How I Review Beer!

Your mission, should you choose to accept it.

For those new to the site, or for those who simply are curious as to what the hell I'm talking about, Matt's Beer Den reviews tend to follow a particular formula, namely: Intro, Jokes, Humorous Photo, Rant, Beer Discussion, Beer Photo, Brew Assessment, Exeunt.  It's a system that's worked fairly well so far, and thus I will probably continue in that fashion until I eventually get bored and try something else.   Most of the categories are self-explanatory, but for those who want a clearer idea of what I'm looking for in my assessments, here's a little overview of my "beer reviewing rubric."  This isn't really something I've come up with myself; rather, this has been a trial-and-error process over the course of the last two or three years.   Various beer and brewing books, by great brewing authors like Michael "The Beer Hunter" Jackson and Randy Mosher have proven to be essential guidebooks in my learning process; in particular, Jackson's Eyewitness Guide to Beer has been with me from the get-go and has been flipped through, consulted, and left around the house more times than I'd care to count.  As per the process of beer reviewing itself, a great how-to that has helped me from the very beginning is that provided at Beer Advocate, which is far more informative and better-written than my own.  Check it out.

Two big points before I begin. 

Pictured: Your Friendly Tour Guide, in his natural element
First:  I'm no expert - I'm just a guy who likes beer and likes talking about beer.  In fact, I'm learning a lot of this as I go along, like a teacher who's just one or two lessons ahead of his students.  So far, I've consumed somewhere between 500-600 different brews, and have produced written notes for about 350 of them (as of December 2010), which places me somewhere in the beer-reviewing hierarchy category of "novice,"  and even that might even be far too generous.   I also have only a very rough idea as to how beer is made and how the processes for creating different styles work, so I'm hardly an expert there either - I've never even tried to make my own beer, which is something I'd like to try in the future, but for now, I'll leave it to the professionals.   Most of my knowledge, such that it is, comes from books, online sources and discussions with those who brew.  So again, don't take me as an expert of any kind whatsoever -  I just enjoy a good pint and discussing how each one strikes me.  

Second: What I'm trying to do is share my love of this wonderful creation and encourage you (YOU!) to go out and experience it for yourself.  So please, please, don't take my reviews as being the final word on beer.  They are my personal opinions, nothing more.  If there is one absolute truth about beer tasting, it is that everyone's opinions will be different.  Taste and smell are completely subjective, and are very much at the mercies of our own unique preferences and past experiences.   Just something to keep in mind: you might hate the kind of beers I like, and love the ones I hate, and that's fine.  What tastes heavenly to me might remind you of that time you were eating a piece of cake that over the course of the evening led to violent fits of nausea that got you kicked out of Chuck E Cheeze.  One of my friends can't stomach the taste of apples because, as a child, they chipped a tooth while drinking a glass of apple juice.  Random things like this can have huge influences on how one enjoys many things, including beer.   There are very few styles of beer that I don't enjoy on at least some level (Belgian sours are certainly a challenge), but I know that some people will have whole style groups that just don't work for them, and that's okay.  If I can convince you to give a brew style another look, great; if not, move on to the next one - I try not to linger on a particular style for too long.   The blog format makes for an unfortunately one-sided conversation; my real joy is sitting down with friends and comparing thoughts.  Beer is, first and foremost, fun.  It tastes good, it makes parties more enjoyable, and goes great with most kinds of food.  Even though I might give a particular beer a bad review, it doesn't mean I wouldn't drink it if offered to me, unless of course it happens to be that bad. As long as folks are enjoying their beer and are thinking about what they're drinking, I'm a happy guy.   Cool? 

 So, with my little beer-tasting disclaimer out of the way, here's how I like to review my beer!   (Note that this only concerns how I review beer.  Drinking beer involves a great deal less rules and a great deal more pantsless tomfoolery.)

(My) Preparation:

Although I'm ultimately reviewing someone else's product, and should thus be focusing on what they bring to the table, I can improve my own enjoyment of the beer and more properly respect the brewer's intentions by making sure I follow some basic preliminary  steps.

