near the middle of the spectrum. Continuing on leads to brown ales, dunkels, porters, stouts and then imperial stouts, generally the darkest beers.

Of course, this is an imperfect system, and the old adage of not judging a book by its cover holds true—in general, beer shouldn't be cloudy, unless it's brewed to look that way. Color and taste also don't directly correlate beyond "dark" and "light," instead merely offering a chance to comment on appearance (sours can be brilliant red, pink or purple).

Give It a Sniff

"When I'm trying to sit down and drink a beer, I'll always get it in a snifter, which really brings out a lot of smell from any beer," said Iacofano. Aroma offers the most clues about a beer without tasting it. Light, citrus notes or hints of coffee and chocolate can reveal flavor profiles, but the nose can also point out the bad.

"I'll look for something off-putting, like a buttery scent or taste that tells me the beer wasn't brewed properly," he said.

Hops also react poorly to light and the particles break down, so funky aromas can indicate improper storage.

Don't Worry About the IBU

International Bitterness Units, or IBUs, are usually listed on the menu next to the alcohol content of a beer, but Taylor said that's a big mistake for the industry, as it can scare off consumers. High IBU numbers are usually found in hoppy beers like IPAs and double IPAs, but that can be deceptive.

"Out of IBU number, you're never going to get flavor, or aroma, or perceived bitterness," he said. "It's an easy association typically, but it doesn't always work for flavor. There are some extremely high-IBU beers that have no bitterness, no flavor to them at all."

The IBU scale can range from zero to infinity, and differs depending on the amount of hops added and when in the process they are thrown into the mix. Perception of bitterness, however, should come from the flavor, not from a number.

  • Micah Drew

Bottoms Up

"When you're tasting a beer, the first thing you look for is a balance," said Taylor. "And that word gets thrown around a lot in the brewing industry—are the hops right there, are the malts right there, is it right in the middle of the balance so you get an aroma and flavor that's good?"

While there's no need to swirl and spit your first sip, it's worth holding it in your mouth long enough to pick up the entire flavor profile. As an extension of aroma, fruitiness, bitterness and maltiness wash over the taste buds at slightly different times.

The talk about taste differed as we drank through our flight. Lighter beers brought about words like "balanced," IPAs were referred to as "crispy," and dark beers were all about mouthfeel.

"From my perspective, when I try a dark beer, I look for richness, I look for mouthfeel," said Taylor. "And then nitro is a whole different mouthfeel. It's a bigger body, a little smoother."

Typically only darker beers are served on nitrogen, which adds creaminess and can round out the bitterness of some barrel-aged beers. Bars will sometimes give tips to customers with descriptors or flavor wheels that help identify flavors.

"If you came down to nuttiness or fruitiness, then you can start to branch off," said Iacofano. "Then you can go further into that nuttiness and see if it's sugary-sweet like peanut butter, or is it a waxy flavor, like walnut."

The People Matter

"A big part of it is building the relationships with the person behind the bar," said Connelly. "If I come in and [the bartender] introduces me to a few beers I like, then I know he knows what he's talking about."

All three panelists advise going to bars during slow hours, when it's possible to talk to the bartender.

"Education is huge," said Connelly. "I'm still trying to identify what it is that I don't like about certain beers, so tasting them and hearing a bartender say what's in it helps a lot."

A good beertender should be able to describe a well-thought-out flight, talk through the flavor profiles of each taster and help make comparisons. That way, they can figure out a customer's taste buds and serve them something they will love.

Enjoy Yourself

"The taproom experience has really changed," said Connelly. "Now there are food trucks and live music and games and outdoor patios. It's more of an experience."

With such a trendy market, and beers coming and going on a regular basis, Iacofano thinks it's hard to rate beers all the time. Ultimately, it's okay for the consumer to step back from specific characteristics and taste away.

When it comes down to it, as long as you enjoy what you're drinking, who's to tell you you're wrong?