What’s in a beer?

There’s more to the amber brew than meets the eye. Which means it’s time to sharpen your tasting skills.

When tasting a cold one – be it an ale, lager or stout – you can’t just down it and say, “great” or “awful” – because fact is, there’s an art to tasting beer with four of your senses.

At its most basic, beer starts with water and malt, flavoured with hops and fermented by yeast.


Malt is created by first germinating grain, usually barley. The grains are heat-dried and sometimes roasted to further caramelise the malt. Then, during fermentation, yeasts go into overdrive, converting sugars in the malt to alcohol. In essence, malt contributes sweetness to beer, from sweet and perfumed to rich and caramelised.


Hops are the flowers of the Humulus lupulus plant. Most brewers use dried hops, but some like to use fresh or ‘wet’ hops. Yet other brewers prefer hop pellets to ensure consistency across batches.

Hops add both flavour and aroma to beer. When smelling the hops, the aroma will depend on the variety, the amount of hops in the beer and whether aromatic hops were used. Usually these are earthy or fresh scents. Think pine, citrus, passion fruit, floral, spices, grass, mint, grapefruit.

These days, super-hoppy beers are all the rage because they deliver a flavour wallop. But they can be quite bitter.


Yeast is a by-product of fermentation and therefore varies from beer to beer. This will smell like cloves, bubblegum, banana, dusty, sour, fruity, clean or aromatic.


Whereas water accentuates, dilutes or emphasises certain characteristics in the beer, different mineral concentrations will affect the flavour profile and thus the beer’s aromatic intensity.



As is the case with wine, drink in the aromas with your nose. A number of things can affect the smell. First up are aromas from the malt, hops and yeast. Then it’s a matter of how these elements all combine.

Take note of what you smell. Is the malt sweet, smoky, toasty or nutty? Are there hints of chocolate or caramel? What about the hops? Are they citrusy, herbal, grassy, floral, resin-like or piney?


Then there’s the matter of the look. Examine the colour, clarity and head retention of the beer. In addition to sweetness, malt gives beer its colour. Counterintuitively, a dark-coloured beer can be light-bodied, and a light-coloured beer can be full-bodied.

Describe the colour. What’s the clarity – clear or cloudy? What about the carbonation? Finally, how much head did it have and how long did it last?

Taste and feel

Now for the first sip: let the beer roll around your tongue. Your palate should savour the flavour. All the while, determine how it feels on the inside of your cheeks and try detecting flavours which escaped your nose. Also, pay attention to the body, carbonation, warmth and creaminess.

Can the beer be classified as thin/watery, robust, smooth or coarse? And did the beer seem to be flat or over-carbonated?

Once you’ve swallowed the beer, feel the dryness and any aftertaste it may have. How does the beer feel on the palate – light or heavy?


At last, this is the moment when you’ll be able to rate the suds thumbs up or thumbs down. However, bear in mind that it’s all relative. There’s no wrong or right answer.

In terms of enjoying a beer, drinkability is foremost. Some beers go down a treat, calling for two or three more. Yet other brews are equally enjoyable, but you’ll find one or two quite, quite sufficient.