How to rate beer depends to some extent on why you want to rate beer. Aside from people who drink beer mainly to get drunk, most beer drinkers will usually drink beer they like. As soon as you start to do that you are effectively rating beer. Most beer drinkers tend to try a few beers and then stick to their favourites, but more and more people are now trying a wider range of styles and imports. Once you’ve tasted more than about 20 different beers your ability to remember if Nottingham Pale Ale was better or worse than Robin Hood’s Bitter becomes more and more difficult. Tasting beers in a consistent way and keeping some sort of record of what you thought of those beers is fun, useful in making future purchases and to be able to recommend good beer to friends. Now we can look at “how to rate beer”. Firstly, there is no one or right way to rate beer. I will describe how I do it and you can decide for your self which parts of the rating process you might wish to try and/or use.
Firstly, I never rate a beer direct from a can or a bottle, only a clean glass. Of course having the exact glass recommended by the brewery is ideal but when I don’t have one, I substitute based on style: a standard pint pub glass for lagers, stouts and ales; a “chalice like” glass for Belgian ales, and flutes or champagne glasses for lambic beers.
Make sure your beer is at the correct temperature. This does not mean “almost frozen”. People who drink near to frozen beer don’t realize that your nose and tongue do not work well at these temperatures – or maybe the beer they are drinking is so bad they are doing this deliberately! Cellar temperature is often recommended, but I like to cool my beers a few degrees colder than the recommended temperature so that by the time it’s in the glass and I’ve made my couple of minutes worth of initial observations it’s ready to taste. Freezing your glass is not recommended as it freezes water out from the beer and can substantially alter its flavor.
Finally I like to have my bottle opener, pen and rating sheet handy. My preference is to rate in as quiet a situation as possible, with minimum noise and distractions. That said, rating with friends is fun because you can discuss each beer in detail and help each other to come up with words to describe the aromas and flavors.
Make sure the beer has as close as possible to the correct size head for the beer style. Ideally you should pour yourself a full serve so you can observe the proper head. This becomes a bit harder when sharing beers but you should still be able to get a good bit of foam on top of your sample.
Now smell the beer. The very first smell is the one you need to pay most attention to, as your nasal sensors will quickly saturate. Move the glass away from you and breathe normal air and then try again. I look for and note down any attractive, unusual or bad aromas. Hop character, malts, sweetness, fruitiness and other aromas. Swirling the glass can release some of the fainter more subtle aromas that are not evident the first time around. Finally, I award a mark out of 10 for this feature.
This is a difficult one to put your finger on. It’s basically the “feel” of the beer inside your mouth and (unlike wine tasting!) as you swallow it. How does the beer feel around the front of your mouth, the back of the mouth and as you swallow it? Is it velvety smooth or harsh, mouth filling like a stout or is it thin bodied like a watery lager? Sticky or cloying like a over sweet soft drink or does it strip your mouth out like vinegar? Is it balanced, or one-dimensional? I usually concentrate on the body or fullness of the beer and any other special feature of how it feels in the mouth. I then award a mark out of 5 for this feature.
This is how the beer tastes. How many different tastes and flavors can you identify? How does the initial flavor vary from the start, the middle, finish and aftertaste of the beer. Here you can describe the intensity of the bitterness, sweetness and sourness of the beer. I award a mark out of 10 for flavour.
Finally the beer is rated overall out of 20 marks. This can be a way of balancing up other features about the beer or anything else you like or dislike about it. You might be a cost conscious beer drinker and include price. How likely are you going to want to buy this beer again? When you finish the beer, how do you feel about it?
Now is a good time to write your comments into the comments box. High quality writing is not a requirement. I use short sentences with some abbreviations and with just enough punctuation to keep it readable. At least some comments are better than no comments at all. You can always edit your ratings as your skills improve or your impressions of a given beer change over time.