How to Taste Beer: Sensory Analysis and Off-flavors

Jenny D. News & Views

Tasting events are a popular (and fun!) way to enjoy beer. Meetups devoted to beer tasting have been popping up everywhere, including at PorcFest*! I myself have written a lot about my experiences trying various brews, but how does one taste beer? I will teach you the proper procedure and go over the most common flavors and off-flavors found in beer. This is useful for any beer drinker, whether you plan to attend a tasting, have a pint at a bar, or open a can of IPA that’s been sitting in your refrigerator for 6 months.

How to Taste Beer:

Pour: It is generally best to pour beer into a glass so you can fully experience the aroma and appearance as you are pouring and after the beer has settled.

Look: Raise the beer in front of you to note the color, clarity, and amount of foam.

Swirl: Agitate gently to release subtle aromas and test head retention.

Smell: Take quick sniffs and experience the aroma of malt, hops, and spices. This is also how you may start to notice “off-flavors” before you even take a sip; Smell is how we perceive 90% of flavor!

Sip: Let the beer coat your tongue. Resist swallowing immediately so you can pay attention to how the flavor changes and if it lingers. Note the texture and mouthfeel. Try breathing out during tasting to release additional flavors and sensations on the tongue. Try to detect any sweetness, salty flavors, acids and general bitterness. Explain what they are, or what they are similar to.

Beer can also change over the course of drinking a glass. As the beer warms, you will detect new flavors and aromas.

Flavor Attributes

There are many types of flavors you can detect in a beer, and this is just a short list. You may even come up with some of your own that are not listed anywhere. Tasting is an experience that is different for every person, because we all bring in our own genetic differences, past experience, and likes/dislikes.

Ethyl Hexanoate: Apples, licorice, green Jolly Ranchers.

Vanilla: Ice cream, cream soda, sugar cookie.

Ethyl Phenylacetate: Honey, sweet, mead, sherry.

Ethyl Butyrate: Mango, tropical fruit, pineapple, grapes.

Bitter / Sweet / Salty / Sour / etc.

Catty: Dank, musky, cat pee (can be an off-flavor for some).


Occasionally, you may notice some off-flavors that were not meant to be part of the beer. This can happen during the brewing process through unwanted contaminants or it can happen over time if the beer was stored too long or kept improperly. Some “off-flavors” can also be created on purpose as a desirable attribute in certain beer styles. As you read through these, you may recall tasting some of these off-flavors:

Diacetyl – This is one of the most common off flavors. You may notice a butterscotch smell and/or a buttery taste. Although it occurs naturally in beer, too much of it is undesirable biproduct of the fermentation process. This flavor is actually the hardest for me to detect, though some people are sensitive to it.

Trans-2-Nonenal – tastes like paper and has a flat appearance. This can happen through heat or oxygen exposure. If you leave your beer in a hot car for too long you may start to notice this flavor.

Ferrous Sulfate – a metallic, inky, or bloody taste. This can happen when beer is made with water with high amounts of iron in it.

Butyric Acid – tastes like baby vomit. This is the off-flavor that I find most revolting. It happens with poor sanitation. Gross!

Dimethyl Sulfide – aka DMS – smells or tastes like cooked corn. This off-flavor happens when the wort is not boiled for long enough or cooled quickly enough.

Isoamyl Acetate – responsible for the banana flavor in some beers. To me, it also smells like nailpolish remover. This off-flavor happens when beer is fermented at too high of a temperature. However, in some beer styles, such as Hefeweizen, it is actually desirable attribute!

Phenolics – burnt plastic or clove-y taste. This can happen when chlorinated water is used in the brew process.

A Cautionary Tale

A few months ago, I bought a 4-pack of a delightful, hazy New England IPA from a local brewery. I drank some of it right away and I kept a can in my fridge for about a month before I drank it again. However, when I poured the can into a glass, I noticed all the beautiful haze was gone! Additionally, it had an unpleasant flat taste. Lesson learned: Do not expect a beer to stay good beyond a few weeks after you buy it! Often times, beers you purchase at local breweries are designed to be enjoyed fresh. That being said, keeping one in your fridge for a longer period of time and comparing it to a fresh one is a fun experiment to see how the taste changes over time.

*The beer tasting at PorcFest will take placeĀ on Saturday, June 22nd from 5:00pm-7:00pm in the Creating Communities tent. Bring a 6 pack of craft beer to share in exchange for your tasting cup and show off your new beer-tasting skills. I highly recommend downloading the Untapped mobile app and rating the beers so you can keep track of your favorites. Cheers!