When to Review:

First, as a general rule I try not to review whenever my tastebuds have been 'compromised', and thus unable to process and appreciate the wonderful flavors within.  This doesn't mean I'm not going to drink beer at all - I'm just not going to drink it with the intention of providing a serious review.  This could occur whenever I'm half in the bag, or if fighting a cold, or if I've just eaten something incredibly spicy or savory that's knocked out my taste receptors.  If the beer is high in alcohol content (for me, 8% or higher), I try to put my thoughts down before the delightful side effects kick in.  And of course, no spitting out of the product whatsoever.  I'm not paid to do this, so I get to drink the beer.  I tend to do most of my reviews at home or at beer tasting events so that the brew can demand my full and complete attention.  I rarely review in the pubs themselves.  I might take the odd note on my iPhone or scrap paper, but frankly, reviewing beers in public is weird, and interferes with the social aspects of beer drinking.  It also makes you look like an ass.


l-r: Nonic, Chalice, Weizen Glass.  Pretty much all you'll need.

I never review straight from the bottle or can; I start by pouring out my beer - if it hasn't already been done so by my trusty bartender - into a clean, properly-rinsed glass.   I generally stick to the rough guidelines for glassware if I can, but I'm not about to refuse to assess a beer just because the right glass isn't available.  The immense variety of beer glassware can seem a bit daunting, but for the budding drinker, you really only need about two or three different glasses.  A nonic or basic ale glass should cover most ales and lagers, and a chalice or goblet is best for Belgian ales, stouts and for times when you want to feel a bit snooty.  The goal of the deeper chalice is simply to create a 'bowl' effect in order to capture the sweet odors within; if you're hard-pressed to find one, a red wine glass will do the trick almost as well.   If you can swing it, a weizenbier glass is also a great one to have: it looks awesome and has you covered for a lot of styles. The more you get into it, you can expand your glassware collection as you see fit, whether by purchasing them from breweries or liquor stores, or even asking bartenders if they'd be willing to part with a glass - in many cases, they'll say yes.  Don't steal, though: as a bartender myself, I find that fucking annoying.   Whatever glass you use, at the very least ensure that it's clean, and you'll do just fine.

The Pour:

I pour the beer carefully, usually at a slow pace and at an angle, turning the bottle or can near the very end to (hopefully) produce a nice head effect.   As I mentioned in a previous posting, lacing/head are not absolutes in the beer world; some styles will produce more than others, so I try to keep this in mind.  I also try to pay attention to the proper serving temperature for the style.  Some styles of beer are best appreciated at a slightly higher-than-fridge temperature, so I allow them to warm up a bit to near room-temperature just as I would for a red wine or a single-malt whisky.  By drinking at a slower pace - which I normally do whenever I review anyway - it allows the beer to warm naturally, so that you don't really have to think about it.


Lacing and head retention are great qualities for a beer to have, but
not every style is conducive to producing this effect.   I've had bad
beers with huge billowing heads and terrific brews with none

With my beer successfully poured into my glass, I first take a few moments to admire how the beer looks.  Like the after-school specials tell us, appearance is only so important; it's what's inside that really counts.  While this is certainly true,  I still appreciate a beer that looks good.  An aesthetically pleasing brew heightens the overall experience, just like a smartly-presented dish can improve the quality of one's dining experience.  Basically, I'm gauging the beer's outward appearance to see if there is an initial attraction before I commence seduction.   I first consider the beer's colour (is it visually appealing and within the style's range of hues?), clarity (is it clear, translucent, or opaque?), and whether there is any sediment or particulate to be found.  I also take an initial assessment of the head and take note of its colour and consistency (is it thick and creamy like a latte, or bubbly and patchy like seafoam?).   If any lacing patterns emerge, I take note of them; some beers have no lacing, others leave sheeted patterns or little flecks.   As I work my way through the glass, I check on some of these characteristics to see how they have changed over time.   

What I like to see: A brilliant colour, and should the style allow it, a sturdy head that retains itself fairly well.  Lacing is a nice little bonus.   Appearance doesn't count for that much in my overall assessment, but it can be an indicator of things to come.  A hot girl doesn't need makeup, but a hot girl with great makeup is even hotter.  Thus how it is with beer.


