"Appreciation of beer quality has always been important," says Patrick Baker, author of "The New Brewer's Handbook," a 36-page guide to brewing and tasting beer. "People just lost their sensitivity to it during Prohibition."
Today, he says there is a "real movement" in America to promote beer with taste and character, body, aroma and good mouth feel. What these terms mean is a mystery to the beginning taster. Next time you have a beer, drink it at around 55 degrees (lest you lose your sense of taste and smell) and look for the following qualities.
Smell: The feel of the "nose" is where you really get the flavor of beer, Baker says. Smell for the bitter aroma of hops and a grainy quality from the malt.
Appearance: Look for color, which depends on the style of the beer (ranging from light to dark). Check for clarity. The bubbles should be steady and small, not a big "whoof" of bubbles that disappear immediately. There should be a full head of tiny bubbles making up a nice fine foam. Lighter beers have thinner heads; you should see three-quarters of an inch on a fine stout.
Taste: Swallow. Light beers should sparkle over the tongue, but not bite (that's a sign of artificial carbonation, Baker says). There should be a nice fullness, no heaviness. If the beer is totally flat, it will be heavy and viscous. There should be a balance between hops and malt--one shouldn't overwhelm the other, and there should be a nice panaroma of taste. Taste for acidity; certain German and Belgian beers should be somewhat acidic.
Balance: Think of the beer you are tasting against the ideal of the beer's style. It's important to know the 15 major beer groupings such as bottom-fermented German lagers and top-fermented English ales, and the complexity of the beers within that grouping. Stout, for example, is a bottom-fermented a dark English ale that is heavily flavored with malt and hops. It's a very complex beer, Baker says, and you have to look for a balance between the two.
Two books that Baker recommends for home brewers and anyone interested in tasting beer and learning its history, both by Michael Jackson, are "The World Guide to Beer" (The Running Press, $9.95) and "The Pocket Guide to Beer" (Putnam Books, $5.95).