Evaluating the Appearance of a Poured Beer

What should you look for in a beer? Your eyes can discern color, clarity, and head retention (as well as price, of course, and maybe even the meaning of life). The meaning of life is something you’ll have to figure out on your own, maybe while sipping your favorite brew.

Seeing colors in your beer

The colors that make up the various beer styles run the earth tone spectrum from pale straw to golden, amber, copper, orange, russet, brown, black, and everything in between. One color isn’t necessarily better than the others, and none indicates directly how the beer will taste — color is dictated by style.

Generally speaking, Berliner Weisse beers are the palest, and Stouts are the darkest. Green beer is acceptable, but only on St. Patrick’s Day. Colorless malt beverages don’t count at all — clear malt beverages are not beer.

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Considering beer clarity

Many beer drinkers are obsessed with beer clarity. If their beer isn’t crystal clear, they won’t drink it. Fair enough, but beer is transparent only as a consequence of modern filtering techniques. Not all beers are intended to be clear.

Most brews throughout history have been anywhere from hazy to murky due to the organic ingredients used in the beer-making process, mostly the yeast. These particles that clouded the beer were also what helped make the beer the nutritious drink it was. Today, a cloudy appearance is appropriate for at least a half-dozen beer styles, such as Witbier, Hefeweizen, and any other unfiltered beer styles.

A head on your beer

Head retention can tell a short story about the beer at hand.

  • When a beer is poured, a head of foam should both form and stay (with some styles more than others, of course); the latter quality is as important as the former.

  • The bubbles should be small and should quickly form a tightly knit head.

  • The beer’s head may also take on a rocky appearance if sufficient proteins (from the grain) are present.

If a beer can’t form a head, either it’s improperly carbonated or the vessel into which it’s poured is dirty.

If the beer bubbles form and stick to the sides of your beer glass and don’t get to the top, your glass is probably dusty or dirty.

If the head forms but dissipates into big, soapy-looking bubbles, chances are that the beer has been charged up with a foam stabilizer (some foam stabilizers are made from a seaweed derivative). Most of the large breweries use foam stabilizers — a necessary evil, thanks to the clarifying process. Microfilters also remove all the head-coagulating proteins. The finest, all-malt brews have small bubbles and dense, creamy heads.

Finally, at least some of the head should remain atop the beer until the glass is empty. Along the way, some of the head’s residue should leave what’s commonly called Belgian lace on the sides of the glass.

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