Being an amateur beer enthusiast, I'm pretty good at being able to detect most of the major beer scents (I refuse to use the word "bouquet", this usage here notwithstanding), but again, I'm hardly an expert.   The more beers you assess, the more in-tune you will be as to how a particular beer style is supposed to smell like, or at the very least what the common notes to be found in each style are.  Of course there is no Platonic Ideal for what an "English Pale Ale" must smell or taste like; the categorization of beer is a recent phenomenon and is really just a short-hand to help brewers and beer geeks communicate.    Every brew is different - thank Ninkasi for that - but having a little knowledge of what to look for will help you identify the subtle differences between different brews.  As an example, for hefeweizens the fermentation process naturally produces a variety of scents that include, but are not limited to: banana, coriander, clove, citrus, flowers, hazelnut, and even bubblegum.  The brewmaster's job is to manipulate the ingredients to elicit all kinds of different smells and flavors in whatever combination they so choose, and it's our job to find and enjoy them.  Not every hefeweizen will smell the same way: some will be stronger in banana and citrus, but with a milder malt presence; others will go for the spicy and sweet end of the spectrum.   With a knowledge of what could be there, you can become better attuned to what is there.  It takes a bit of practice to get it all sorted, but all that hard work will result in greater enjoyment of the subtle differences between brews of the same style. 

I don't have much to add here on "smelling techniques," but two things I've noticed that might be helpful.   Cold kills the ability of a liquid to release its smell-o-cules, so sometimes it takes a bit of warming up to really get things rolling.   Again, think of the difference between an over-chilled and room-temperature glass of red wine.  I tend to assess the nose at different times throughout my pint in order to see what changes may have occurred.  Secondly, a good trick I learned from a fellow bartender and scotch-tasting master: keep your glass level to the table when taking a whiff.   It allows you to obtain a complete assessment of all the brew's scented notes, while keeping the smell-o-cules contained within the glass.   Feel free to swirl the beer around a bit first to further stimulate the nose, but as Michael Jackson observes in his Great Beer Guide, "[t]his level of study might best be pursued at home, as serious swirling might easily be thought pretentious when conducted in a bar or restaurant."   In otherwords, don't be a dick about it.

What I like to see: A bit of complexity, and nothing smelling artificial.  After taking a sniff, my anticipation to drink the beer should be at a fever pitch. 


Again, fairly self-explanatory.  As with the nose, a bit of practice will help you get a rough idea what to look for in each style, but the real pleasure is in finding little tasting notes that add to the complexity and character of the brew.  I start by taking an initial big sip and slowly letting my tastebuds take over.  You'll taste different notes in different places: for me, I tend to get sweeter malty notes at the front of my mouth, fruit in the middle, chocolate on the sides and roof, and musky bitterness near the back.   After that first sip is done, I'll contemplate it for a minute, and take note of how the flavor opens and then finishes.  Some brews will start sweet and finish bitter and dry; catching these changes are all part of the fun.  If the brew is particularly bitter or strong-flavored, that initial hit will pack a wallop.  All you'll be able to taste is bitter hops or dark chocolate, and you might not like it at first.  But if you allow your tastebuds a few moments to acclimatize to the bolder flavors, you'll be able to detect subtler, more delicate notes.  I like to take about three sips to start, each separated by a minute or two, and then dig in at a more natural pace for the rest.  Again, sips at different times will allow you to assess the brew along a temperature gradient, adding to the complexity of the experience.

What I like to see:  Of course, my absolute benchmark in beer tasting is whether it tastes "good."  Nothing else matters for me.  Even though Cantillon's 100% Lambic Kriek is one of the highest-rated brews in the world, I can't stand the stuff, so I'm not about to betray my review by rating it high just because others think it's terrific.   But since I tend to like most beers, as long as they pass that initial first sip or two, I'm hoping for bold, natural flavors, a complex palate, and a clean, satisfying finish.  The flavors should shine brilliantly, and not be muted, washed out, unpleasant or poorly blended.  (Why drink a muted and bland red ale when you could have a bold and flavorful red ale?) Audacity also counts for big points.  Just like in the Olympics, a botched landing on a quadruple jump will still yield high marks solely for the attempt.  Though this particularly bold brewing experiment may have failed on some level, I will still appreciate and acknowledge the effort, such that it is.   I'm less forgiving to those who stick to the tried-and-true.


