Drinking on the Last Frontier: Brew reviews — Take note of standard reviewing procedure

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell. Brew review do: Keep a notebook handy to record observations.

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell. Brew review do: Keep a notebook handy to record observations.

By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter

In almost every human activity, there are two groups of people, separated by an invisible boundary line. On the one side dwell the amateurs, dilettantes and hobbyists. On the other you will find the professionals, fanatics and obsessed. The distribution between each camp varies according to the subject matter, but it’s always there.

In my opinion, when we are talking about craft beer, one of the easiest ways to tell if someone has crossed that line is to ask if they have started keeping records of the beers they have tasted. Perhaps they just record the mere fact that they have tasted a particular brew, like a birdwatcher who adds a species of bird to their Life List. Beer lovers of this sort are known as “tickers,” since they are all about “ticking” another beer off their list.

Then there are the beer chasers who are less interested in quantity than they are in quality. These are the sort of folks who seek out beers, taste them and then write up impressions or tasting notes or reviews, either on paper or online. Once you start writing down notes about how a particular beer tastes and smells to you, even if it’s only on a bar napkin, you have crossed the line. As someone who took that particular fall many years ago, let me be the first to welcome you and offer a few pointers.

If there’s any sort of standard for reviewing beers, it’s one based on the Style Guidelines produced by the Beer Judge Certification Program, or BJCP. The BJCP was created several years ago as a way to train and recognize qualified beer judges for homebrew competitions. As part of this effort, they created descriptive guidelines for the various recognized beer styles in order to give these judges an objective standard to evaluate beers against.

Since they were originally issued in 1997, the style guidelines have been revised and expanded several times and have become a popular reference for homebrewers and craft beer lovers. They can be downloaded for free at http://www.bjcp.org, or you can download a free iPad/iPhone app with the same information. These style guidelines focus on five key areas that you should probably address in writing any beer review — appearance, aroma, flavor, mouth feel and overall impression.

Appearance is obvious. What does the beer look like in the glass? What color is it? How’s the head? Is it clear or cloudy? Aroma is also quite straightforward. What does the beer smell like? Hoppy? Malty and sweet? Roasty? Funky like a barnyard? Things get more complex for the other three areas.

Flavor covers a lot of territory. Different areas of our palates are sensitive to different flavor components to various degrees. Bitter, sour, sweet, dark fruit, citrus, hops, spices — you can find them all to greater or lesser degrees in various beers. Trying to sort out exactly what is present can take some time (and multiple beers!).

Mouth feel refers to the physical or mechanical sensation of the beer on your palate, not its taste. Is it light and effervescent, or thick, chewy and heavy? There are beers out there from both ends of the spectrum, and plenty in the middle.

Finally, overall impression means just that, how well do all the individual attributes blend and work together? Do they support and enhance each other, leading to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts? Or do they clash and get in each other’s way, producing something less than it should be?

Another trick of the beer reviewer’s trade is to always carry some sort of notebook in which to write your beer impressions, so you don’t end up using a bar napkin. I’ve carried several different pocketsize notebooks over the years, but in 2010 I found what I think is the perfect choice. It’s called a Beer Sketchbook and at 3.5-by-5 inches it fits perfectly in the pocket. Each booklet has enough pages to record 33 beers, one to a page. You can check it out at http://www.33beers.com. Use it, or whatever works for you, but avoid the napkins.

If you really want to come over to the dark side of beer tasting, I will be teaching my annual class, The Art And History of Brewing, during the spring semester at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus, from 5:30 to 6:45 p.m. Tuesdays from Jan. 21 to April 29. We taste beers in class, tour all the local breweries and generally have a fine time learning to increase our appreciation of good beer. It is a one-credit course, with the cost of the beers to be tasted included. If you have any questions, call 262-0330 for more information.

Until next month, cheers!

Bill Howell is a homebrewer, teaches a beer appreciation class at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus and was named the 2010 Beerdrinker of the Year by Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver. He and his wife, Elaine, have released a book, “Beer on the Last Frontier: The Craft Breweries of Alaska — Volume I: Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island Breweries,” via Amazon.

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