Getting to know your beer

Former Riverstone Kitchen sommelier Jules van Cruysen shares his knowledge of New Zealand's craft beer industry in A Guide to the Craft Beer of New Zealand.


 Jules van Cruysen. Photo: supplied
Jules van Cruysen. Photo: supplied
He fell in love with beer while working at Riverstone and continued it when he moved to Wellington, working in the capital city's craft beer bar Hashigo Zake.

 From the ground up

Acknowledging the boom in craft beer brewing in New Zealand in the past five years, Mr van Cruysen has pulled together an extensive list of the country's craft beers, from the classical to the crazy (Lamb Chopper) to the quintessentially Kiwi (Sauvignon Bomb).

As well as tasting notes, in the book he shares some of his tips for tasting beer and for matching beer and food. Here's a few tips ahead of this Weekend's Craft Beer and Food Festival in Dunedin.

Beer tasting

There is no doubt that drinking beer is an amazingly fun experience. That said, sometimes even more pleasure (not to mention intellectual stimulation) can be derived from tasting multiple beers.

This is very important both at festivals and at formal beer tastings, where you may be tasting several beers of one style, or from one producer or, if you are extremely lucky (or patient), a vertical, several different vintages of the same beer.

So how should you taste beer? While the verb ''taste'' implies that you will use only one of your senses, in fact you will be using all five: taste and smell obviously, but also feel, sight and sound.


Once a beer is poured, examine it. What colour is it? What colour is the head? Is it cloudy or clear? How vigorous is the carbonation? All of these things will tell an expert taster something about the beer they are drinking, but it is important, even for those of you who are just beginning, as it will help you get into a more thoughtful tasting mindset.


Bring the glass up to your nose and inhale deeply. The smell of a beer will tell you a lot about it, but it will also prime your palate and intensify your tasting experience. When smelling a beer, try to isolate the aromas in it, as this will help you describe it. Just as important as the aromas are their intensity and how they interplay.

For example, an IPA will have a pronounced hop character, some malt notes, as well as some subtle character from the yeast. The other smells to watch out for are anything that could have been used to flavour the beer and any beer faults.

Rather than simply trying to pinpoint individual flavours and aromas, it can help to cast your net wide and gradually narrow in on the exact words you are looking for.

If you are looking to describe a hop character, for instance, start by asking whether it is fruity, floral, spicy or earthy. If it is fruity, then what family of fruits could it be evoking? Citrus? Tropical? Stone fruit? If citrus, then what sort of citrus? Lemon? Lime? Grapefruit? Orange?

Once you have pinpointed the exact flavour you are looking for, you can have a think about what hop variety (or other ingredient) might then have that character.

If you have decided the beer has a pronounced grapefruit character, then you can safely suggest that it might have been hopped with Cascade, a hop that produces that sort of character. While some people are naturally more sensitive than others, this is a technique that can be learnt, so buy some beer and get practising.

Published by Poton & Burton. Image supplied
Published by Poton & Burton. Image supplied

Taste, feel and think

Once you have smelt the beer, now is the time to taste! Take a small amount into your mouth (no big gulps or you won't be able to retaste) and then swirl it around to let it touch all parts of your mouth. Think about the various flavours and about how the beer feels in your mouth.

There are six main flavour groups: sweet, salty, bitter, spicy, sour and umami. All of these come into play when tasting beer, but the most common are sweet (from the malt) and bitter (from the hops).

Ask yourself questions such as: How do these interact? Is the beer sweet to begin with or becoming bitter over time? Is there a burst of bitterness at the start followed by a more mellow taste?

Think about how the aroma of the beer might have changed. The interaction between the flavours of the beer can change the aroma, maybe making parts of it more subtle and others more noticeable.

Perhaps you are drinking a golden ale; what was a subtle hay-like malt aroma on pouring can, with the influence of the sweetness of the malt, transform into something more like freshly baked bread.

Talk (or write)

If you are tasting in a group, the most experienced tasters will usually go first. If you know what you want to say, feel free to chip in politely with your thoughts. Remember, everyone's palate is different and what you experience is personal. Don't let anyone tell you that a flavour you might pick up is wrong.

This said, if you are drawing conclusions about a beer (whether it has been infected, what hop varieties are used, etc.), listen to those with more experience. This is how you learn and how you will get better and more knowledgeable. It is not uncommon to pick up on a character in a beer and then incorrectly ascribe it to something.

If you get something (factually) wrong about a beer, don't be embarrassed. Just ask those with more knowledge to describe it better for you, so that if you come across it again you are more likely to identify it.

If you are in a group and don't know what to say, don't hesitate simply to say nothing. After you have tasted the beer, look at it thoughtfully, re-smell and nod (you can also punctuate this with a thoughtful sigh or ''hmmm''). If this is done with enough confidence and gravitas, you will look like the most knowledgeable person in the room.

When tasting, it pays to keep some sort of a diary or record. This could be in a book or digital format such as a website or app such as Untapped, or

It will allow you to go back to beers you have tasted to see what you thought of them, and will show you how your tasting skills are advancing (I cringe when I read old reviews I have written, especially online, but am also proud of myself for how far I have come).


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