Sensory School: The Eye of the Beer-holder

As much as we know looks aren’t everything, when it comes to beer the first sensory experience you’ll enjoy is the appearance of your pour. There are several visuals that come into play before you even let a beer approach your palate, and they can be surprisingly simple but powerful details.

Color, clarity, head character, the play of light, the shape of glassware, the cleanliness of a pour, the haze of yeast, the color of foam, the dance of those precious little baby carbonation bubbles that float through your beer — these are just some of the elements that stimulate our senses before even touching a beer. There’s a surprising amount of thought that has gone behind the appearance of each and every craft beer you’ve ever enjoyed, and taking a minute to slow down and understand those visual stimulants might improve your beer drinking enjoyment.

Glassware is an obvious start. Open any craft beer lover’s cabinet and you’ll likely find a collection of distinct, odd-shaped glasses. Each one serves a special purpose for a certain type of beer. A snifter provides a hugely aromatic experience, as the aroma in the beer is captured inside its bulbous shape and can’t escape into the air as quickly through its tiny opening. A Weissbier glass allows light to flaunt the color and intentional yeasty haze of this style, while structurally supporting a giant, puffy head. A tankard glass can hold larger quantities of Oktoberfest or Helles session beers, complete with a handle to hold all that weight. A stange glass holds a Kölsch, letting light shine through it’s pale straw brilliance that you can sit and drink with seemingly endless refills thanks to their beermat.

As silly as it sounds, think of glassware like footwear: you wouldn’t wear water socks to a black tie event, and you wouldn’t wear your finest dress shoes while shoveling snow. Sure, you could try it, but you wouldn’t be getting the most out of your footwear and you wouldn’t be enjoying yourself. Note: I would say you wouldn’t wear work boots to play football, but Ace Ventura has proved me wrong.

You’ve probably also seen custom glassware like the Firestone Walker Pivo Pils Pilsner glass, the Sam Adams Boston Lager glass, and the Chimay Chalice Glass. These are examples of proprietary glassware created to showcase the perfect sensory experience of one type of beer. These glasses take into consideration some of the smallest details that affect the way a specific beer gets into your mouth from the glass — the angle of the rim, the size of the opening, the weighting of the vessel, the lines of the glass, the use of a stem or not for temperature sensitivity, the size of the vessel to allow a bigger head. Some have nucleation sites etched at the bottom of the inside to create a small stream of bubbling carbonation to support a continuous head. The thought behind such glassware is impressive, but do keep in mind some custom glassware is made simply for the joy of presentation and brand enforcement.

Now that we have our glass, we should probably fill it with some delicious malted beverage. The way a beer is poured directly affects the entire sensory experience, but we’ll just focus on appearance for now. There are basic guidelines for pouring a beer properly if it’s draft or bottled, and some styles even have their own traditional ways of being poured, like the inverted Weissbier pour demonstrated in this video.

Contrary to frat-lore, foam from carbonation is actually a good thing in beer. For example, when pouring a draft beer, allowing it to poof up, calm down, and continuing to fill it a couple times creates a denser, creamy foam with longer lasting teeny bubbles. The presence of a head on beer is important not just because it looks pretty darn cool, but because it releases aroma, and even some flavors, that would otherwise be locked into the liquid itself.

The type of head present on a beer can also be an indicator of the quality of beer you are about to consume, or the quality of the beer service at an establishment. Generally, about one inch of head is good, though some styles call for more or less, as it is either a cultural preference or the amount appropriate for that beer style. Absolutely no head can be caused by dirty glassware or an improper pour. A pour that’s all head could mean an overcarbonated beer or a hasty server.

Once the pour is complete, you’re left with an enticing treat that’s anywhere between a perfectly clear and extremely pale straw color to a totally opaque black hole beast of a beer! In simplest terms, beer runs the gamut of colors from yellow to black, and this color is measured by the Standard Reference Method (SRM), but also sometimes in degrees Lovibond, though there are additional formats internationally. Though we do produce beers of other colors due to fruit additions, the base of those beers falls into the defined color categories … but hey, we’re an experimental brewery anyway!

On the brewery side, paying attention to color is important for quality and consistency — like glassware and carbonation, a certain color range also fits certain styles. Remember that a darker beer does not equate to a heavier beer. Color in beer correlates to the color of the malts used in the beer. A roasty beer can be dark in color, but light in ABV, like a Black Mild. Likewise, a Belgian Tripel or Imperial IPA can be golden to amber in color, but much stronger in alcohol and more intense in flavor than other beers of similar hue. has a great printable PDF visual guide of beer colors with each style and its SRM, based off the BJCP guidelines.

Is the pour hazy? That’s not always a bad thing. Some beers are supposed to be hazy, but again, this depends on the style. Temperature, ingredients, and flaws in beer can cause haze. If you’re drinking delicious unfiltered beer, like ours at The Bruery, proteins from the malt may be visible at colder temperatures. This is called Chill Haze and it is purely cosmetic, fading away once the beer comes to a warmer temperature. Residual yeast can also cause haze, especially in some wheat beers or bottle-conditioned beers.

As seen in the video above, enjoying yeast in a Weissbier is actually part of the sensory experience. Hefeweizens, Berliner Weisses, Witbiers, Belgian White Ales and Kellerbiers are examples of wheat beers that are acceptable with some haze from traditional brewing practices. The yeast sediment found settled at the bottom of bottle-conditioned beers, however, is not usually intended to enhance the beer’s flavor and could add a muddy taste to beer when consumed, so just leave that behind.

(photo via Pinterest)

If a beer has haze accompanied with small whitish proteiny flakes floating in it, don’t drink it! That beer is old and has probably been through a number of fluctuations in temperature. Yes, snow globes are awesome as Christmas decorations, but not when it’s a beer you’re supposed to be drinking. Dirty taplines can also leave beer hazed and spoiled. Without proper draft system maintenance, tap lines can breed bacteria leaving you with infected, bad tasting beer.

At The Bruery, we don’t filter or pasteurize our living beer because we want the fullest flavor possible in our beer. By bottle-conditioning our beers, natural filtration happens over time without stripping out flavor and body, an end result we certainly think is worth the risk.

Now go stare at some beers!

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Sources include: Tasting Beer, Home Brew Manual, Pete’s Pint Pot

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