Beer Tasting and Rating

What rating system do I use?
I use the tasting and rating system that Beer Advocate uses. The beer is rated on a scale of one to five in five separate categories. Each of these categories is weighted differently when calculating the overall score:
  • Appearance - 20%
  • Smell - 20%
  • Taste - 40%
  • Mouthfeel - 10%
  • Drinkability - 10%.
This system seems to be fairly standard. Rate Beer uses a similar system though their weighting is different. They use the classier sounding terms 'Aroma', 'Flavor' and 'Palate' instead of 'Smell', 'Taste' and 'Mouthfeel'. Their 'Overall' category includes 'Drinkability', but seems broader.
  • Appearance - 10%
  • Aroma - 20%
  • Flavor - 20%
  • Palate - 10 %
  • Overall - 40%
I use Beer Advocate's rating system because I think the 'Taste'/'Flavor' category is under-weighted for Rate Beer, and because I think Rate Beer over-weights 'Overall' and leads to a more subjective final score (not that reviewing beer isn't inherently subjective). Beer Advocate has these descriptions for the following numerical ratings: 1.0 is 'awful', 2.0 is 'not impressed', 3.0 is 'average', 4.0 is 'good' and 5.0 is 'exceptional'.

How do I decide when to assign numerical ratings?
How well is the beer served? I'll take tasting notes, but won't assign a numerical rating to a beer if it is served directly in a bottle or can without being poured into a glass, since it's hard to rate on appearance when you can't see the beer. I will rate a beer if it isn't served in 'proper' glassware. If the beer is served too cold, but I allow it to warm up appreciably I will assign ratings.

Is the beer good? If a beer is obviously spoiled I won't assign numerical ratings. My main indicator here is the presence of a skunky aroma. If the beer is skunked I won't give a numerical rating.

How big is the sample? If a beer is served in a sampler size (4 oz.) I won't assign a numerical rating. A 4 oz glass can be enough to give you a decent impression of the beer, but I don't think it's enough to accurately rate a beer. I think 8 ounces is a good approximate minimum.

How much am I drinking? If I'm planning on drinking several beers at a bar I typically won't rate them. This rule is flexible. I wouldn't hesitate to assign ratings to the first beer in a series, though I may not always do this. If I feel that I can objectively rate subsequent beers I will. If I'm drunk I won't assign ratings.

What am I eating? If the flavors in the food overpower a beer I won't assign a numerical rating. Spicy foods are a big offender here. I'll only rate a beer that I'm eating with food if the beer overpowers the food, or if the beer and food match particularly well.

Do I feel like assigning numerical ratings? This is self-explanatory.
What do I look for in each of the different categories?
Appearance: What color is the beer: is it golden, amber, brown, etc? Is the beer clear, hazy, or almost opaque? What is the head like, what color is it, how big is it, what's its texture, how long does it stick around? How much carbonation is there? Rating the appearance of a beer is one of the most subjective aspects of reviewing a beer in my opinion. Usually I try to rate a beer's appearance in comparison to other beers of the style.

Smell: I first sniff the undisturbed beer, try to determine some of the major aromas, and then I swirl to bring out more aromas. I look for aromas from malts, hops, microflora, and spicy and fruity aromas. Malt aromas can range from bready to coffee, depending on the roasted barley used. Aromas from hops tend to be floral, citrusy or herbal. Microflora, yeast and bacteria involved in fermentation, tend to give more earthy smells. Spicy and fruity notes are typically byproducts of fermentation and will vary depending on the strain of yeast used. These can include cloves, bananas, and bubblegum. When rating the smell of a beer I again consider the style. I take off points if there is an unpleasant aroma to the beer, and I look favorably upon complexity. I also try to consider how the different elements blend together.

Taste: When rating taste I like to consider how the taste changes as you hold the beer in your mouth. What is the initial flavor? How does the beer taste at the center of the palate? How does it taste at the end, and what is the aftertaste? I pay attention to many of the same elements when rating a beer for smell and taste. These include spicy and fruity notes, and roasted or sweet malt flavors. Since the aromas and flavors that hops impart are quite distinct I also pay attention to any bitterness imparted by hops. When does it appear in the palate, and how long does it linger? Additionally I pay attention to how dry the beer is overall. Unpleasant flavors get points off, while complex flavors are a bonus. As with smell, I try to consider how the different flavors interact.

Mouthfeel: Mouthfeel describes the body of the beer, along with other tactile sensations. Is the beer light, medium or full-bodied? What is the texture of the beer, is it creamy, is it watery? What is the carbonation like? In this category I rate mainly on the texture and carbonation since different styles will have different bodies. A beer that seems watery won't be rated as highly as a beer that has more substance. Carbonation has to be considered along with the body of the beer.

Drinkability: This category is somewhat self-explanatory. Is the beer easy to drink? Would you or could you have another? I mostly base my ratings on how easy the beer is to drink. If I'm dreading the next sip the beer obviously gets a low score. If, after finishing a beer, I want another this will positively affect the score.

Overall: The rating for this category comes from the weighted average of the ratings in the above categories. I like to consider how the beer stacks up to other beers of the style, and I like to consider what other styles the beer reminds me of.

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