Tag Archives: Beer Tasting

Beer from a Wine Guy’s Perspective

Avery IPA_Badge                  BayernRibbonLogo              Equinox logo

kettlehouse-logo                   Verboten Logo                 Odell logo


Recently, my wife and I spent two weeks traveling through Montana and Colorado.  We hit roughly 15 breweries with the aim of understanding beer a little better.  It took most of the two weeks to begin developing an understanding of how to evaluate beer.  Like wine, it is still all about the balance and structure, but unlike wine, these qualities come from different sources.  A beer flavor profile is built primarily from these components: grain variety, malt and/or roast process, hops variety, yeast variety and water.  Certain styles of beer can also have substantially higher/lower alcohol content, added flavors, be barrel aged, be cold or warm fermented, or finally the delivery system (tap) can have a major impact on texture.  This post will focus on the 10,000 ft. view, trying to provide the bigger picture that is beer.  If you have not already experienced all that beer has to offer, this should introduce you to the tremendous diversity in the Craft Brew Continuum.  Most of the breweries we visited are listed at the end of the post.


Grains are typically either: Barley, Wheat or Rye. Barley is most common.  Wheat is selected more typically in lighter styled beers and Rye is used in many IPA‘s to add spice and body.

Malt and/or Roast

Malting is the process by which the grain is soaked in water and allowed to sprout, making the starch in the grain available to the brewer for fermentation.  These “malted” grains are then dried and can be roasted at different levels to achieve more diverse flavors.  There are many different processes that produce light to dark and even specialty malts like caramel, or chocolate.  Darker styles of beer rely heavily on Malt/Roast processes to develop their flavors.


There are many varieties of Hops that can be grown in a number of cooler climate areas around the world. Each can taste quite different in the beer.  Hops is primarily used for bittering and an international scale has been developed to measure the amount of Alpha Acids that causes the bitterness in parts per million.  The scale is simply called International Bitterness Units (IBU’s).  As a reference:

  • A Lager might have an IBU rating in the 10-20 range.
  • An Amber Ale might have an IBU measurement in the 25-40 range.
  • An India Pale Ale (IPA) might be in the 60-80 range.
  • An Imperial, or Double IPA could be anywhere from 80-200.

Hops is usually boiled and then fermented with the Wort.  The Hops can add citrus, piney, floral, or spicy flavors, depending on the variety used.  It can also make an enormous difference if additional hops are added and allowed to soak after fermentation.  When done in this manner, the hops tend to impart their more complex flavors, rather than primarily the bitterness from the Alpha Acids.


As in wine, various controlled and wild yeasts can be used and will impart different flavors also.  The most startling example of Yeast impacting the final beer flavor is in the Kolsch style.  Try one sometime and you will get the idea.  There are yeasts that are more efficient during cold ferment (like Lager), or warm ferment (like Ale). The cold vs. warm process affects the flavor too.


Water is water, but then again… it is the largest percentage component in beer.  It can have an affect on the final flavor profile based on minerality, or other characteristics.

Added Components

Everything is fair game in this category.  On this trip, we tasted everything from pickle juice, or coffee being added to the process to habanero chiles and peach nectar.  The Lambic style of beer takes this idea to the limit, with all having a fruit component and usually some level of sweet, or sour to it.

Barrel Aging & The Delivery System

As in wine, barrel aging is a practice used to impart additional flavors and characteristics to the beer.  Today, it is not uncommon to see IPA, Saison, Porter and Stout aged in whiskey barrels.  The challenge with this practice is the loss of the carbonation byproduct from the fermentation.  Often this style of aged beer is put on tap with CO2, or N2 to add the bubbly back.  I know my palate has a hard time drinking beer without the bubbles.

Acidity in Beer

This is an interesting topic for me. Acidity in wine is a key component to the “backbone”, or “structure” in a wine.  Low acid wines taste flabby and flat.  I found the same goes for many styles of beer.  So, managing the acidity in beer is crucial too… and has much to do with the water.  When the water used in the Wort has a high amount of dissolved carbonates (for example), crisp beer styles like Lager and Pilsner are impossible – unless the Wort is acidified through additives.  Acidity can accentuate the hoppy flavors in IPA’s.  Porters and Stouts benefit from lower acidity to develop a creamier mouth-feel.

Alcohol Level

Personally, I enjoy high alcohol beers, i.e. Strong Ale and Barley Wine.  You can’t sit down and drink 72 oz. of this stuff like a Lager, but the higher alcohol adds more texture and mouth-feel… characteristics I enjoy.  There are many ways to amplify the alcohol.  Just as in cooler climate wines, winemakers can Chaptalize and add sugary components, the same thinking can be applied to beer.  Typically, it is difficult to get more than 6% or 7% alcohol from simply malted barley, but any sugary substance added to the Wort can increase the alcohol percentage produced by the fermentation.

Evaluating Beer & Beer Styles

In order to evaluate beer, you need to understand the different styles of beer and tie them back to the differences in the components.  Based on the Beer Judge Certification Program there are 28 broader categories and 102 individual beer styles.  I will just cover the major categories here for this discussion: Lager, Pilsner, Amber, Bock, English Pale Ale, Scottish/Irish Ale, American Ale, Porter, Stout, IPA, German Wheat Beer, Belgian Ale, Sour Ale,  and Strong Ale.  For the purposes of this piece, we will exclude Mead and Cider…

At least for me, I can fit beer into six major categories:

  1. Light, crisp beers (Pilsner, Lager, Wheat)
  2. Lighter ales (Pale, American)
  3. Medium maltier ales with slightly roasted barley (Amber, Scotch)
  4. Bitter ales (IPA, Strong)
  5. Dark ales (Porter, Stout)
  6. Specialty beers (lambic, sour and beers with added flavors)

OK, for you purists, don’t beat me up to badly. I know there are supposed to be 28 categories, but my palate tends to compare and file away each beer into one of these six.


