So after reading Part 1 about why it is essential to do an evaluation and Part 2 about some resources that can help you out, Part 3 of Your Homebrew Sucks is all about how to actually evaluate a beer. There’s a lot of ways to go about evaluating a homebrew, this approach is on the more critical side of things because we need to really know what this beer is all about and how to improve it.
Here’s how to actually evaluate your homebrew in a step by step manner, after each step I’ll list out something that I may write if I were evaluating my Puckwudgie Pale Ale. I recommend that you divide the page on your notebook into a couple of different boxes. I like having Aroma, Appearance, Flavor and Mouthfeel. This is exactly from the BJCP scoresheets and I find that it allows me to make sure that I’m hitting on all of the aspects of my beer that need to be evaluated to improve the product overall. I leave out Overall because that’s where a judge would provide feedback and during this step, we aren’t doing feedback we are only evaluating the beer.
You are evaluating the beer in front of you
Not what you intended it to be or what you hope it would be
The actual beer that is in front of you
Last big overall tip is that you are trying to describe the beer that you have in front of you. You are not trying to describe what the beer was supposed to be according to the recipe, or what someone else told you. You are also not supposed to be writing down everything that the BJCP Style Guideline says this beer style should be. The idea is to get an honest evaluation of the beer as it is on that particular day.
- AROMA – Immediately upon pouring smell the beer to get the volatile organics that may be fleeting. Don’t snort the aroma, a slow steady inhale through your nose is all you want to do. Write down the first thing that pops into your mind when you first smelled that beer. This is where we want to use descriptive terms rather than the generic terms so turn to you beer flavor wheel and think about the aromas that you are perceiving and where you’ve smelled them before. Sometimes it’s a combination of aromas and you can’t quite put your finger on it, that’s ok just try and list out a few things that pop into your head when you first smelled that beer. You also want to try and put a finger down on the intensity of the aroma. Already your notebook should have something written down for the initial aroma that you picked up. It may not be a good smell either and that’s something you really need to record. For example if you get a light rotten egg smell for just a fleeting second that’s from sulfur. We need to record that aroma, even though it’s not pleasant, so that we can evaluate where it came from and how to fix it in the future. The initial aroma check should take no more than 10 to 15 seconds including the time for writing down your thoughts. This is only the initial aroma, you’ll be diving back into this further in a few steps.
Prominent grapefruit zest, touch of piney resin, light bready
- APPEARANCE – Take a look at the beer and give your nose a quick break. Take notes down on the color of the beer, the clarity of the beer, the color of the head, a description of the head and if the head is persistent. In order to standardize your color language for beer I recommend using the BJCP Beer Color Guide. I actually have a printed version that I leave in my notebook for evaluations so that I always have it near me. One thing I recommend is that if you want to have a hard copy, don’t go and print it yourself unless you have a pretty good printed. The color may be slightly different from some printers so I ordered mine online for cheap, I bought 3 of them so I have extras when I lose them. Looking at the beer should take about 15 to 30 seconds to a minute including writing down your thoughts. You will have to update the persistence of the head after a few minutes of drinking the beer but at least you can notice if it immediately disappears like a light American lager.
Good clarity, dark golden color beer, white head, small thin film, moderately persistent
- AROMA – Now that we’ve had a minute to look at the beer we really need to get into the aroma more closely. You want to search out and write down any perceived (or lack of perception) on all of the following characteristics of the beers aroma:
- Fermentation Characteristics
- Other Characteristics
The idea is that you want to record all of the components that make up the aroma now, not just that initial impression that you wrote down originally. We will be coming back to this list again so it doesn’t need to be complete and if you aren’t sure what you are smelling, take a look at the Beer Flavor Wheel again and try and narrow down the aroma that you’re picking up. Close your eyes and smell the beer, trying to convince yourself that you don’t have a beer in front of you and try to imagine something that would have that aroma. This takes practice so don’t get discouraged if you can’t do it immediately but stick with it and you will get better at it over time! Spend 30 seconds to a minute on this part of the evaluation. At this point I like to position myself so that both my mouth and nose are above the beer. Slowly breathe in through both your nose and your mouth at the same time to let the aroma wash over both your nostrils and the back of your throat. You may detect additional aromas in smelling this way, breath out through your nose each time also. Think deeply about the components of the aroma and write down the best description and intensity that you can for everything that you smell (or don’t smell).
