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Judging Beer by the Label: How to Talk About Beers You Haven't Tasted

Judging Beer by the Label: How to Talk About Beers You Haven't Tasted

For the sake of a thought experiment, you're at a vibrant brewery, surrounded by friends and fellow beer enthusiasts, and the conversation flows as freely as the beers. Everyone seems to be talking about the latest craft brews, the nuanced flavours of their favourite IPAs, and the perfect pairings with gourmet dishes. You're nodding along, trying to keep up but harbouring a little secret: you haven't tasted most of the beers they're raving about. So, what's a beer lover to do in such a situation? How can you participate in these conversations with confidence and flair?

Every week, I must guide a dozen brewing students through several beer styles that are typically rare or uncommon. I am so fortunate to be able to work with a purchaser to help organize all these products, but I rarely get a chance to taste all of them before going to class. As much as I would like to sample each one prior and make detailed notes, it is simply not possible. Not only are some of the samples rare and hard to find, but the individual packages may be utterly different to what I had previously. Recipes change, and freshness is a significant factor in the overall quality. The several minutes between opening and serving a product is insufficient time to hammer on a keyboard to make lecture slides. When not even mentioning the thousands of beers I have sampled blindly for brewing competitions, it can be rather daunting.  

The Concept of "Tasting" vs. "Experiencing."

Let's start by distinguishing between "tasting" and "experiencing" a beer. Many believe truly experiencing a beer requires sipping, savouring the flavours, and analyzing the aroma. While this is a legitimate way to enjoy beer, it's not the only path to beer enlightenment. When people ask what my favourite beer is, I typically reply that I have favourite beer experiences. Such as the beer halls of Munich, a detailed sampling with the manager of a closed brewpub, and a brewer’s breakfast in the first brewery I designed. I couldn’t tell you what my favourite beer of those days was, but I can share what those experiences meant to me.

Beer is More Than Liquid in a Glass

Beer, like other beverages, is more than just the physical substance. It's about the stories, history, and culture surrounding it. When you engage in beer conversations, you discuss the liquid and the entire experience. Beer isn't limited to the sensory perceptions of taste and smell; it encompasses the rich narrative of its creation.

When discussing beers you haven't tasted, immerse yourself in the backstory. Learn about the brewery's origins, the inspiration behind the beer, and the passion that went into its creation. By understanding the narrative, you can express your appreciation for the beer on a deeper level, even without tasting it.

A Word on Craftsmanship

Much like a product represents a maker's work, a beer represents the craftsmanship of a brewer. When you talk about a beer you haven't tasted, you can still acknowledge the dedication and skill that goes into creating it. Understanding the brewing process and the techniques used can make for engaging conversation.

Research the brewing methods and ingredients that go into the beer. This knowledge can help you appreciate the craft behind each brew and contribute to your beer conversations with insight into the art of brewing.

The Power of Beer Conversations

The world of beer is vast and diverse, with numerous styles, flavours, and traditions. Engaging in beer conversations allows you to tap into this richness. Knowing how British, German, Belgian, and American brewing traditions started is easy enough to base discussions of individual products.

Learn the Lingo

Every field has its own jargon; the beer world is no exception. Familiarize yourself with beer-related terminology. Know the difference between an IPA and a Stout, understand terms like "hoppy" and "malty," and be able to discuss the significance of IBUs (International Bitterness Units) and ABV (Alcohol by Volume).

Numerous online resources and apps can help you build your beer vocabulary. Explore Craft Beer & Brewing, or industry references such as the Brewer's Association, for extensive glossaries and beer-related information. Beerology by Mirella Amato and Tasting Beer by Randy Mosher are excellent books if you prefer print. The Oxford Companion of Beer, edited by Garrett Oliver, is the closest reference to an encyclopedia when discussing beer.  

Stay Informed

As you would keep up with the latest trends and releases to discuss products, stay informed about the beer world. Follow beer blogs, subscribe to beer magazines, and join online beer communities. This will keep you updated on the newest brews, emerging breweries, and exciting trends in the beer industry.

Use social media to follow breweries and beer enthusiasts. This will keep you in the loop regarding new releases and industry news. While Untappd and other rating apps serve to log or capture tastings, relying solely on them can limit the overall experience. Focus on using them to earmark your journey and resist the urge to gamify discoveries.

