There are few things more impressive than watching a brewer sample a beer and rattle off a long list of characteristics that you’d never notice yourself. Sometimes the casual beer drinker can’t pick up on the notes a brewer does, even if they’re specifically looking for them.

So, what gives? Does every brewer just have a sense of taste and smell that would rival a bloodhound? It probably helps. But Craig Thomas, Sensory Research Analyst here at Firestone Walker, believes a huge part of this is a learned skill. “We can train panelists to recognize, even quantify, specific chemical compounds at levels as low as the parts-per-trillion,” he said.

But how? That’s what we’re here to find out. We sat down with Craig for a full sensory lesson. Keep reading to learn what he told us about how the pros taste beer.

Setting Your Objectives

Before you even start tasting the beer, you need to know what it is you’re tasting for.

“The very first step in tasting anything is to define your objectives, ” Craig said. Tasting a beer, especially in a professional setting, can be anything: blindly identifying the flavor attributes, judging a beer in terms of existing specifications or preconceptions, or comparing multiple beers to decide which one you prefer. “I always state the objectives and questions clearly to my panelists so they know what is expected out of them.”

It’s not enough to present a beer and simply ask, ‘What do you think?’ because it lends to more questions. ‘Think of what? Do I like this beer? Is it the best representation of the style? Does it meet quality standards?’ Specifying the question goes a long way towards helping you focus and pick the relevant information out of the beer.

Craig offered a metaphor to highlight why this step is so important: “It’s the difference between scrolling through every movie on Netflix and searching for an award-winning historical action film featuring Russel Crowe. You might find Master and Commander instead of Gladiator, but at least you won’t waste time and energy finding out that there are nine (soon to be 10) Fast and Furious movies.”

For the casual drinker, this may seem like overkill. But we promise it isn’t. Just simplify your objective. “When I look to taste a beer outside of a professional context, the question I usually ask myself is not, ‘What key aroma attributes do I find in this beer?’” Craig said. “It is, ‘Do I want to drink more of this beer?’”

Now that we’ve set the baseline, let’s jump into the reason we’re all really here – actually tasting the beer.

How To Assess Beer Like An Expert

When the pros are sampling a beer, there are four key elements they’re assessing: appearance, aromatics, tastes, and mouthfeel. Craig instructs his panelists to follow a tasting technique that’s structured in that order.

Reading about taste may feel a little abstract, so we’d encourage you to pour a glass of whatever Firestone beer is in your fridge right now and follow along with the steps below.


Before you dive into a sip, really look at the beer. Note the presence or lack of foam, color, and clarity. Does it cling to the glass? What do the bubbles look like?


The next thing you want to assess is the beer’s aroma. Because certain flavor compounds are easier to pick up on in different ways, Craig has his panelists follow several steps in order to properly assess aroma.

  1. Begin swirling your glass. This encourages aromatic compounds out of the beer.
  2. Slowly bring the beer up to your nose, and begin wafting it back and forth under your nose while simultaneously taking short sniffs. You know how your dog sniffs your clothes after you’ve been away all day? Sniff like that.
  3. Stick your nose into the glass and conduct a one-second sniff. Then a two-second sniff. Cover the glass with your (clean) hand and swirl for five seconds. Perform another two-second sniff.
  4. Take a sip of the beer and swish it around in your mouth to warm it up. Swallow, and then exhale through your nose.


For this assessment, you want to think about the five key tastes: bitterness, sourness, saltiness, sweetness, and umami. When you taste the beer, list each out in your head and identify its presence and intensity. “99% of beer relies heavily on sweetness and bitterness,” Craig said, “but that isn’t to say you can’t find other tastes as well.”

To conduct a taste assessment, take another sip and swish it around. Craig encourages people to swish for a long time – 10 to 20 seconds if you can. After you swallow, take another five to 10 seconds to make a judgment on the bitterness of the beer, as bitter tastes can take a while to register on the palate.


When you’re considering mouthfeel, you want to pay attention to the carbonation, viscosity, and any lingering, astringent notes. For this step, just take a final sip, swish it, and swallow.

How A Pro Would Taste Mind Haze

To help illustrate what a brewer would find during a tasting, here’s an example of what a brewer’s notes would look like when sampling our original Mind Haze IPA.

Visual: Hazy, glossy white foam, pale golden.
Aroma: Pineapple juice, orange juice, ripe tropical fruit, strawberry, melon, grapefruit.
Taste: Low bitterness, slight sweetness.
Mouthfeel: Pillowy and full-bodied, medium carbonation.

How Do Brewers Assess Quality Through Tastings?

Sometimes, the technical descriptions of a beer only paint half the picture.

“As far as technical tasting goes, visual, aromatic, taste, and mouthfeel characteristics are the tangible things you are assessing,” Craig said. “But the quality of the beer is based on a bit more than this – things like balance, structure, elegance, robustness, and sessionability. These are composite characteristics that no one can really define.”

At Firestone Walker, our brew team has come up with some colloquialisms that help them quickly and specifically convey information about the quality of a beer.

“If we get a really good batch in a panel, we often simply describe it as ‘poppin’,” he explained. “It’s really tough to say what makes that happen; all the flavors just seem to sync up into something more than the sum of their parts.”

Part of the team’s job is to assess how our beers change over time and under varying conditions, which sometimes means sampling beer that’s past its prime. “If we taste something that’s well beyond its shelf life and has been stored warm, we often call it ‘roached’ rather than articulating every single one of the flavors that arise from such mistreatment,” he said. (Reminder, cold and fresh is best for most beer! Head to our blogs on beer expiration and cellaring for more info).

More Tips For Sampling Beer

You want to be wary of overdoing it with your aroma assessment. “Sticking your nose in right away and taking a big whiff is a no-no,” Craig said. “You can become desensitized to some smells very easily, so you may miss things if you don’t start off by wafting.”

If you’re sampling a flight of beers, you may be wondering about palate cleansing. “Washing away lingering smells or taste is an important step,” he explained. “But I think the most important part of the exercise is the effect it has on your brain and focus levels. 80% of tasting comes down to focus, and cleansing your palate provides a mental reset for your next assessment.” So take it from the expert. When you hit up. a new spot and want to try a few tasters before settling on a pint, take your time, really pay attention, and you’ll probably be happier with the one you settle on.

Building on his point about focus, Craig recommended being mindful of the environment you’re sampling in. “It almost goes without saying that the fewer distractions there are the better – whether they’re smells, loud noises, or wobbly tables, keep them to a minimum.”

And finally, remember to enjoy it! You don’t have to taste like a brewer to enjoy a good beer. If you want to level-up your tasting skills, these tips should help. But at the end of the day, remember that even Craig said he’s only asking himself, ‘Do I want to drink more of this beer?’ when he’s drinking for pleasure.