Malt – moderately grainy, light bready, light toast
Hops – strong grapefruit, moderate pine, light grassy
Fermentation Characteristics – no esters, no phenols
Other Characteristics – no DMS, no diacetyl
- FLAVOR – We finally get to taste our beer now! The beer has been out of the bottle or keg for less than 2 minutes if you’ve gotten your timing down. Now take a small sip of beer and swirl it around in your mouth to coat all parts of your toungue, this first part is what I describe as the first third. This is the initial tastes that you are getting when you start to take a sip of beer. We want to record as much information regarding the flavor of the beer in addition to the intensity of those flavors. I like to follow the BJCP Scoresheet comment recommendations here so that I know that I am capturing everything I want to. As you swallow the beer, try and detect any flavors near the back of your throat. This is the second third of the flavor and may have slight changes in the flavor. The third third is after you have swallowed what flavor remains on your palate. After each sip breath out through your nose to try and hit the retro nasal receptors. I would say that you should try and do this in no more than 3-4 sips of beer, we aren’t drinking for the sake of drinking we are drinking to evaluate our homebrew.
- Hops (Bitterness and Flavor)
- Fermentation Characteristics
Malt – light bread and very light toast, slight caramel
Hops – moderate bitterness, prominent grapefruit and slight resinous backup, remains for all 3 thirds
Fermentation Characteristics – low fruity (apple) esters, no phenolics
Balance – slightly bitter but not overwhelming
Finish/Aftertaste – grapefruit flavor remains with a touch of residual caramel sweetness
Other – N/A
- AROMA – We got to taste our beer finally but now that the beer is warming it will be giving off different aromas. Put your nose and mouth back over the glass and again start to slowly breath in that aroma. Now you can start to try and target things that you may have had in the flavor but didn’t pick up in the aroma (in this example I’d see if I can pick up caramel in the aroma now that I tasted the beer). Add to the notes that you wrote before with any new aromas that you are picking up. It is really important to go back after a beer is warmer because the aroma will absolutely change due to the temperature.
- FLAVOR & MOUTHFEEL – We already know what this beer tastes like but we want to double check all of the things that we originally tasted in addition to checking on the mouthfeel now. Regarding the FLAVOR, add to the notes that you already recorded if you have anything that changes with the temperature change. For the MOUTHFEEL section of your evaluation we’re going to examine the following components:
Body – medium body
Carbonation – moderate carbonation
Warmth – no alcoholic warming effect
Creaminess – no creaminess
Astringency – slight dryness after each sip but not biting
So there you have it, the steps that I use to evaluate all of the homebrew I have. As was described in Part 1 of this series, if you do this process three times for each batch of beer you’re going to have a better idea of how this beer changes as it ages. I’ve learned for example that one of my Brown Ales seems to hit its peak flavors after being in the keg for 4 weeks; the flavors meld and there aren’t any harsh edges from the hop bitterness. If that particular beer goes past about 3 months the malt flavors begin to taste muddied to me and it isn’t as enjoyable.
Now to reward yourself, you should have around ¾ of a pint of beer in your hand from your evaluation. Drink that up and enjoy your hard work in both the brewing of the beer and the evaluation that you just performed. All in, the evaluation should take you no more than 10 minutes, 15 minutes if you’re new to evaluating beers and are searching for flavors. A few more thoughts to end this segment with, don’t do an evaluation when you are eating or have been drinking. You want to get your palate as clean as it can be, don’t smoke or have spicy food for a few hours before evaluating. You want to do this someplace where you are relatively free from distractions. It’s only 10 minutes so use that time to get away to a secluded corner of your house or apartment and evaluate your beer. Don’t get discouraged if you aren’t tasting or smelling things. This takes a lot of practice, the amazing part is that to practice you have to drink beer! If you haven’t read it yet I really recommend Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer book as it goes into more depth than I have into possible flavors and aromas. It’s a book that I have near my evaluation notebook in case I ever need some reference materials. In Part 4 of Your Homebrew Sucks we’re going to be going into what to do with all of this information depending on the reason for this particular homebrew so check back soon for an update!