This word is particularly common in beer-reviewing parlance, and frankly, I think it's a terrible word.  But since I can't think of any better non-pretentious descriptor for how a beer 'feels' in my mouth, 'mouthfeel' will have to do.   The two main components of mouthfeel are consistency and carbonation.  In the case of the former, I slosh the beer around my mouth a little to gauge how thick the liquid is.   I ask myself: is the brew oily, creamy, chalky, thin, thick, or chewy?  Does it coat the tongue or cleanse my palate?  Next, I consider the level and type of carbonation.  Are the bubbles fine or large?  Where does the carbonation kick in?  Is it overly aggressive/tart, or too mild/flat?  

So, in a nutshell, mouthfeel answers the question: "Does the way the beer "feels" help or hinder my enjoyment of the beer?"

What I like to see:  Carbonation and consistency levels that suit the beer, nothing that feels too washed out, gritty, oily or flat.  If the sensation in the mouth is unpleasant, there's something wrong.
Overall Statement of Beer Drinkability:

Now is the time when all the bits and pieces, all my ponderings and musings come together and I'll make an overall assessment.   At this point, I'm attempting to answer a few basic questions about the beer on display. 

First of all, was this an easy beer to drink?  Is this something of which I could enjoy several in a single sitting?  A negative answer in this case isn't necessarily a bad thing; it's an opportunity for me to say "that was interesting, tasty, worth trying, but not something I'd want more than one of over the course of an evening, or longer."  A rich, hearty imperial stout with a high alcohol content might have a lower drinkability because, even though I might adore it, it's just not an 'everyday' beer, and that's okay.  Same goes with seasonal offerings, like pumpkin ales, or experimental beers that are more intriguing in their composition than they are drinkable.   Intensely-hopped American IPAs and alcohol-rich Belgian Strong Pale Ales might be flavorful and terrific, but because of their virtues, aren't something you could have too much of.  By contrast, a mass-market lager, though perhaps lacking in other departments (like flavor) might score big points in drinkability because they go down that easily.  These are brews one could consume in great quantities.   Ideally, I'd like a beer to be both great and easily drinkable, but this isn't always the case.  Also, consider the fact that you're lucky enough to be having a beer right now.  Even though it might not be great, there's still a place for (almost) every beer.  If you're already half in the bag, a nondescript lager might just be the ticket.  Sitting by the beach in Mexico, with a book in my left hand and a Dos Equis in my right, I was about as happy as I've ever been in my life.  An Imperial Stout in that situation would have been a terrible choice.  Just something to think about.

Of course, I always prefer drinking great quantities of great brews, which brings us to the second, and most important question.  I've given careful thought thus far to the individual components of the beer, and now it's time to consider the entire package.  By this point, you must be asking: "Dammit, Matt: is the beer any good??"  A just question, indeed.  After all this reviewing, would I recommend this beer to friends, well-wishers and blog-readers?  Is this a beer I'll avoid like the kiss of death itself; something I could stomach if I have to; a decent offering that would receive no complaints if presented to me; a stand-out brew that is damned hard to refuse; or is this the kind of beer upon which mainstream religions are based?  As a general rule for myself, I tend to rate beers high.  Even a "meh" kind of beer deserves at least some kudos, because the brewmaster had only the noblest intentions: to make us all just a little bit happier.  If the beer is pretty good, but perhaps a bit bland, uninspired or lacking in a cohesive vision, as long as I can drink it, I'm a happy guy.  

Finally, for my own little purposes, I like to consider how the beer compares to others from the same brewery or same style, and wax poetic about what I find wonderful about it.  Basically, the historian in me is attempting to place the beer "within the canon."  What was the brewer trying to do here?
Is this an English Pale Ale with American Pale Ale characteristics?  And so on.