Share Beer Stories

Every beer has a story. As you might discuss a creator's background and influences when discussing a product, delve into the history and anecdotes behind beers. The tales of how a brewery was founded, the challenges faced, and the inspirations that led to a particular brew can be fascinating conversation starters.

Listen to brewery tours, read their websites, and follow their social media accounts for engaging beer narratives. Sharing these stories can make your conversations more intriguing. Now, a range of podcasts focus on the beer industry and how it interacts; listening to them is a great way to capture the spirit behind a pint.

Ask Questions

Be bold and ask questions. Everyone is new at some point. If there's a beer style or product that you're curious about, ask your beer-savvy friends about it. Inquire about their experiences, detected flavours, and how they could work with food.

Ask open-ended questions like "What do you love about this beer?" or "Can you tell me more about the brewery?" This encourages deeper discussions and provides you with valuable insights. Consider taking a tasting class at a local brewery or culinary school to accelerate this.

Embrace the Beer Culture

Much like other beverages, a broader cultural context adds depth to your conversations in the world of beer. Knowing the why as opposed to the how can add a great depth to the overall conversation in order to keep it moving forward. 

The Significance of Breweries

As you might discuss famous manufacturing centers and their impact on the field, breweries play a vital role in the beer world. Learn about the breweries' origins, brewing philosophies, and contributions to the beer community.

Find out if there are any renowned breweries in your local area and explore their offerings. Understanding the significance of these breweries can add depth to your beer discussions. Breweries typically are one of the first businesses that go into rebuilding a community, as they need a fair amount of manufacturing space. See if you can discover how they helped the needs of their community when they started or currently.

Regional Diversity

Beer culture is heavily influenced by geography. Different regions have distinct beer traditions and styles. For example, German beers are known for their precision and typical adherence to the Reinheitsgebot (Bavarian Purity Law), while Belgian beers are celebrated for their complexity from using simple ingredients.

When discussing beers, consider their regional origins. You can talk about the unique characteristics of a beer by relating it to its production's cultural and geographical context. Specific ingredient uses and techniques emerged from those regional differences, and by knowing the core philosophy of the region, you can identify basic commonalities.

People Behind the Pint

Creators aren't the only creative minds in the world of storytelling; brewers are the storytellers of the beer world. Get to know the people behind the pints. Explore their backgrounds, their experiences, and their passion for brewing.

Look for interviews with brewers and brewery owners. Understanding their motivations and journeys can provide insightful talking points during beer conversations. Many brewers work during the week, which is the opposite of the typical time for beer consumption. Still, breweries host events where these questions are typically more welcome when the staff isn’t busy cleaning equipment or weighing ingredients.

The Art of Pairing

Just as you might pair a product with the perfect environment, you can pair a beer with the right ambiance and food. Understanding the basics of beer-food pairing will make you sound like a seasoned connoisseur and enhance your beer experiences.

Experiment with different beer and food pairings in your own time. Discover how certain beers complement specific dishes and share your findings with others during beer conversations. Several quick rules can help, such as compare, cut, or contrast, and big beers tend to hold up to more prominent flavours.

Emphasize the Nuances

Like all beverages, beers have their nuances. Explore the beer styles, ingredients, and aromas of different brews. Express your understanding of these nuances and the flavours they can contribute to a drinking experience.

Challenge your palate by exploring different beer styles and noting the flavours and aromas you detect. The more you explore, the more you can contribute to nuanced beer conversations. Try to use a mental thesaurus instead of “malty”; try “grainy, cereal, toast, or cracker”. Instead of “hoppy” try, “earthy, spicy, fruity, or pine.” Then go one step forward and think of specific notes that the beer reminds you of. Use this to help move the conversation forward. If you want to get exceptional at this, attend an off-flavours class. Similar beers tend to have similar beef flavours and aromas. Use this tool in your tool kit to move the conversation forward and establish typical notes.


Much like other products, there's room for every kind of enthusiast in the beer world. You don't have to be a master brewer to engage in meaningful beer conversations and contribute to the vibrant beer culture. By understanding the art of talking about beers you have yet to taste personally, you can navigate the world of craft beers, stouts, ales, and lagers with confidence and charisma. Remember, it's not about what's in your glass but what's in your mind and your ability to share your passion with others. As I would say to the students, focus on the glass in front of you, and beer goes in your mouth.  

Further Reading

Bayard, P. (2009) How to talk about books you haven’t read. New York: Bloomsbury USA.

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