At its most basic, beer starts with water and grain (malt), flavored with a kind of flower called hops and fermented by yeast. F&W’s Megan Krigbaum and brewer Dave McLean of San Francisco’s excellent Magnolia Brewing explain the essentials and propose four taste-training exercises.


Beer Tasting Exercises

Beer Tasting Exercise: Hops


Art by Julia Rothman

Hops Defined

Hops are the flowers of the Humulus lupulus plant, a crawling vine that grows in many parts of the world. Most brewers use dried hops, though some like to use fresh “wet” hops, when available. Many brewers today use hop pellets (which are made from dried hops) to ensure consistency from batch to batch.

How Brewers Use Hops

Hops give beer both flavor and aroma. Brewers can choose from among dozens of varieties, many of them quite distinctive. “Saaz hops from the Czech Republic are spicy and peppery,” says McLean. “English hops can be grassy, and Pacific Northwest hops can be citrusy or piney.” Hops also contribute bitterness, measured in International Bitterness Units, or IBUs. The amount of IBUs depends not only on the type and amount of hops, but also on when the hops are added during brewing.

“I think bitterness is becoming more accepted in the US because of cocktail culture,” McLean says. “People are now into bitter drinks, like Negronis.”

Hops Workout: Bitterness

Super-hoppy beers are all the rage, because they deliver a flavor wallop. They can also be very bitter. When that bitterness is balanced with sweetness, however, the effect is refreshing, not wince-inducing.

What You Need

  • 3 glasses
  • 1 1/2 cups grapefruit juice
  • Water

To determine your bitterness threshold, pour 1/2 cup grapefruit juice into each of the three glasses. Add 1/2 cup of water to the first glass and 1/4 cup of water to the second. Taste in order of increasing bitterness.

Beers to Try
From mildly to very bitter
Gritty McDuff’s Best Bitter > Firestone Walker Pale 31 > Russian River Blind Pig

Hops Workout: Flavor & Aromas

What You Need

  • Grapefruit wedge
  • Fresh pine needles
  • Black peppercorns
  • Just-picked grass
  • Freesia
  • Thyme and sage

Give each of the above a sniff or a taste to get a sense of the range of citrusy and “green” (herbal, piney) flavors and aromas that hops can impart to beer. Put a check mark next to the ones you enjoy. The more you choose, the more you will like an intensely hoppy beer.

Beers to Try
From citrusy to herbal

  • Citrus: Brooklyn Sorachi Ace
  • Pine Needles: Weyerbacher Double Simcoe IPA
  • Pepper: Victory Prima Pils
  • Grass: Tröegs Nugget Nectar
  • Flowers: Three Floyds Blackheart
  • Herbal: Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye

Beer Tasting Exercise: Malt


Art by Julia Rothman

Malt Defined

Malt is created by first germinating grain, usually barley. The grains are heat-dried and sometimes roasted to further caramelize the malt and develop toasty flavors. Then, during fermentation, yeasts get to work, converting sugars in the malt to alcohol. Any remaining sugar not only contributes sweetness but also body to beer. Malt also adds a lot of flavor.

Malt Workout: Sweetness

What You Need

  • Whole-wheat bread
  • Oatmeal cookie
  • Rock candy

Malt contributes a range of sweetness to beer, from mild (as in packaged whole-wheat bread) to intense (rock candy). Taste the foods above to learn your sweetness threshold.

Beers to Try
From mildly to very sweet
Magic Hat Plus/Minus > Oskar Blues Old Chub > Goose Island Big John

Color Connection
In addition to sweetness, malt gives beer its color. Counterintuitively, a dark-colored beer can be light-bodied, and a light-colored beer can be full-bodied.

Light BodyFull Body

Ballast Point Pale Ale

Marin Star Brew

Harpoon Dark

Anderson Valley Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout

Malt Workout: Flavors & Aromas

“There is a pure sweetness to malt, plus flavors and aromas like coffee, nuts and toast,” says McLean.

When it comes to malt, the darker the roast, the deeper the flavors. Taste through the list below and put a check mark next to the flavors you enjoy. The more you choose, the more likely you are to appreciate an especially malty beer.

What You Need

  • Malt ball candies
  • Brewed coffee
  • English toffee
  • Pecans
  • Slice of toast
  • Dark chocolate bar
  • Dried cherries

Beers to Try
From malt-ball-like to fruity

  • Malt Balls: Red Hook ESB
  • Toffee: AleSmith Old Numbskull
  • Nutty: SweetWater Georgia Brown
  • Coffee: Founders Breakfast Stout
  • Toast: Bell’s Smoked Vienna Lager
  • Chocolate: Left Hand Milk Stout
  • Dried Fruit: Ommegang Abbey Ale

Video: Expert Tips on Beers Tasting and Pairing