Grade Scale:

You've probably noticed that at the end of each review, I give most of the brews a little grade scale total, a mark from A+ to F.  You also may have noticed that this grade might come across as a bit arbitrary, considering that I haven't as of yet developed a grading system to calculate said grades.  This much is certainly true.  Truth be told, I probably shouldn't use a grade system to evaluate the beer that I drink, because I don't feel it does the beer justice to be reduced to a simple grade-point after having considered so many different aspects of the brew.  After all, what does a B- beer taste like?  What about a 'B'?  What's better, a beer that I'm pleasantly surprised with that warrants a 'B', or a lesser beer from an otherwise great brewery that only deserves a 'B'?  It's all a bit ridiculous.  But, for the purposes of the blog, I've decided that a little shorthand to help distinguish the better beers from the ones I would avoid was a necessary evil.   These scores are derived from my graded scores submitted to Beer Advocate, with perhaps a bit of tweaking on my part for humorous effect.  Thus, I'd advise everyone to not take a lot of stock in these grades - the review of the whole should do a much better job of conveying what I like and dislike about the beer.   But, in case you were wondering, here's a general overview of what each grade scale 'means.'

A+     =    One of God's Elect.  The brewer has done everything right here, and has reminded you of how great a beer can be.  Surprising and exciting at every turn.  A truly exemplary and sublime brew that I consider to be a superb example, if not the greatest example, of that particular beer style.  Reserved for only a select few. (some of my examples: Schneider Aventinus Weizenbock/Eisbock, North Coast Old Rasputin XII; Duvel)

A or A-   =  A beer any brewery should be proud to call its own.  A terrific example of the style, worthy of greater dissemination amongst the masses.  (Flying Monkey's Smashbomb IPA, Fuller's London Porter, Chimay Premiere)

B+     =  A great beer, well-worth picking up, perhaps needing only a few tweaks to achieve true legendary status, but still a great addition to a draft line or beer fridge.  A great 'standard' brew in your lineup.(Creemore Lager; Black Oak Pale Ale; Cannery Blackberry Porter)

B       =  An enjoyable beer, does what it sets out to do, and does it fairly well.  Better than a lot of brews out there, and sometimes hits the spot perfectly.  Welcome in my fridge anytime.   (Wellington SPA; Steigl; Hockley Valley Dark)

B-      =  Decent.  This beer is pretty average, or it might possess a noticeable flaw, whether it be appearance or in the flavor department.   Worth getting again, but could be better.   May have been an experimental brew that didn't fully work out, but wasn't altogether bad either.  (Old Speckled Hen; Mill Street Lemon Tea Ale)

C+     =  A brew that is drinkable, but probably not worth seeking out.  Something you'd drink if it was offered to you or if the selection was limited, but you'd be happier with something else.  (Alexander Keith's; Red Stripe Lager; Holsten; Grasshopper)

C-     =  Pushing the boundaries of drinkability.  Bland, blah, or foul: take your pick.  You can drink it, but you're probably not happy about it.   Like when someone at the table orders pitchers of Canadian before you get a chance to order, and don't want to look like a douche by getting yourself something else.  (Canadian; Dos Equis; most offerings by Great Lakes or Trafalgar)

D    =  I finished it, isn't that thanks enough?  (Victoria Bitter; Schlitz)  

D- to F =   This godawful mess puts shame to the good name of beer.  Your life was happier before having consumed this foul abomination in the eyes of God.  Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!  (Faxe; Busch)

So there you have it, my little (albeit verbose) approach to the reviewing of beer.   Now pour yourself a cold one (or room-temperature one), sit back, and enjoy!


- Michael Jackson. Great Beer Guide (2000)
- Michael Jackson, ed.  Eyewitness Companions: Beer (2007)
- Garrett Oliver. The Brewmaster's Table (2003)
- Patrick McGovern's Uncorking the Past (2009)
- Randy Mosher's Tasting Beer (2009)

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