In these two weeks of visiting breweries, I was able to associate a flavor profile in my mind with each and put the equivalent of a varietally correct wine model in place for each.  Similar to my training to taste wine blind and identify grape varieties… I would be comfortable doing the same for beer now.  I have also matched my palate to beer styles I prefer, learned beer-making practices that impact flavors I enjoy and flavor profiles to expect based on a written description.  It was a great trip!  For anyone in the beverage trade, I would highly recommend such a voyage of discovery!


Northern Colorado

Big Beaver Brewing Company
2707 W. Eisenhower Blvd. Unit 9 Loveland, CO 80537 (970) 818-6064 bigbeaverbrew.com

Coopersmith’s Pub & Brewing
5 Old Town Square Fort Collins, CO 80524 coopersmithspub.com

Equinox Brewing Company
133 Remington Street Fort Collins, CO 80524 (970) 430-6489 equinoxbrewing.com

Fort Collins Brewery
1020 E. Lincoln Avenue Fort Collins, CO 80524 (970) 472-1499 fortcollinsbrewery.com

Odell Brewing Company
800 E. Lincoln Avenue Fort Collins, CO 80524 (970) 498-9070 odellbrewing.com

Verboten Brewing
1550 Taurus Court Loveland, CO 80537 (970) 988-6333 verbotenbrewing.com

Avery Brewing Company
5763 Arapahoe Ave Unit B-1 Boulder, CO 80303 (303) 440-4324 averybrewing.com

Upslope Brewing Company
1501 Lee Hill Road No. 20 Boulder, CO 80304 (303) 960-8494 upslopebrewing.com

Missoula, Montana

Bayern Brewing Company
1507 Montana Street, http://www.bayernbrewery.com, 406-721-1482
Big Sky Brewing Company
Draught Works
915 Toole Avenue, http://www.draughtworksbrewery.com, 406-541-1592
Kettlehouse Brewing Company
313 North 1st Street West, http://www.kettlehouse.com, 406-728-1660

Tamarack Brewing Company
231 W Front St, http://www.tamarackbrewing.com, (406) 830-3113


Comments Off on Beer from a Wine Guy’s Perspective

Filed under Beer Tasting

Strong Ales – A Brewmaster’s Passion

Strong Ale Definition

Strong Ales (also called Barleywines) is a catch-all category for grain-based alcoholic beverages with roughly 8-12% ABV content.  The diverse sub-categories can include American Strong Ales, English Strong Ales, Belgian Dark Strong Ales, etc. Each has a slightly different broader taste profile. American versions tend to be hoppier. The English is usually maltier and fuller bodied. While the Belgian can be more yeasty and/or fruity.

Market Trends in Beer

“…Overall U.S. beer market has taken a hit from difficult economic conditions and competition from other drinks categories—losing nearly 6.7 million barrels (or 93 million 2.25-gallon cases) since 2009—specialty beers are providing a growth avenue for the category. Total U.S. beer volume… fell 1.5% to 195 million barrels last year (2013), but specialty beers rose by 14% to 20.2 million barrels, according to the U.S. Beer Market: Impact Databank Review and Forecast.” From Shanken News Daily.

The U.S. palate is exploring, looking for diversity (finally) and making lagers and pilsners shrinking U.S. beer categories. Beautiful! The world of beer is so diverse and interesting with an amazing array of flavors and textures…

Commercial Examples of Strong Ales

American Style: Sierra Nevada Bigfoot, Rogue Old Crustacean, Avery Hog Heaven Barleywine, Anchor Old Foghorn, Stone Old Guardian, Bridgeport Old Knucklehead, Lagunitas Olde GnarleyWine, Smuttynose Barleywine, Flying Dog Horn Dog

English Style: Thomas Hardy’s Ale, Burton Bridge Thomas Sykes Old Ale, Fuller’s Golden Pride, AleSmith Old Numbskull, Whitbread Gold Label, Old Dominion Millenium

Belgian Dark Strong Ale Style: St. Bernardus Abt 12, Achel Extra Brune, Southampton Abbot 12, Chimay Grande Reserve (Blue), Gulden Draak, Lost Abbey Judgment Day, Russian River Salvation

 Why are Strong Ales Worth Exploring?

This category is a wide open style. Permitting barrel aging, dry-hopping, fruit infusion, wheat/barley/malt experimentation and a wide array of textures abound. I have tasted the brisk, piney, hops tasting Stone to the heavier textured malty Lagunitas. Those infused with apricot, or aged in old pinot noir, or bourbon barrels have been wonderfully fun to explore.  All have been interesting expressions of beer styles that just makes you want to try more…

Strong Ales: A Blank Canvas for the Brewmaster

The winemaker is lauded for his technique in expressing the terroir and nuanced flavors of the fruit. The brewmaster can be the same artist, exploring textures and flavors from fruit, grains, barrel aging, etc. I grew up in the U.S drinking lagers and pilsners, with no idea there were so many styles of beer in the universe. I am so happy the U.S. consumer has discovered and embraced the numerous options and encouraged breweries to explore and produce every kind of beer imaginable. On my way to The Yard House… I wonder which of their 100+ beers on tap I will be drinking today?

Comments Off on Strong Ales – A Brewmaster’s Passion

Filed under Beer Tasting